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Xi’an, China

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Did You Know … ?

  • Xi’an, during 3,100 years of history, was China’s capital for 13 dynasties.
  • Xi’an was the eastern starting point for the Silk Road.
  • Around 700 A.D., Xi’an was the world’s largest city with more than 1 million people.
  • The first Qin emperor began building China’s Great Wall in the third century B.C.
  • It takes from 1,500 to 2,500 cocoons to produce one pound of silk.

China’s birthplace

If prospective visitors know nothing else about Xi’an, they know about the terra-cotta soldiers that had been buried near town to protect a dead emperor’s tomb. Those thousands of mute guardians standing in formation are an awesome sight, and many of the city’s foreign visitors wouldn’t show up if it weren’t for the chance to see for themselves.

But Xi’an, a large metropolis with a population of 8 million to 9 million, has its modern aspect, too, with boutiques and shopping malls, budget eateries and specialty restaurants, bars and nightclubs plus the obligatory tourist shows to illustrate the dance, music and food traditions of other periods, with emphasis on the Tang dynasty (618-907 A.D.).

For the active and fit, choices also include hiking up a mountain outside of town or biking on top of the city walls, walls broad enough to accommodate an army — which was more or less the idea. Except for the mighty 8.5-mile wall, Xi’an looks much like other large industrial cities.

Nevertheless, what Xi’an represents most vividly is China’s history. It was the capital for the Qin, the dynasty that first united warring interests creating a single kingdom, and it is the Qin founder whose tomb and terra-cotta guardians can be seen near the city. Several other tombs near the city date from the Tang dynasty or earlier.

Xi’an’s ramparts, China’s best preserved city walls, originated with the Tang but, in their current form, date from the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). The Stele Forest, just inside the city walls, is another astonishing collection. It is literally a forest of inscribed stone slabs created and accumulated over 2,000-plus years.

Even Xi’an’s Great Mosque has deep roots, dating from 742. One of China’s best-known pagodas, Greater Wild Goose Pagoda, was built in 652. And the Famen Temple, outside of town, claims to have held relics of Siddhartha Gautama, Buddhism’s founder, for more than a thousand years.

Adding geographic interest, the Xi’an area encompasses the Qinling Mountains south of the city and the Weihe River to the north. The city has four distinct seasons, and three (forget winter) are suitable for visits.

Things to do for Venturers

  • A major feature of the Xi’an landscape is Mount Huashan, noted for its stunning cliffs. Arrange to hike up the mountain for sunrise. Visitors can take cable cars one way (or both ways), as well.
  • Gather recommendations from your guide or concierge and sample life in Xi’an’s clubs and discos.
  • This is a challenge: Try hulutou, which is described as a delicacy. It is broth with intestines and tripe. Also, try Huanggui glutinous rice wine — perhaps on a different day.
  • Ride a bicycle along the top of the Xi’an ramparts, which are 39 feet tall and up to 46 feet wide at the top.
  • Each Ming city had a bell tower and a drum tower. The bell was sounded at dawn and the drum at dusk. Xi’an’s towers are the best known in China. Enjoy a panoramic view of Xi’an from the top of the Bell Tower. (You can do the same from the top of the Greater Wild Goose Pagoda, by the way.)
  • Take public transportation in the city, and use the train to get into and out of Xi’an. Xi’an’s tourism agency recommends travelers book the trains about a week in advance of travel, but long-distance bus service is not recommended because of these are difficult trips.

Things to do for Centrics

  • Give serious attention to the astonishing contents of the Museum of Terra Cotta Warriors and Horses.
  • Besides seeing the essentials of Xi’an’s historical artifacts, include on your schedule a walk on the city walls; return, if necessary, to take your photos in the best light or after dark.
  • Interested in archaeology? Add the 6,000-year-old Banpo Village Remains to your itinerary. These ruins date from the Neolithic Age.
  • Eat Muslim food and learn something of the Hui people through a lunch visit, or several lunch visits, to Muslim Snack Street. One specialty is paomo, a mutton soup served over hard bread broken into pieces and eaten with pickled garlic cloves.
  • Take in Qinqiang opera, a popular local type of Chinese opera.
  • Attend a marching-in (welcome) ceremony at the city’s South Gate. The nighttime event, staged nowadays for tourists, is based on classical welcoming rituals of the Tang dynasty. Then, you will climb the city wall for a night view of Xi’an.

Things to do for Authentics

  • Stroll the pedestrian streets, Shuyuan Men and Luoma Shi.
  • Watch the music fountain performance on the Big Wild Goose Pagoda Square.
  • Attend the Tang Dynasty Dance and Music Show, which includes dinner, to get a sampling of entertainment styles from the days of the Tang (618 – 907) as well as traditional cuisine. It was during the Tang’s stewardship that Xi’an became the world’s largest city.
  • Shop for lacquerware and green porcelain. Lacquer is obtained from the sap of the lacquer tree. The porcelain type originated with the Song dynasty [960-1279]. Or consider jade carvings.
  • Tour Xi’an’s Great Mosque, which was first built in 742, after Arab merchants and travelers from Afghanistan and Persia had brought Islam to northwest China. The mosque is unique for its mix of Chinese and traditional Muslim architectural styles.
  • Spend time touring the bathhouses and palaces at Huaqing Hot Springs. This has been a spa site, loved by emperors, since the days of the Tang. An opera performance is available in the evenings.

Additional Resources

For more information, consult Xi’an Tourism China at