Once the biggest, and arguably greatest, city in the world, in its prime Xi’an was six times bigger than Ancient Rome and 40 times bigger than medieval London! Now a modern metropolis, a visit to Xi’an cannot be missed as within the city walls, you will find a rich treasure trove of archaeological sites to explore from the glories of 11 dynasties that have ruled here.
It was from Xi’an that the First Emperor Qin Shi Huang first united much of China in 221 BC and it was once the capital of China for over 1100 years. It remained the region’s political heart until 10th century. Today, Xian is much smaller and more relaxed than Beijing with a population of around 3.3 million.
Xi’an was the chief beneficiary of the Silk Road – which turned the province into a melting pot of different cultures and religions that streamed in from Central Asia, the Middle East, India and Europe. A textile, medicine, and educational centre – Xi’an has about 40 colleges, universities and research institutes.
The Terracotta Army
A World Heritage Site and one of the most famous archaeological finds in the world. The Army of Terracotta Warriors is a subterranean life-sized army of thousands soldiers and horses finely modelled of clay and arranged in battle formation that have stood guard over Emperor Qin Shi Huang for more than 2000 years. Either Qin Shi Huang was terrified of the vanquished spirits awaiting him in the afterlife, or, as most archaeologists believe, he had the warriors built expecting his rule to continue in death as it had in life. The warriors offer some of the greatest insights we have into the world of ancient China.
Tomb of Emperor Jingdi
A very different emperor to Qin Shi Huang, Jingdi ruled during the Han dynasty (three centuries later) and was influenced by Taoism. The contents of his tomb are remarkably different to the Terracotta Army, as alongside terracotta soldiers and nobles there are herds of pigs, sheep and cows. Jingdi’s tomb is currently being excavated. Inside are 21 narrow pits, some of which are covered with glass so you can walk over the top and admire the relics inside. It attracts less tourists than the Terracotta Army but many say it’s even more amazing.
The Western Market
In 2008 archaeologists discovered wagon track marks in the centre of Xi’an. Further excavation revealed this to be the site of Xi’an’s legendary Western Market, the terminus of the Silk Road. Some 1300 years ago this huge site was a vibrant shopping area with a surface area that spanned 2 city wards and included wine shops, pastries, gruel, cereals and a Persian bazaar.
It was here that traders (up to 40,000 at any one time!) from the Middle East and Europe came to exchange their local products. Today the ancient Western Market has recently been re-built and re-opened at a cost of 3.5 billion Yuan ($460 million). One of the main reasons for rebuilding this historical site is to give visitors some insight into the Tang Dynasty which ruled from 618 to 907 AD. These were very prosperous years in China’s history, mainly due to flourishing trade on the Silk Road with foreign countries – before there was Paris, Milan and New York, this is where the world came to shop!
The Ancient City Wall
Xian’s city walls are the largest and best preserved defensive walls in the world, and include 5,980 different points where archers could shoot their bows and arrow. They were first erected in 1370 during the Ming dynasty when China was rebuilt as a commercially self-sufficient country, shutting itself off from the outside world. It is possible to walk the entirety of the walls in a leisurely four hours. You can also cycle round the wall from the South Gate or be whisked around in a golf cart!
One of the busiest parts of town in the evening, this is where locals and tourists alike converge to shop, stroll, and eat. Street-side chefs fire up the stoves and whip up tasty dishes while vendors ply the crowded lanes peddling their wares.
Common dishes on offer include cold noodles in sesame sauce, fried chopped mutton, fried pork or beef in pitta bread and kebabs. Walking the streets here is as close as you can get to being in Old Chang’an. The Muslim Quarter is also home to the largest Mosque in China.
City Wall Park
The City Wall Park between the city wall and moat river is the local people’s favourite place for daily morning exercise. Here they practise Tai Chi, Qinqiang opera, Chinese chess and table tennis. It’s also a favourite place to take their birdcage for a walk! Come to watch or join in their dancing and Tai Chi and interact in local life.
Giant Wild Goose Pagoda
Built at the insistence of Xuanzang, a seventh century monk, who made a historic pilgrimage to India along the Silk Road bringing back with him the scriptures of Buddhism.
For many years Xian’s tallest building at nearly 65 metres tall, the pagoda is an engineering enigma. While it looks like it’s solidly built of bricks, the bricks actually mask a tower built of rammed earth. Given the lack of construction cranes in ancient times, how they managed to construct such a tall earthen tower is a mystery to today’s architects.
Tang Dynasty Show
Xian has long been one of the strongest influences on the arts in China and performances of Changan music and dance which originated during China’s Tang Dynasty over a thousand years ago are recreated at the Tang Dynasty Theatre Palace every evening. The performance includes music from instruments which are no longer in common use today and dances including a sorcerer dance meant to expel illness and evil spirits. During the show you can also have a dynasty banquet which is only found in Xian.
Xi’an Railway Station
A crazier railway station you are unlikely to find. Trains go to every part of China from here and so around 23.6 million passengers pass through annually. The station comprises four sections: the main building, the ticket hall, the baggage office and the office area. In the main building there are a four large general waiting rooms and each waiting room can hold 1400 passengers at one time and it’s always busy!