Xi’an, China, is the gateway to one of the world’s most amazing sights: Emperor Qin’s terra-cotta army. The famed archeological treasure is indeed a bucket-list travel destination, however, there’s much more to Xi’an than the warriors. Xi’an sits at the start of the Silk Road, which brought together different religions, cultures, and traditions that are still in existence and celebrated in the central Chinese city today. From noshing on noodles to biking the city’s perimeter, here are a few of the things you should take time to experience while in this intriguing melting-pot city.
1. See The Soldiers
No doubt about it, Emperor Qin’s tomb is a jaw-dropping, pinch-me-I’m-really-here sort of spot. Walking into the area where the terra-cotta warriors were unearthed and are currently stored and protected, it’s difficult to imagine that they remained hidden until 1974, when workers digging a well stumbled upon the site. Thousands of clay soldiers were eventually found in a stunning discovery that captured the world’s imagination. Scientists say the ruthless Emperor Qin ordered the army made to protect him, even after his death.
The soldiers and their horses, ready for battle, were mass-produced by artisans, then finished off with different physical features and characteristics. Archeologists say they date back more than 2,000 years. We highly recommend hiring a guide to take you from Xi’an to the site.
Expect to pay about $100 per person, with entry fees included. Your hotel can help arrange and negotiate prices. It’s about an hour-long trip by car; once you leave the city limits of Xi’an, look out for groves of persimmon and pomegranate trees laden with fruit. It’s a bit of a hike to get from the main entrance to the actual site, so be sure to hang onto your ticket stub! You’ll need it several times on your way to see the famed, mysterious and awe-inspiring soldiers. Lose it, and you’ll have to repay your entry fee (yes, we learned that the hard way). Also, skip the gift store as it’s terribly overpriced.
2. Stroll (Or Bike) The City Wall
The center of Xi’an sits inside a 40-foot-tall fortification wall that was designed to protect citizens from invaders. Built in the 14th century, and refurbished many times since, the wall is a top tourist attraction, used today for strolling, biking, and exploring. As you travel around the city from this terrific vantage point, you’ll notice low, ancient buildings and temples as no skyscrapers are allowed inside the perimeter. Take time to explore the wall’s four main gates during your excursion. These are the spots where soldiers would assemble during threats or attacks. The entire wall is festooned with red lanterns and flags, symbolizing the Chinese dynasties that ruled during the city’s history. It’s eight-and-a-half miles around the city, so plan on a four-hour walk or 90-minute bike ride. An admission ticket is about $8 and bike rentals from shops at every gate will run about $8 per person for two hours.
3. Take In The Towers
While beautiful, these two stately towers -- located in the Xi’an city center -- also served an important purpose. During the Ming Dynasty, most larger settlements had both drum and bell towers. They were used to tell time; the bell would ring at dawn and the drum would beat at dusk. It was no different in Xi’an, however, the timekeepers were also used to alert citizens to incoming attacks whenever necessary. Today, the two structures that date back more than 600 years are some of Xi’an’s most visited sites. Both are designed in the classical Chinese style, with carved beams and painted rafters, and are beautifully lit at night. Visitors are welcome to explore the outsides of both towers for free, while a combo ticket that affords you access to the insides of both towers is about $7.
4. Visit The Muslim Quarter
Located just to the north of the Drum Tower, Xi’an’s Muslim Quarter is a bustling, busy area filled with street food vendors, a variety of stores, spice shops, and trinket stalls. This is the area Chinese Muslims carved out as their home in Xi’an, and some 20,000 still live here today. The narrow street with its alleys and spurs is a feast for the senses. As you wander and explore, don’t be afraid to sample the terrific street food.
We loved this area so much we visited several times during our stay in Xi’an for quick shopping and snacks. Keep in mind: This place gets absolutely crammed at night. Mornings are a bit more sedate and offer a chance to see life as the locals live it: farmers delivering fresh produce to the stalls, the first call to prayer being issued, and food stand vendors busily preparing for the day ahead.
5. Marvel At The Great Mosque
Located within the Muslim Quarter, set just steps from the market, is the Great Mosque. It’s an ancient, tucked-away spot -- an oasis from the hustle and bustle outside. The mosque was established in 742 A.D. when merchants first traveled the Silk Road to Xi’an and brought their religious beliefs with them. This gorgeous, peaceful place is still an active place of worship, with the faithful answering the call to prayer five times daily. The mosque is divided into four courtyards, each containing colorful tiled pagodas and landscaped with traditional Chinese gardens. The fourth courtyard contains an enormous prayer hall that can hold up to 1,000 people, however, non-Muslims are not permitted inside. The mosque is open to visitors daily; admission is about $3.50 per person.
6. Make Your Way To Big Wild Goose Pagoda
During the Tang Dynasty, Xi’an was a major religious center. Taoists, Muslims, and Buddhists found the freedom to worship here, and the Big Wild Goose Pagoda is one of the oldest, most impressive examples of this fact. Built in 652 A.D., Buddhist monks who came from India lived in this seven-story building, translating their scriptures into Chinese for the faithful in Xi’an.
Consider this incredible history as you climb to the top of this 200-foot tower for a sweeping view of the city. Admission is about $10; the pagoda is open daily and is located approximately 2.5 miles south of Xi’an city center in a spot that’s easily accessible via public transportation.
7. Peruse The Shaanxi Museum
To get a holistic view of all of the religions and cultures that came together at the Silk Roads’ start, head to the Shaanxi Museum, just northwest of the Big Wild Goose Pagoda. Equal parts art and history museums, the Shaanxi has a large number of well-curated artifacts and relics in a whole host of mediums, ranging in age from prehistoric times to the present. It’s worth a visit to get a peek at all these treasures and observe how ancient Chinese culture has evolved into the country we know today. The museum issues 6,000 free tickets each day; simply show up with your passport. The museum is closed on Mondays.
8. Eating In Xian
Xi’an is a street-food mecca. While you can feel confident in the food -- most stalls will prepare it right in front of you -- be sure to bring your own bottled water or reach for a Tsingtao beer (although don’t expect it ice-cold; lukewarm is the standard in Xi’an). Hand-ripped biang biang (or belt) noodles are served either in aromatic broth as a soup, or as a base for spicy toppings including chili oil, soy sauce, and salty chicken gizzards.
Dumplings of all kinds are filled and steamed right in front of you and are a delicious snack. In the Muslim quarter, lamb kebabs sprinkled with cumin and chili are delicious, as are the sweets, including jinggao: a sticky rice, rose jam, and nut concoction served on a stick. Pork roujiamo, served in a pita bun, makes a great lunch on the go (our guide referred to it as Xi’an’s hamburger!). Be sure to sample the native fruits: Wolfberries, persimmons, and pomegranates all grow in Xi’an. You can eat amazingly well in Xi’an on the cheap. We never paid more than $5 for a street-food meal, and restaurants are also quite reasonable. Take it from us: Find the longest line at a food stall, and hop in it. You won’t be disappointed.
9. Shopping In Xi’an
There is a street market adjacent to the Muslim Quarter where you can find just about any souvenir you can think of. Get ready to haggle, and have fun! Pro-tip: We used our iPhone’s calculator to help bargain back and forth despite the language barrier we were up against. We brought back several bricks of vacuum-sealed tea as well as gorgeous silk table linens, ceremonial bells, and calligraphy prints.
Another handicraft to keep an eye out for are paper cuts: intricate pieces of art resembling lace that are painstakingly crafted by artisans. They are beautiful to frame once you get home. Of course ceramics of all sorts are stunning here, as is the jade that’s mined nearby. Real, quality pieces are not cheap, and high-pressure sales tactics abound. Be sure to buy from a reputable seller, and insist on a certificate of authenticity so you can bring home a treasure that lasts a lifetime (or maybe even generations!).
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