Xian - A City Reborn
Xi’an; it is a city that has become fairly well-known among world globe trotters and a destination that many history buffs dream to visit. The first thing that comes to mind when one hears of this ancient capital of China are the famous Terracotta Warriors. Dating from 3rd century BC, they were discovered in 1974 by some local farmers in Shaanxi province, near the Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor. They have brought fame and fortune to this interior city but there is so much more to do and see in this wonderful old center.
Living in Wuhan, a short flight away, has given us the opportunity to travel to this cultural Mecca several times over the last few years. I fell in love with the city the first time I visited and will share some of the highlights that should be enjoyed if you manage to make your way there.
Terra Cotta Warriors
Yes, you should certainly pay a visit to this incredible site. Everyone has seen the photos, or watched documentaries on this amazing discovery. Because the initial discovery occurred less than fifty years ago, it is a work in progress. New information is uncovered every year and while there, you can see the archaeological research in progress. I think that is one of the reasons that it is such an exciting place.
Getting there from the city center is not a problem. Being part of an expensive organized tour is one choice but it is just as easy to head for the central bus station and take a city bus out to the site for next to nothing. Your hotel or hostel will give you information on the buses. Once there, make your way past all the vendor stalls that have sprung up in the last few years and head for the main entrance. You will be hounded to pay for an English speaking guide. Again, not necessary. A site map is provided with your ticket that includes detailed instructions on getting around, everything is well laid out and information signs are in both English and Chinese. The entrance fee is the only fee you should pay to enjoy and understand all there is to see.
The Ancient Xian City Wall
The “modern” Xian City Wall was built during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) It was an improvement to the smaller original wall initially built much earlier during the old Tang Dynasty. It's the most complete city wall that has survived in China, as well being one of the largest ancient military defensive systems in the world.
The wall itself is very impressive. It now stands 12 meters (40 feet) tall, 12-14 meters (40-46 feet) wide at the top and 15-18 meters (50-60 feet) thick at the bottom. It covers 13.7 kilometers (8.5 miles) in length with a deep moat surrounding it.
There are many places to ascend up to the top of the wall but they are not all open to tourists. Of the eight that are available, the South Gate entrance is probably the best one. It is a short walk from the Bell Tower and is the place where most of the bicycle rentals are available.
Renting a bike is the way to go. It is an easy route and can be completed in about an hour and a half, which is the normal time allotted for the rentals. Check the bike before you leave for a loose chain or other problems. The last time we rode around the wall, the chain kept coming off our bicycle and it was a royal pain to have to keep stopping. I finally fixed the thing myself before I returned it. If you do have any problems, take some photos to show when you return to the rental shop to prove why you are late in returning!
Admission fee for the wall at last check: 40 RMB Bike Rental: 20RMB for 100 minutes
The Bell Tower and Drum Tower
The Bell Tower marks the geographical center of the ancient capital. From this landmark extend East, South, West and North Streets, connecting the Tower to the East, South, West and North Gates of the city wall. Originally built in 1384, it was moved to its present location in 1582. What makes the tower unique is, except for the base, the rest of the tower is original. Many other towers around the country have been recreated or almost rebuilt from scratch after fires or other damage.
This tower documents the importance of bells in the history of China and there is a great display on the first floor. At various times during the day, there is a performance that demonstrates the many musical aspects of these historic bells.
The Drum Tower is located only a five minute walk away. Similar to the Bell Tower, it documents the importance of bells in China’s history. Again, there is a performance that takes place at several times during the day.
Both towers are worth a visit and if you have time, a package deal ticket is available at many outlets in the city.
The Stone Forest
The Forest of Stone Steles Museum is a must-see for anyone remotely interested in Chinese calligraphy. Over 3,000 steles are divided into seven exhibition halls. It is a treasure trove of ancient stone carvings and calligraphy dating back almost 1000 years. Along with the exhibition halls, there are beautiful gardens to explore and many artworks for sale, including rubbings of the ancient stones themselves.
The Giant Wild Goose Pagoda
Originally built in 652, it functioned to collect Buddhist materials that were taken from India by the the monk, Xuanzang.
Murals in an exhibition hall near the tower document the journey of Xuanzang, who started off from Xian along the silk road and through deserts, finally arriving in India, the cradle of Buddhism. Over a period of 17 years and traveling though100 countries, he obtained Buddha figures, 657 kinds of sutras, and several Buddha relics
We were lucky enough to visit the tower with a Chinese family who had a connection with one of the main historian/scholars working at the tower. He toured us through the murals and told us the story behind all the beautiful artwork and their depiction of the travels of Xuanzang.
It is said if you make it to the top of the tower, you will lead a happy and prosperous life.
The Muslim Quarter
Fairly quiet during the day, this area turns into a large night market as the day winds down. As you walk through the area, you will encounter a huge variety of wonderful street food along with numerous vendors of many other items. Don’t be afraid to eat the street food in China. I have been sampling it for four years now and am still standing to tell the story. You are missing out if you don’t take a chance and order a plateful of one of the many famous dishes of this ancient city.
Shortly before the sun goes down, take a bus to the area outside of the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda. Every night, there is a huge outdoor display of colorful water fountains choreographed to a wonderful music background. It is loud and it is crowded but it is a show well worth watching. And it is free. You will be able to obtain instructions on how to get to the location from your hotel or hostel. Once you are close, it is pretty hard to miss because of the large crowds of people you well begin to see. It doesn’t really matter where you stand; the show is visible from just about anywhere around the fountain pools.
Han Tang Inn Youth Hostel
Great location, roof-top patio, restaurant/bar, nice rooms, friendly staff. One of the nicest hostels I have stayed in during my travels.
Well, there you have it. Some of my favorite spots in one of my favorite travel destinations.
Best Christmas present ever and my favorite travel companion.