Beijing Getaways: Xi'an Guide
Blast from the Past: Explore Xian's rich cultural heritage
According to Xi'an natives, "If you want to see China over the past 100 years, go to Shanghai. If you want to see China over the past 1000 years, go to Beijing. But if you want to see China over the past 5000 years, go to Xi'an."
While this may be a slight exaggeration, there is no doubt that Xi'an's history has been illustrious - 13 dynasties had the city as their capital. Xi'an, formerly known as Chang'an, was a key city on the Silk Route connecting Asia with Europe.
Xi'an is now the capital of Shaanxi province, located between the Weihe River to the north and Qin Ling mountains to the south. It has a semi-moist monsoon climate and there is a clear distinction between the four seasons - except for its sometimes bitter winter any time of year is suitable for a visit.
With its abundant cultural relics and sites, Xi'an is a great place to visit for three or four days. Renowned for the nearby Terracotta Army (bingmayong), other attractions include the World Heritage Listed Mausoleum of Emperor Qin Shi Huang, well-preserved Ming Dynasty (1368 - 1644) city wall, the Bell Tower, Big Goose Pagoda, Small Goose Pagoda, Great Mosque, Shaanxi History Museum and nearby village of Chen Lu.
Xi'an is peppered with the enormous tombs of emperors, dukes, generals and other wealthy people who would commence building as soon as they achieved power. In 221 B.C., Ying Zheng (259-210 B.C.), King of Qin, became the First Emperor of Qin, (Qin Shihuangdi), when he managed to consolidate the neighboring states under his rule. He had begun work on his tomb shortly after becoming king of Qin at the age of 13, and the work took a staggering 39 years to complete.
The Terracotta Warriors on display in their museum today, which is a short drive from Xi'an, represent only a small portion of the 8000-strong underground army buried in front of the Emperor Qinshihuang's tomb to defend him in the afterlife. The craftsmanship of each clay warrior is as impressive as the scale of the project.
Great care was taken to make each model unique, and each of the 8,000 soldiers had their own facial features, hair-style, and when dressed in the same uniform, the folds and fit are also unique. Located nearby the Terracotta Warrior Museum, Qin Shihuang's mausoleum is larger than Egypt's Great Pyramid, and has still not been fully excavated.
Chen Lu, 90 minutes from Xi'an by road, is an ancient pottery village that has faithfully carried on Tang dynasty traditions. Locals joke that Chen Lu "eats pottery," and no fewer than 17 small factories turn out different styles, ranging from the sleek black heiyou to the ochre shades of tiexiu hua and the blues and whites of qing hua. A taxi should cost no more than 300 RMB for the round-trip. Alternatively, air-conditioned buses depart from Xi'an main bus station for Tongchuan (15 RMB), from where you can catch a minibus to Chen Lu (3 RMB).
As one of China's top museums, Shaanxi History Museum is another must-see in Xi'an, Housed in an impressive building opened in 1992, the museum's spacious exhibition halls are well laid out with English captions, displaying an intriguing collection of more than three thousand relics from China's dynastic past. Check out the tiger-shaped tally covered in characters (duhu fu) which gave its owner, one General Du, imperial authorization to mobilize over 50 soldiers at will.
Xi'an's Great Mosque (Da Qingzhensi) is one of the oldest, largest and best-preserved Islamic mosques in China, this is a great place to escape Xi'an's hustle and bustle for a couple of hours. Founded during the height of the Tang dynasty in 742, the mosque is the beating heart of the city's sizable Muslim community, residents in Xi'an for over 1,200 years. Spacious surrounding courtyards have a garden-like feel, displaying a beautiful fusion of Arabian and Chinese architectural styles.
After visiting the Mosque, take a stroll through Xi'an's renowned Muslim Quarter, just north of the Drum Tower, for a true culinary adventure. Al fresco family-run barbecues line both sides of the street, filling the air with the smell of roasting meat. Try the succulent yangrou chuanr (kebabs), roujiamo (fried pork or beef in pitta bread with green peppers and cumin) and heletiao (dark brown sorghum or buckwheat noodles), accompanied by an ice-cold Yanjing Beer.
If you need souvenirs head for the covered market on Huajue Xiang, also close to the Drum Tower. Although there is a lot of tacky junk on offer, it is also possible to pick up a bargain if you have a good eye and know how to negotiate. As a rule of thumb divide the seller's price by four and stand your ground.
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- There are numerous trains departing from Beijing West Station to Xi'an - journey times range from 11 to 15 hours (Z19 is the quickest). Hard sleeper tickets are around 270 RMB / soft sleeper around 410 RMB.
- Flights take just over an hour between Beijing and Xi'an - check www.elong.com for cheap tickets.
- Book hotels in Xian