Xi’an: The Old Silk Road Begins

After our time in Yunnan, we flew to Xi’an, the capital of Shaanxi province and the eastern terminus of the Old Silk Road. The glory days of Xi’an ended in the early 10th Century; it had been a melting pot of different cultures and religions, home to emperors, poets, monks, merchants and warriors.

Today, despite its modern facade, parts of old Xi’an can still be found; the Ming-era city walls remain and vendors of every kind still crowd the narrow winding lanes of the Muslim Quarter. There is plenty to do in and around the city to keep you busy for a week or more; with only a couple of days we set out to see as much as possible.

Sights in/around Xi’an

Xi’an City Walls

Xi’an is one of the few cities in China where the imposing old city walls still stand. Built in 1370 during the Ming dynasty, the 12m high walls are surrounded by a dry moat and form a rectangle with a perimeter of 14km. But compare that with the Xi’an of old; the Tang city walls originally enclosed an area of 83 square km, seven times larger than the city centre of today.

With access ramps at all the major gates, it’s possible to walk or cycle atop the walls, a full circuit taking roughly four hours on foot. We enjoyed being able to survey modern day Xi’an, with its patchwork of old and new unfolded before us, though we didn’t make it round the entire length of the walls.

Atop the Old City Walls of Xi’an

Muslim Quarter

An iconic part of Xi’an and somewhere any visitor to the city should not miss, the Muslim Quarter is a delight for all the senses and is especially atmospheric at night. The area has been home to the city’s Hui community for centuries; the warren-like lanes are full of sesame oil factories, small mosques hidden behind enormous wooden doors, men in white skullcaps and women with colourful headscarves.

As we wandered, we caught wafts of the menagerie of street food, some tempting, some not! Being China and a Muslim area at that, a huge amount of meat was on sale, the most intriguing thing for us being the dinner-plate size nan breads being baked almost everywhere! Also not to be missed, the Great Mosque is larger than many temples in China and is a blend of Chinese and Islamic architecture.

Bell and Drum Towers

The bell and drum towers of Xi’an are iconic symbols of the city and look especially photogenic when lit up at night. Both date from the 14th Century and were later rebuilt in the 1700’s. While the bell tower originally held a bell that was rung at dawn, the drum tower marked nightfall; musical performances are held inside both throughout the day.

The Bell Tower of Xi’an

Temples of Xi’an

There are some outstanding temples in Xi’an, which can be visited whilst wandering inside and outside the city walls. Guangren Temple is the only Tibetan Buddhist temple in Shaanxi province and hums with mystery and spiritual energy. In the rear-most hall stands a golden statue of Sakyamuni, resting upon a Tang dynasty pedestal; the only other like it is housed in the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa, Tibet.

Xi’an’s largest Taoist temple, the Temple of the Eight Immortals dates to the Song dynasty and is still an active place of worship. Scenes from Taoist mythology are painted around the courtyard. Also worth seeking out are the Big and Little Goose Pagodas.

The Big Goose Pagoda is Xi’an’s most famous landmark and one of China’s best examples of Tang-style pagoda – square shaped rather than round. It was completed in AD 652 to house Buddhist sutras brought back from India by the monk Xuan Zang, whose travels inspired Journey to the West, one of the best-known works of Chinese literature. Surrounding the pagoda is Da Ci’en Temple and to the south is an open-air mall of shops, galleries, restaurants and public art; an evening fountain show is also held on the square.

Little Goose Pagoda, meanwhile, stands in the pretty grounds of Jianfu Temple, which was built in AD 684 to bless the afterlife of the late emperor Gaozong. The pagoda, which consists of 15 progressively smaller tiers, was built from AD 707-709 and housed Buddhist scriptures brought back from India by the pilgrim Yi Jing.

Ollie and I explored the sights of Xi’an on foot; we always find that the best way to really get a feel for a city is to walk its streets. A good bus service is also available though.

Big Goose Pagoda

Army of Terracotta Warriors

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Army of Terracotta Warriors isn’t just Xi’an’s premier attraction; it’s also one of the most famous archaeological finds in the world. This subterranean life-size army of thousands has silently stood guard over the soul of China’s first unifier for more than two millennia.

It was discovered by chance in 1974, when peasants drilling a well uncovered an underground vault containing thousands of terracotta soldiers and horses in battle formation. What is especially astonishing is that no two figure’s faces are identical; in fact even their hairstyles, armour and tread on the footwear are unique.

There are three pits in total; we started with pit three and worked our way to pit one, the most impressive. Housed in a building the size of an aircraft hangar, it is believed to contain 6000 warriors and horses, all facing east and ready for battle; only 2000 figures are on display though. Inside the Qin Shi Huang Emperor Tomb Artefact Exhibition Hall you can see a pair of bronze chariots and horses, which were unearthed just 20m west of the emperor’s tomb. Some of the original weaponry and a mid-ranking officer that you can examine up close are on display with them.

Although admission to this historic sight doesn’t come cheap, it is absolutely unmissable and was the highlight of our time in Xi’an. It was really easy to reach the Terracotta Warriors by public transport; buses leave from outside Xi’an train station every four minutes from 6am to 7pm and the journey only takes one hour.

Two kilometers west of the warriors and included in the admission ticket lies the Tomb of Qin Shi Huang, which reputedly took 38 years to complete and a workforce of 700,000 people. Archaeologists have yet to enter the tomb as levels of mercury inside exceed 100 times normal concentrations. There isn’t much to see at this site but visitors can climb the steps to the top of the 76m-high mound for good views of the surrounding countryside.

Tomb of Emperor Jingdi

We also visited the Tomb of the Han dynasty Emperor Jingdi, an impressive museum and tomb, which, unlike the warriors, was not inundated with visitors. Very much influenced by Taoist precepts, Emperor Jingdi did much to improve the lives of his subjects, such as lowering taxes. The contents of his tomb reveal more about daily life than about martial concerns, a total contrast with the terracotta army.

The museum contains a large display of terracotta figurines – more than 50,000 were buried here – including servants, domesticated animals and even female cavalry on horseback. Inside the tomb are 21 narrow pits, some of which are covered by a glass floor, allowing visitors to walk over the top of ongoing excavations and get a great view of the relics.

Further Sites around Xi’an

For those truly interested in history, there are many other imperial tombs and burial sites scattered about the plains and flat farmland outside Xi’an, many of which have yet to be excavated. There is the Banpo Neolithic Village, Famen Temple and the imperial tombs – Qian Tomb, Tomb of Princess Yong Tai, Tomb of Prince Zhang Huai, Zhao Tomb and the Mao Tomb.

One of Taoism’s five sacred mountains, Hua Shan is another highlight for visitors to Xi’an and can be reached by bus within two hours. It’s possible to climb to the peaks and get back to the city within a day or accommodation is available in Hua Shan village and even on the peaks.

Needless to say, Ollie and I plan to return to Xi’an; it will be our starting point when we tackle the Old Silk Road all the way to its western terminus in Xinjiang province. Hua Shan beckons and we will endeavour to explore more of the area’s history that lies on the surrounding plains. There is more mouth watering food to be tasted in the Muslim Quarter and the town of Hancheng just a couple hours drive away.

Just a few hours from Xi’an lies Luoyang. Find out all about this captivating city in our next post Luoyang: Discovering Big Buddhas and Towering Cliffs

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