Trips to China Should Include the Ancient Capital City of Xian

People & Culture

Wall around the old Chinese city of Xian, China

After Beijing and Shanghai, the ancient city of Xian should be a “must visit” on trips to China.

There is no doubt that a city which was the country’s ancient capital would not have a wealth of treasures to offer the visitor. From my personal experience, after having been to Xian quite a number of times, I have found enough reasons to recommend spending several days there, maybe even a week. Someone once said, “If you have not been to Xian, you have not been to China.” Xian was once the eastern-most starting point of the Silk Route, which traversed China on its way through to other Asian countries, and eventually to Europe. Today, the city retains its old city wall which surrounds the centre. Outside of this is a modern city, typical in many ways, reflecting the changes taking place in contemporary China.

Let’s start with a little historical background. The city is over 3000 years old and has seen the coming and going of many Chinese dynasties. In fact, it was the capital city during 13 of these dynasties. This fluctuated in early times, but was at its peak during the period 618 to 907 AD. You can probably imagine the number of excavated discoveries that have been found here – the major one, of course, being the renowned Terracotta Warriors.

The following are some highlights of Xian which you can discover when on trips to China.

The City Wall

The centre of the city is surrounded by a well-preserved wall which was reconstructed in the 14th century, and is a good place to start to become acquainted with Xian. A rectangular shape, the wall is in excellent condition and it is recommended for taking a stroll along. Once you have climbed the stairs to reach the wall, you will find yourself enjoying views, looking down into the old city and also looking outside. The wall is 12 metres/40 feet high and amazingly is 13.7 kilometres/8.5 miles in area. If you feel very energetic, you can walk all the way around or you can rent a bicycle and ride the whole way. What you will see are almost 100 ramparts which extend out from the wall, which were originally built to defend against enemies who tried to climb up it. The wall has four main gates – north, south, east and west, which have wonderful names – Eternal Joy, Harmony Peace, Eternal Peace, and Forever Harmony.

Xian's city wall and ancient tower at dusk, China
Xian’s city wall and ancient tower at dusk

The Bell Tower and Drum Tower

The Bell Tower marks the geographical centre of Xian and is an important landmark to visit on trips to China. Built in 1384 during the Ming Dynasty, it is the largest and best-preserved wooden tower in China, reaching a height of 36 metres/118 feet. The name indicates there is a bell. The current bell weighs 5 tons. The original one, which was much bigger, can now be seen in the Forest of Stone Steles Museum (mentioned later).

The Drum Tower, which is across the road from the Bell Tower, was built around the same time and is 34 metres/112 feet in height. Naturally, being called the Drum Tower, there are drums, in fact, 24 in total featured as part of an exhibit. They are not the musical instrument but cylinders that represent 24 solar periods. However, a new drum has been placed in the tower and it is one that can be performed on musically. Both towers can be climbed to offer views of the city.

Bell Tower, city landmark in the heart of Xian, China
The Bell Tower, a city landmark in the heart of Xian

The Muslim Quarter

Very centrally located, the Muslim quarter, as the name suggests, is home to several thousand Chinese Muslims. It covers several blocks and houses 10 mosques including the Great Mosque. My first visit here on a China vacation surprised me as the neighbourhood is a mass of narrow laneways inhabited by a number of old men with white beards sitting in chairs. I discovered a souvenir market, many food stalls, as well as restaurants and shops. I recommend considering trying some of the dishes offered at the food stalls.  The Great Mosque is one of the oldest, largest, and best-preserved Islamic mosques in China built as far back as 742 AD in a mixture of traditional Muslim and Chinese styles. A walk around the serene and attractive landscaped gardens will show you several interesting, ornate courtyards. The main hall of the mosque can hold up to 1000 people who come to pray here.

Halal street food in Muslim Quarter, Xian, China
Halal street food in the Muslim Quarter

The Big Wild Goose Pagoda

This ancient building is a holy place for Buddhists and is situated in the south of the city. One contrast I experienced on my last visit here was the sight of a very modern, expensive-looking gated community right out of North America, located right opposite this historical building… bringing together the past and the present in one glance. The Big Wild Goose Pagoda is an imposing edifice built in 652 AD and is seven storeys high, featuring a staircase that visitors can climb to reach the top. On the walls and doors of the pagoda, you will see engravings of Buddha. There are also pleasant gardens surrounding the pagoda to stroll around.

Big Wild Goose Pagoda at night with fountains, Xian, China
Big Wild Goose Pagoda at night with water fountains

The Terracotta Warriors

There is absolutely no doubt, on trips to China, that the Terracotta Warriors are the highlight of a visit to Xian, and deservedly so. What is amazing about this archaeological gem is that the army was only excavated and discovered as late as 1974 after being covered over by earth over a period of 2000 years. The story goes that a farmer, just outside of the city, uncovered some pottery while digging for a well, which led eventually to the unearthing of thousands of life-size soldiers made of terra cotta, and all different facially. Now housed in a hangar in three pits, you can view them together with horses and chariots, totaling around 8000 in number. The soldiers were made to symbolically protect Qin Shi Huang, the First Emperor of United China, when he died. He is actually buried in a tomb not too far away from the Terracotta Warriors. The soldiers have been restored to their former state except that the original colours have, for the most part, now faded. On my first visit to Xian, I was fortunate to actually meet the farmer who made the initial discovery. He was sitting outside one of the hangars, serenely smoking a pipe, and looking, for all the world, like a VIP.

Terracotta Warriors in Xian, China
Terracotta Warriors

The Qin Shi Huang Di Mausoleum

I mentioned the First Emperor’s tomb. This is located under a grassy hill and has again been buried over time, so there is literally nothing to see. It has not been excavated, which I find amazing, but legends and history tell us that 720,000 labourers were conscripted by the Emperor, and used to construct the tomb. It is larger in size than the Great Pyramid in Egypt. When the emperor eventually died, the story goes that many followers and labourers were buried alive along with his body, together with a large amount of his personal treasures. There are two other stories that go along with this. One is that there has not been any excavation done, as the gases built up inside the tomb would destroy the artifacts, should air get to them. The other story is that the tomb has been raided many times, with artifacts stolen and sold on the black market.

The Shaanxi History Museum

I was very impressed with the Shaanxi History Museum, and together with the Shanghai Museum, it is one of the best museums you’ll find on trips to China. How to describe it? It is a treasure trove of artifacts covering over thousands of years of Chinese history, from prehistoric times to the present day. There are many exhibition rooms, each one devoted to different periods in the country’s history. There are murals, paintings, bronzes, pottery, gold and silver objects, and much more. What is fascinating about Xian is that treasures are constantly being unearthed in the countryside around the city.

The Banpo Neolithic Museum

The Banpo Neolithic Museum was opened on a prehistoric site and is dedicated to that period of time. It is an exhibition about the way of life of a matriarchal society that existed 6000 years ago, and includes tools of wood and stone used to make huts, tombs, and pottery, etc. There is also a model village which is a replica of what was the original thing.

The Forest of Stone Steles Museum

The themed Forest of Stone Steles Museum is located within the walls of the old city, and features displays of stone steles (tablets) and sculptures from past Chinese dynasties. The collection has 11,000 relics of which a number are deemed to be national treasures. The inscriptions on the artifacts indicate information about the religions, lifestyles, and historical facts of ancient times in a vivid way. For fans of Chinese calligraphy, these inscriptions are of great interest as they are examples of the diverse styles of Chinese characters.

Forest of Stone Steles Museum, Xian, China
Forest of Stone Steles Museum

The Tang Dynasty Show

When I heard about the Tang Dynasty Show, I was a little skeptical that it would just be a commercial tourist attraction. However, once I experienced it, I changed my mind. It is a spectacle for sure, but a very colourful one with the artists performing authentic dances and playing music on ancient instruments from the Tang Dynasty period (618-907 AD). The costumes are quite stunning and give an excellent impression of society at that time in Chinese history. So add this to your list on trips to China.

The Farmers Paintings in Hu County

A totally different experience would be a visit to Hu County, outside of Xian, to view artwork created by local farmers. Originating from the daily life of local farmers since the 1950s, the paintings exhibited and available for purchase depict local activities showing the daily existence through figures, animals, and flowers, and sketches of the beautiful rural scenery of the local countryside. By 2000, there were over 2100 farmer painters who have created more than 30,000 paintings. Many of these pieces are now in the hands of foreign art galleries and collectors.

The Huaqing Hot Springs

A little way outside of the city is the Huaqing Hot Springs. Also known as the Huaqing Pool, the springs are located scenically at the foot of Mount Li, one of three major peaks in the Qin Mountains. They were built originally in the 8th century AD by a Tang Dynasty emperor using local geothermal heating. Apart from its natural beauty, it is a place of legends, and involves stories about the emperor and his romance with one of his consorts. Today, the Nine-Dragon Lake is a delight where you will see lotus flowers floating on the water amid willow trees and rock formations. There are also a number of attractive pavillions to look at.

Huaqing Hot Springs, Xian, China
Huaqing Hot Springs

So, hopefully, I have shown you the enormous amount of attractions to be found in Xian to occupy you on trips to China. There is more, if you are prepared to allow the time on a visit to this ancient capital city and its surrounding area. The time spent in Xian will definitely be rewarding.