The city of Xian situated in northwest China is the capital of the country’s Shaanxi province. Records indicate that the city Xian (also known as Chang’an) has been in existence for more than 3000 years, and the city assumed much importance during the reign of the Han and Tang dynasties.
Xian was not only the capital city; it also was the point of origination of the Silk Road, a long-established, prominent trade route that linked China with countries in Central Asia and Europe.
Traders who traveled on this route exchanged much more than products between these regions for they facilitated much cultural exchange as well. In fact, Xian’s famous Muslim quarter or Muslim street came about when Arab and Persian traders from Central Asia laid down roots and intermarried with the locals. Aside from these historical references, Xian is also a city of much archeological significance. For it here on the outskirts of this rather gritty city, a huge army of almost intact terracotta warriors was uncovered by a group of local peasants in 1974. The site of the find is now a UNESCO declared World Heritage Site that attracts hordes of tourists from far corners of the globe.
It is hardly surprising then this fascinating city of Xian is often referred to as to the ‘cradle of Chinese civilization.’
Planning your visit
The city of Xian experiences four distinct seasons. The spring season extends from March to May and is perhaps the best time to visit, for the weather is pleasant if not rainy. The summer season in Xian stretches from June to September and the weather over the city during this period is warm and humid and thus, not too conducive for sightseeing. The fall season arrives in Xian during mid-September and extends until November. Fall days in the city are typically crisp and cool. Hence, autumn is thought to be another good time to visit Xian for soon after fall. Winters in Xian are often bitterly cold as temperatures often dip below the freezing point.
Getting to Xian
The imposing Xian Xianyang International Airport located 40 km northwest of the heart of the city is the main access point for Xian. The airport has air links to various domestic destinations around China as well as regional destinations in Asia like Hong Kong, Bangkok, Singapore and others. These regional air links make it easy for international travelers to get to Xian. Besides air links, Xian is also connected by rail and road to several other cities in China.
Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor
Xian’s most famous attraction, the Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor lies at the base of the Lishan Mountain, at a distance of 35 kilometers from the center of the city. A group of local peasants chanced upon the site, considered to be one of the world’s most significant archeological finds in 1974.
The mausoleum is the tomb of Emperor Qinshihuang, who ruled China during the 3rd century BC and is credited with unifying the country. The emperor is buried within a complex built to resemble the city of Xianyang and lies surrounded by a vast army of terracotta warriors armed with their weapons, chariots, and horses.
Each of the warriors is distinct, and they appear almost real such is the detail of the figurines. The expansive site contains more than 200 pits many of which are still being excavated and covers an area of 56.25 square kilometers. Historians who have studied the site state that workers toiled for years to create more than 6000 terracotta warriors. The terracotta warriors were believed to protect the emperor in his journey through the afterlife.
The City Wall
Xian’s sturdy city wall dates back to the reign of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). The wall, which has been restored and fortified down the ages served as the first line of defense during times of war. Today, the wall is a popular ‘hangout’ site for walkers and joggers and also serves as the host venue for the Xian International Marathon, held every November.
Bell and Drum Tower
This attraction also dates back to the rule of the Ming Dynasty. During this three-hundred-year period, every city of the kingdom was outfitted with a bell tower and a drum tower. The bell was rung at daybreak, and the drum was gonged at nightfall. Visitors, today clamber to the top of the Bell tower to soak in the incredible views of Xian and its environs.
The Forest of Steles
The permanent collection at Xian’s Beilin Museum features more than 3000 ancient steles or stone tablets that provide a valuable insight to the rich history and culture of China. Many of these stone tablets date back to the Tang dynasty (618-907) and bear inscriptions of Chinese paintings, calligraphy, and historical records. The museum building itself has an intriguing history for it was originally a Confucian temple that now serves as a museum.
Shaanxi Provincial History Museum
Housed in an ornate building that dates back to the Tang Dynasty, the Shaanxi Provincial History Museum is a must-visit if you want to know more about the history of Xian. The museum has a large permanent collection of more than 113,000 antiquities spread over three exhibition halls.
Xian Great Mosque and Muslim Quarter
Persian and Arab merchants who hailed from Central Asia, and traveled the Silk Route for trade brought Islam to China around 600 AD. Many of these traders married local women and settled down in Xian. The result of this intermingling today takes the form of Xian’s lively Muslim Quarter in the midst of which is the Great Mosque of Xian. This ancient, well-preserved place of worship dates back to 742 AD. However, unlike mosques elsewhere it is not an exponent of Arabic style of architecture. Rather it features classic Chinese temple architecture and is dotted with gardens, pavilions, pagodas, courtyards and archways. The mosque was expanded and built down the ages. The mosque’s inner sanctum, the great hall can host 1000 worshipers at prayer times though non-Muslims are welcome in the great hall.
The Great Mosque of Xian stands in the center of Xian’s Muslim quarter, an area popularly known as ‘Snack Street’. The area is so called because myriad Muslim roadside vendors offering various delicious Xian eats populate it. Freshly baked bread, spicy cumin lamb with noodles, Xian Roujiamo (steamed bread stuffed with lamb), lamb meat soup, spicy lamb dumplings are some of the eats worth sampling here. Aside from vendors, the perennially bustling area also features several stores and restaurants selling souvenirs, knick-knacks, food products and even massage therapies.
The Big Wild Goose Pagoda
The Big Wild Goose Pagoda is a popular attraction located in the heart of the city. A large park surrounds the pagoda and every evening a sound and light show involving dancing fountains is held here. The pagoda and its surrounding park are inundated with visitors every evening.