Xi'an(西安), Shaanxi Province
From the still-standing city walls to the Terracotta Warrior figurines that are on sale everywhere, Xi’an is a city that is in touch with its history. It has the highest concentration of fascinating historical sites of anywhere in China, Beijing (probably) included. For the Terracotta Warriors alone, it more than merits its place on most first-time visitors’ itineraries.
Places to see
Xi’an is rich with historical sites, and with just 2 1/2 days to explore, it felt as though we only scratched the surface. In particular, we missed most of the imperial tombs and temples outside of the city walls. Aside from the must-see Terracotta Warriors, we only ventured out of the city to see the very rewarding Han Yangling tomb. Within the city, we were a little more comprehensive: we saw the City Walls, the Shaanxi Provincial Museum, the Great Mosque and the Drum and Bell Towers. But we skipped the Big and Little Goose Pagodas — I saw them on a visit a few years ago, and was not unduly impressed or interested.
When it comes to the Terracotta Army, I don’t have any kind of objectivity. Simply put, I think they might just be the coolest things, ever. If you missed the memo, they were built to protect the tomb of Qin Shi Huang, the emperor who unified China in 221 B.C. They remained buried, unremembered, for thousands of years. Since the tomb was rediscovered in 1974, three areas have been excavated, revealing thousands of the clay soldiers.
Walking into Pit 1, and seeing the rows upon rows of life-size soldiers gazing back at you is one of the highlights of all my time traveling around China. It was undiminished on a second visit. (Pits 2 and 3 are perhaps less rewarding, since they have fewer intact or reconstructed soldiers therein.)
In your haste to see the warriors, don’t miss the basement of the exhibition hall, where bronze relics from the warrior excavation are displayed. Pit 2 also has an interesting display of warriors of different ranks and positions, and you can get much closer to their glass cases than you can to the soldiers on display in the excavation pits.
Take bus 306 from the train station to the Terracotta Warriors site (7 RMB). Tickets cost 90 RMB during the high season (March-November) and 65 RMB during the low season. The low-season student price is 35 RMB. At the entrance, you will likely be accosted by dozens of prospective guides — don’t believe their threats that it takes 5 hours to see everything if you are on your own.
Han Yang Ling (Tomb of Emperor Jingdi)
The Terracotta Warriors give us a glimpse of military life in ancient China; the Han Yangling tomb does much the same for social and economic life. Excavation of this tomb, from the second century B.C., turned up thousands of clay figures, about the size of a Chinese doll. The dolls represent the servants and concubines the emperor was supposed to take into heaven with him, and they were originally attired in costumes appropriate to their social status. There are more thousands of clay animal figurines. The artistry of the individual figurines is interesting, but I found it more exciting to imagine them as a living, breathing imperial court of Chang’an (the ancient name for Xi’an).
The museum itself is a refreshing contrast to the tourist factory of the Terracotta Warriors. There are few other visitors, so you can stare down into the tomb at your leisure. At the Warriors, your attention is inevitably drawn to the fully-excavated soldiers in Pit 1; at Han Yangling, most of the figurines remained partially buried or lie piles, just as they were first discovered. And when you leave, you are not assaulted by people trying to sell you mass-produced models of what you just saw inside.
Entrance to the tomb costs 80 RMB during the high season (March-November) and 65 RMB during the low season. Cheaper student tickets are available.
Getting to Han Yangling by public transportation is a bit of a challenge. (So much of one that Lonely Planet actually says it’s impossible.) You first need to catch the 游4 bus (tourist bus #4) and tell the driver you want to go to Han Yangling. At the end of the main 游4 line, they will tell you to get off the bus and wait for another. This bus will also be labeled 游4, but it only goes between the end of the main line and the tomb. Once you get to the tomb, it will drop you off at a secondary facility about 15 minutes away from the entrance. All told, it takes about 2 hours from downtown Xi’an to Han Yangling if you go by bus. If you can assemble a group, I recommend taking a taxi (round-trip 200 RMB). It’s a long ride.
Xi’an is one of few Chinese cities to have preserved its ancient city walls and layout. Today, the main arteries through the inner part of the city still run from gate to gate. You can get a good sense of this structure from the top of the walls, which have been opened to visitors. The walls were substantially rebuilt in the 1980s, so it’s hard to know how much of them are actually ancient. But it is a worthwhile stop, and a pleasant walk or bike ride if the weather is good.
You can enter the walls at many of its major gates, including the South Gate. There, you’ll have to dodge traffic to get to the ticket office. Entrance costs 40 RMB, or 20 RMB for students. Bikes are available to rent from stalls on the wall itself.
Shaanxi Provincial Museum
This museum is focused on the history of Xi’an during its time as the capital city of China. As far as the exhibits go, the story might as well end in the Tang dynasty. If you don’t know too much about Chinese history, this will give you an adequate overview, but if Xi’an is coming late in your itinerary, it won’t add much that you hadn’t learned at an earlier museum.
Entrance to the museum is free, but you will need to wait in line for a paper ticket. The line moves slowly — on a non-holiday Monday morning, we still had to wait 30 minutes.
The Great Mosque was one of the reasons I was most excited to come back to Xi’an. Like much of northwest China, Shaanxi Province has a large population of Chinese Muslims, and the Xi’an Muslim Quarter is one of the most dynamic parts of the city. The mosque at its center is an interesting hybrid of traditional Chinese temple architecture and Middle Eastern influence in the decoration of the mosque. In particular, I was struck by the abundant use of turquoise throughout the complex, most strikingly in the bright tile roof of the main prayer hall.
The mosque is hidden in a warren of small streets behind the Drum Tower. There are signs marking the way from the main Muslim Quarter street where the snack food vendors congregate. Entrance costs 25 RMB (for students 15 RMB).
Drum and Bell Towers
Like their counterparts in Beijing, Xi’an’s drum and bell towers were oncean integral part of the city’s warning and timekeeping systems. Now, the Bell Tower rises out of a traffic circle and the Drum Tower sits next to an expensive mall. But the ancient buildings give character to the modern city, helping to distinguish it from the many bland provincial capitals in other parts of China.
The towers are located smack in the middle of town, in easy walking distance of each other. Entrance to either one costs 27 RMB; entrance to both costs 40 RMB. A combined student ticket is available for 30 RMB.
Muslim Quarter Street Food & Restaurants
Xi’an is justly famous for its 小吃 — snack foods. Despite their name, many of these “small eats” are not so small, and you can easily get a meal’s worth of food by sampling two or three of them at a time. The best place to go for a wide selection is the old Muslim Quarter. Classic snacks you can find here include 羊肉泡馍 (yangrou paomo), in which hunks of bread are added to a rich mutton broth to create a delicious, warming stew, and 肉夹摸 (roujiamo), a spiced-meat sandwich akin to the roujiabing. There are tons of vendors selling fried pancakes filled with combinations of meat, scallions and eggs — don’t miss them! They will be familiar to anyone who has eaten a scallion pancake in an American Chinese restaurant. For dessert, you have your pick of dried dates, raisins and other fruits.
The Muslim Quarter is located in a warren of streets north of the Drum Tower. Enter from West Street. A meal’s worth of snacks will cost between 10 and 20 RMB, depending on your appetite.
The Lele Canting (乐乐餐厅)
We were drawn to this restaurant because of the crowd lined up outside waiting for tables. A restaurant with a line is exceedingly rare in China, even unheard of, particularly for a regular neighborhood restaurant. But seeing as dozens of locals were lined up outside in the winter cold waiting for tables, the 20-minute wait seemed likely to pay off. And indeed it did. The Sichuan-oriented menu delivered up top-notch versions of some familiar favorites: gongbao jiding (宫保鸡丁), dry-fried string beans (干煸四季豆) and eggplant in garlic sauce (鱼香茄子).
A generous dinner for two (one meat dish and two veggies) worked out to about 50 RMB, and it was worth every penny. The restaurant is located on Xiangzimiao (湘子庙), directly across the street from the Xiangzimen hostel.
Xi’an has a fun selection of souvenirs, but be prepared to bargain hard. Don’t pay more than 10 RMB for the smallest set of warrior figurines — you probably only need to pay 5. You’ll get better bargains outside the gate than you will inside the complex. (I didn’t do such a good job of this and paid embarrassingly much for them. I’m still kicking myself for that.) If miniature warriors are not your thing, the Muslim has a good selection of traditional handicrafts, though I would be skeptical of some claims that they are hand-made.
Xiangzimen International Youth Hostel
This is a typical higher-end Chinese youth hostel, with plenty of private rooms and “ancient Chinese” decorations. (Including, bafflingly, a plastic model of a ship’s wheel that is meant to be some sort of tribute to Columbus.) Our private double room was small but clean, and towels were provided (!) My only complaint was a slight unpleasant smell in the otherwise clean en suite bathroom. Staff at the information desk were helpful with directions and not pushy about selling their package tours.
If you end up staying here, be sure to check out the Lele Canting across the street.
Dorm beds cost 30 to 40 RMB, while private ensuite rooms cost around 140 RMB per night. Book beds at Hostelworld. The hostel is located at 16 Xiangzimiao Street, around the corner from the south gate (南门, Nan Men). From the train station, take bus 603 to 南门.
The bus system in Xi’an includes many of the major sites. Public buses run from the South Gate (南门) to the Bell and Drum Towers, the Muslim Quarter (behind the drum tower) and the Shaanxi Provincial Museum. To get to the Terracotta Warriors, you’ll need to first go to the train station (via bus 603), where you can catch bus 306 to the warriors site. The only transportation snafu we encountered was going to Han Yangling, which is on a rather confusing multiple-transfer-required bus route.
Xi’an is well-connected by air and rail to the rest of China. The train station is located at the northeast corner of the city walls. To get to the airport, buses depart from in front of the Melody Hotel (itself across the street from the Drum Tower on West Street) and cost 25 RMB. It takes about an hour to get there. Don’t be tricked by the many touts who will accost you as you board the bus — you don’t need to take a taxi.