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Xian or Xi'an (pronounced Shee-an), takes you back to the days of ancient China.

Xian Bell Tower
Xian Bell Tower
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Beginning in the eleventh century BC, it was the capital city of eleven dynasties, including the Zhou, Han, Sui and Tang, for a total of more than 1,100 years. Many artifacts from the Tang dynasty, which is known for its cultural achievements in painting, music ceramics, clay and calligraphy, remain in Xian.

In the thirteenth century, Marco Polo arrived. Camel caravans, following the Silk Road, regularly stopped in Xian. Today, Xian is a veritable treasure house of China's past.

Xian breathes history. The city's 600-year-old walls are the most complete city walls in China, and one of the largest and most complete ancient military defense systems. Parts of the 14-kilometer-long wall have been restored.

Xian tour

You can walk or bicycle around much of the city center, on top of the Xian City Wall. The elevated viewpoint offers glimpses of the old quarter, with its homes of whitewashed clay, lining tiny lanes. Laundry hangs from bamboo poles. People carry fresh produce in hand-woven baskets and sweep the earthen streets with branch brooms.

Chinese lantern on ceiling of Bell Tower
Chinese lantern on ceiling of Bell Tower
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

From the top of the South Gate City Wall, you can see the Bell Tower in the center of Xian. Built in 1384, it was later moved to its current location. The three-story building has multiple eaves, sunken cornices and pinnacles. If you climb to the top, you'll see Xian's tree-lined streets swarming with bicycles, pedestrians, buses and cars.

From here, a six-ton brass bell was rung to herald the dawning of a new day. Across the clay tile rooftops is the Drum Tower from where the beating of a drum announced the end of the working day.

The interior of the 36-meter-high tower is renovated. It now contains ornate Ching furniture, Chinese lanterns and intricately painted ceilings.

Little Wild Goose Pagoda
Little Wild Goose Pagoda
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Wild Goose Pagodas

Two of Xian's most impressive monuments go by the unlikely names of Big Wild Goose Pagoda and Little Wild Goose Pagoda. Although built to house Buddhist scriptures, the monuments no longer serve religious purposes. The government has designated them as historical monuments to the talents and artistic abilities of early craftsmen.

Victim of seventy earthquakes, Little Wild Goose Pagoda has been repaired. Visitors (in good shape) can also climb the spiral staircase to the top of the 64-meter-high Big Wild Goose Pagoda.

The Big Wild Goose Pagoda was commissioned by a Tang Dynasty emperor 1,300 years ago. Inside, three golden Buddha figures serenely meditate, surrounded by eighteen life-size disciples and an assortment of bronze pots in which incense and candles once burned.

Big Wild Goose Pagoda
Big Wild Goose Pagoda
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Tang Paradise is near the Big Wild Goose Pagoda. Covering 165 acres, it is the biggest cultural theme park in Northwest China. The royal garden-style park is divided into 12 scenic and cultural regions that portray life during the Tang Dynasty (618 to 907).

China's oldest stone tablets

Nine hundred years ago, the brilliant red pagodas of the Shaanxi Provincial Museum were part of a Confucian Temple. Today, they house 2,000 Shaanxi Province cultural relics, spanning one million years, from the Lantian ape-man to the Opium Wars.

A 1,000-square-meter underground museum houses Tang mural paintings that were collected from more than 20 Tang royal tombs since 1991.

Also impressive, is the Museum of the Stone Stele Forest, which houses a collection of China's oldest stone tablets. Standing like sentinels, almost 3,000 of these imposing black tablets tower over visitors.

Many are inscribed with words from ancient Confucian classics. You can buy inexpensive, but impressive rubbings of ancient drawings and calligraphy from the tablets at the museum's gift shop.

If time permits, visit Qianling, the mausoleum of Emperor Tang Gaozang and Empress Wu Zetian. It features the best-preserved tombs in Xian. The Xianyang Museum displays artifacts from Xianyang, a 350 BC city. Highlights include the remains of the Xianyang Palace and a collection of Han-era miniature terracotta warriors.

The Flying Palace, with a dragon-back roof, Huaqing Hot Springs
The Flying Palace, with a dragon-back roof, Huaqing Hot Springs
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Huaqing Hot Springs

Several of Xian's treasures are located outside the city. About 30 kilometers east are the Huaqing Hot Springs, site of an ancient Chinese pleasure palace. Legend claims that Emperor Zuanzhong spent every winter here. In the 1980s; the imperial bathing pools that he commissioned were rediscovered.

Although the present buildings post-date the palace, the atmosphere remains one of Imperial grandeur: curved dragon-back roofs, supported by columns enamelled in red; tiny gazebos, built for moon viewing, quiet conversation or solitary contemplation; fearsome gargoyles poised above each building to protect it from evil spirits; circular moon-gates and a small freeform lake called the Nine Dragon Pool.

The marble boat built over the lake provides a perfect vantage point for admiring the landscape reflected in the still waters of the pool.

The Chinese come here on their days off to enjoy the peaceful atmosphere on long, leisurely walks, to take pictures of each other against a backdrop of traditional architecture and to soak in the soothing water from the hot springs.

Builder of the Great Wall of China

Thirty-two kilometers further east is Mount Li, and the fifteen story-high burial tomb of Qin Shi Huang Di. As emperor, Qin Shi Huang Di ordered 700,000 conscripts to complete the construction of The Great Wall of China. A similar number of workers spent 36 years building his tomb.

Legend claims that the emperor was buried in a copper coffin, which was placed in a wooden dragon boat and set afloat on a Lilliputian China, complete with rivers made of quicksilver (mercury) that flowed into a miniature ocean.

Terracotta soldier
Terracotta soldier
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

The tomb has not yet been excavated. However, recent discoveries are proving that it may be even more impressive than predicted.

Terracotta army museum

In 1974, peasants digging a well, two kilometers east of Qin Shi Huang Di's tomb, discovered a life-size pottery soldier. Since then, archaeologists have unearthed a three-acre vault containing an extraordinary army of more than 6,000 terracotta soldiers, horses and chariots.

The terracotta soldiers include infantry, in battle formation, armed with real swords, spears and crossbows. The cavalry and chariot drivers have horses harnessed with leather and brass fittings. Even more remarkably, no two soldiers are alike. Each has different facial features, hairdos and clothing.

Archaeologists believe that the figures are reproductions of the emperor's live honour guard, which lived 2,200 years ago. Their mission was to protect Qin Shi Huang's tomb from evil spirits. Today, they offer insight into Han life.

Xian restaurants

Sightseeing invariably works up appetites. You can find Muslim-run restaurants and cafes on colorful Muslim Street. For traditional dumplings, or jiaozi, dine at De Fa Zhang Jiaozi Shop, located north of the Drum Tower.

For the traditional Xian dish, baked buns in mutton soup, go to the Tong Sheng Xiang Restaurant, north of the Drum Tower. Waiters serve you a dried pancake, which you break into small pieces. They are returned to the kitchen where they are cooked in the mutton soup, which is served to you steaming hot.

Jiaozi, Chinese dumplings and steamed buns
Jiaozi, Chinese dumplings and steamed buns
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Another Xian food specialty is hulutou. The hearty soup is made with pork intestines, tripe, chicken, sea cucumber and squid. You can try it at Chun Fa Sheng Restaurant on NanYuan Men Street.

Tian Long Ba Yan Vegetarian Restaurant, west of the Big Wild Goose Pagoda, serves dishes made from bean curd that taste like roast pork, steamed fish, cured mutton and even chicken feet. To order, just point to the pictures on the menu.

Shopping in Xian

Shoppers, looking for traditional Xian art, will find folk paper-cuts in the Muslim Quarter, near Xian's mosque. Shaanxi region paper-cuts depict human figures, birds, animals, flowers, fish and insects. You can also buy block prints here. Bargaining is half the fun. You can negotiate prices down to half the asking price.

Hotels and art shops in Xian's Hu County sell Shaanxi "peasant paintings," created by more than 2,000 farmers. The bright colors and simple designs depict life in the countryside, local customs and traditions.

Xian nightlife

A popular place for nightlife in Xian is 1+1 or Yi-jia-yi, in the middle of East Street. It has three dance floors offering hiphop, techno and slow jam music. An archway marks the entrance to Xian's bar strip. De Fu Xiang has more than 20 bars, cafes and teahouses.

Xian's nightclubs may be modern, but the city's many ancient treasures make it feel more like a living museum.


More things to see and do in China:

Fodor's Beijing

Shanghai Travel Guide

China's Southwest

Beyond the Great Wall - Recipes and Travels in the Other China