Xi'an: The City for (History) Lovers

Tuesday, February 26, 2008
Xi'an: The City for (History) Lovers Greetings! We're back from our Spring Festival travels, and we have a lot of stories, pictures, and videos to share. For the most part, we were very lucky and everything went smoothly during our journey. Here's our list of cities visited: Xi'an, Leshan, Emei Shan, Chengdu, Lhasa, Hong Kong, and Sanya. We'll be blogging about our trip in that order. So, without further delay,


Xi'an is most famous for its Terracotta Warriors. We knew we were definitely going to see them, but we didn't really know what else was going to entertain us while we were there for a few days. Luckily, Xi'an has plenty of fun sites to offer. I know many of you were worried that the bad winter storms would effect our travel, thankfully it didn't, but that doesn't mean we didn't see a lot of snow in Xi'an. Here's our first picture taken on the trip.You'll notice that from here on out that we're pretty bundled up since most of outings were outdoors, and involved a lot of walking. Anyway, this is Darbie in the heart of downtown Xi'an. Behind her is the Bell Tower, but more on that later. Xi'an is one of the only cities in China that still has it's city wall in tact. The walls were built in the 14th century, and encase downtown Xi'an. We were able to walk on the city walls (through blizzard conditions), and it's almost unbelievable how thick and tall they are.

Darbie and Jimbo are standing outside the city walls, which are about 12 meters high (39 ft for the metrically-challenged). On the left is one of the many tunnels providing road access to the interior, they are usually jammed with traffic. Also, if you notice, we're standing on a bridge, which crosses over the moat that still surrounds the city walls.

Here, I'm on top of the wall looking down on what is one of the most appealing parts of Xi'an, ancient Chinese architecture in a very modern city. Our guide book says that people either love or hate Xi'an, and we clearly came down on the former. Darbie and Jimbo walking on the city walls. This shows just how wide the walls are, and they actually narrow as they get to the top! At the base, the wall is about 18 meters thick (60 ft). Also, you can see on the right that Xi'an was preparing New Year's displays with Chinese scenes. We saw many in construction on our brisk wall along the wall.

In the center of Xi'an is the Bell Tower that was mentioned earlier. The Bell Tower once functioned as an alarm clock, with all the bells inside struck at sunrise. Just down the road from the Bell Tower is its counterpart, the Drum tower where drums were beaten at sunset. We got to visit both, and while they aren't the greatest exhibits, they offer ceremonial music displays and great views of the interior city. For those of you interested in hearing the music, check out the video below.

For most of the trip, we were advocates of "slow travel." We walked if we could, stopped when we wanted, and ate wherever we felt like. A few memorable dining experiences took place in Xi'an. The local specialty is yangrou paomo, lamb meat stew. We had the local dish a couple of times, and I can endorse it as the epitome of slow eating. Once you've ordered it, the server brings out a bowl of bread which you then have to tear into tiny bits. She had to keep badgering us to tear it smaller and smaller, basically until your fingers hurt. Then they take the torn bread back to the kitchen and put the stew in, which is basically just lamb and noodles. While it isn't the tastiest dish, I can definitely see how a hot, filling dish is popular in winter. I was also pleased to notice that "The Real Deal" Holyfield had at some point visited Xi'an and had a bowl himself (begging the question whether or not there are little Chinese Evander's running around.).

Yet another cool site in Xi'an is the Big Goose Pagoda. It is touted as Xi'an's most famous landmark. The pagoda is really, really old (completed in the 7th Century CE), and is where China's most famous Buddhist monk Hsuan-tsang brought back Buddhist scriptures from India. They've also surrounded the pagoda with a pretty interesting temple, with some great Buddhist ivory, stone, and marble carvings depicting the Buddha's life. In front of the temple is a statue of Hsuan-tsang himself. Although they promise wonderful things inside the pagoda, there's little more to see or do than simply look out over the city, and even that can be less than great on a typical, smoggy day. Nevertheless, the outside of pagoda and its surrounding park and temple is worth the trip if you're in Xi'an. Contrary to what the pictures display, I don't believe the Big Goose Pagoda is leaning. Below you can check out two great Darbie pics. First, enjoying a nice winter scene in front of a Buddhist shrine in the park. Last, working on her graceful sword skills in hopes that she can one day become a Buddhist nun with amazing psychic powers.

In addition, we also hit the Shaanxi History Museum which contains a lot of great displays and exhibits, the Folk House which is quaint, historic house with little to offer, and the Forest of Stelae Museum which can get brutally cold with all those tall stone tablets and no heat. But do check out the museum inside and the side streets along the way. Here's a glimpse.

That's a less-than-brief look at Xi'an for you, and we didn't even cover the Muslim Quarter, an area of back alleys and side streets, which has loads of eating and shopping awaiting every tourist and as soon as we stepped onto it we were beckoned into the "secret" back rooms of vendors. Xi'an was a pleasant surprise, with a great blending of ancient and modern. I wish it was the prototype for every Chinese city, though to be fair, no city's history holds a candle to the history that has taken place in and around Xi'an. Visit and see for yourself!

What's that? Ah yes, the Terracotta Army will be covered in our next session, we don't want to exhaust our dear readers. But, to appease you, here's a great video of Jimbo's first hotpot meal. I think it was a memorable experience to say the least.

We're back, spread the word!

Xian Travel Guide

Xian, the eternal city, records the great changes of the Chinese nation just like a living history book. Called Chang'an in ancient times, Xian is one of the birthplaces of the ancient civilization in the Yellow River Basin area of the country. During Xian's 3,100 year development, 13 dynasties such as Western Zhou (11th century BC - 771 BC), Qin (221 BC - 206 BC), Western Han (206 BC - 24 AD) and Tang (618 - 907) placed their capitals here. So far, Xian enjoys equal fame with Athens, Cairo, and Rome as one of the four major ancient civilization capitals.

Xi’an, named as Chang’an in ancient China, is reputed as a world-famous historic and cultural city and an international tourist destination. As a time-honored capital in China, Xi’an boasts resplendent history; fully vigorous, Xi’an is witnessing an unprecedented boom; crowned to be one of the central cities in West China together with the titles of City of Talents, City of Science and Technology, Xi’an embraces a broad market space and boundless business opportunities with immense development potentials. The typical glamour of Xi’an lies in its fascinated reflection of ancient civilization and modern culture.

Xian is the capital of Shaanxi province, located in the southern part of the Guanzhong Plain. With the Qinling Mountains to the south and the Weihe River to the north, it is in a favorable geographical location surrounded by water and hills. It has a semi-moist monsoon climate and there is a clear distinction between the four seasons. Except the colder winter, any season is relatively suitable for traveling.
The cultural and historical significance of Xian, as well as the abundant relics and sites, help Shaanxi enjoy the laudatory title of 'Natural History Museum'. The Museum of Terra Cotta Warriors and Horses is praised as 'the eighth major miracle of the world', Mausoleum of Emperor Qin Shi Huang is listed on the World Heritage List, and the City Wall of the Ming Dynasty (1368 - 1644) is the largest and most intact Ming Dynasty castle in the world. In the city, there is the 3,000 years old Banpo Village Remains from the Neolithic Age (approximately from 8000 BC to 5000 BC), and the Forest of Stone Steles that holds 3,000 stone steles of different periods from the Han Dynasty to the Qing Dynasty. Around Xian, the Famen Temple enjoys the reputation of being the 'forefather of pagodas and temples in Central Shaanxi,' because it holds the finger bones of Sakyamuni -- the founder of Buddhism. The natural landscape around Xian is also marvelous Mt.Huashan one of the five best-known mountains in China, is famous for its breath-taking cliffs and its unique characteristics.
Traditional downtown Xian refers to the area encircled by the city wall, this has now been expanded to encompass the area within the second ring road (Er' huan Lu). The Bell Tower is the geographical center of Xian and the four main streets are respectively Dong Dajie, Xi Dajie, Nan Dajie and Bei Dajie which are also the main commercial streets. Xiao Zhai, the busiest commercial area is in the southern part of the city and is popular with both youths and students since many universities are located here. Shuyuan Men and the still under construction Luoma Shi are must-visit pedestrian streets in the city. Xian is also famous for its quantity of colleges throughout China. The old campuses of many colleges and universities are massed in the southern suburb of Xian, but most have established new campuses in far southern suburb - Chang'an District due to the lack of space within the city.
As tourist development grows in Xian, the hotel industry flourishes more and more. It is very easy to find a hotel in Xian, ranging from 5 star hotels to youth hostels. Of course, it will be any traveler's first choice to stay in the city center due to the superior geographical location and the convenient transportation.
Praised as 'the capital of table delicacies', Xian has been rich in the delicious Shaanxi snack, delicate Guangdong Cuisine, various kinds of fashionable foreign delicacies, and popular Sichuan Cuisine such as the hot pot. Among all the delicacies, the most famous and popular one is the Muslim Snack Street.
Xian is the most important city in northwest China, and so there are a lot of shopping outlets for locals and tourists alike. There are many big shopping centers, department stores and supermarkets in and around Xian city - the biggest and most comprehensive being Kai Yuan Shopping Mall and Century Ginwa Shopping Mall.
The night life in Xian has a unique glamour. Traditional ways include enjoying the night scenery around the Bell Tower, taking part in a Tang Dynasty Dinner Show, strolling on the ancient Big Wild Goose Pagoda Square and watching the music fountain performance. More modern and fashionable ways include singing in the KTV, hanging out in a bar, or dancing in a Disco. All in all, any experience in this ancient city will bring you fun and possibly a little surprise!