My stay in Xi’an (pronounced: ‘she-an’/ meaning: ‘western peace’) was a wonderful experience. Located in Shaanxi province, Xi’an was once a capital of ancient China and the starting point for the famous Silk Road. It is here where East meets West and you will find a melting pot of different ethnicities and religions.
Xi’an is the perfect place to stay whilst visiting the famous two millennial old Terracotta Army, which is located on the outskirts of the city to the east. It takes between 30 to 60 minutes to get there by car or bus.
I arrived in Xi’an via an overnight train from Yichang – near to where my Yangtze River cruise had terminated. I booked the cheapest ticket – the infamous ‘hard seat’, and after some 12 hours of travelling, I was keen to get out and about.
On a side note, trains in China are cheap, reliable, and one of the best ways to travel and see the country. If you do travel in China by train (excluding the bullet trains), take the hard seat option at least once. It is how many cash-strapped Chinese travel and it will give you a more ‘authentic’ experience. Other seat options are the hard sleeper and the soft sleeper, and these are more expensive, but still cheap by western standards.
Things to do in Xi’an
Visit the city’s famous bell and drum towers – features of many great cities in China. Such towers were used in ancient times to herald dawn and dusk respectively. Xi’an’s towers are impressive and offer excellent views of the city. It was wonderful to watch the swallows swoop up and down as well, using the towers as staging posts to catch flies on the wing. Between the two towers is a beautiful garden, which provides the perfect sanctuary for reflection under the shade of one of the pine trees.
Architecturally stunning, the Big Wild Goose Pagoda is one of Xi’an’s most notable landmarks and can be found to the south of the bell and drum towers. Built in the 7th century, the Pagoda is aligned with the cardinal points of the compass and was used to store the Buddhist sutras (or scriptures) brought back from India.
It is best to dedicate a day to visit the Terracotta Warriors (not forgetting the horses as well). There are 3 excavation sites open to the public and I recommend starting with the smallest first, Pit 3, then Pit 2, and finally the most impressive, Pit 1. The latter pit houses the majority of the excavated warriors and there are thousands more yet to be unearthed! It is truly amazing that such warriors were only discovered in 1974 as a result of some local farmers digging a water well.
Seeing the army in situ and in battle-ready formation is a powerful experience. It is well-known that no two warriors are the same and each has their own facial expressions and characteristics. Why do such warriors exist? It is believed that Emperor Qin Shi Huang, who died in 210 BC, ordered their creation because he was fearful of the afterlife and wanted an army to protect him. The site of his tomb is nearby, however, it is not open to the public.
Evenings in Xi’an are best spent exploring the Muslim Quarter. It is a hive of activity, sounds, aromas, and tastes, brought about by the confluence of diverse ethnic groups. Walking through the bustling and smoke-infused cobbled streets made me imagine about Marco Polo’s era and when the city was an important trading and cultural terminus on the Silk Road. There are plenty of street food stalls to take your fancy and enjoy as well.
I recommend taking an early morning and leisurely 2-hour bike ride on top of Xi’an’s city wall. This magnificent structure encircles the old city and provides a unique way of exploring the city. Bikes can be rented from the main gates. To avoid the crowds, I recommend going either early morning or late evening.
Xi’an should be on the itinerary of many China trips; especially given its importance in shaping the country’s history and destiny. Three days is plenty of time to experience the highlights; however, like with many places in China, you can spend an eternity and still not see everything.