When I was a young boy, I once visited the silk road. Me and my family spent our holidays in Venice, where I explored various canals, bridges etc. At that time, I was at the western end of this long trade route. Today, I am in Xi’an, the other end of the very same road. Similar to Venice, Xi’an is a very interesting city, with its wealth closely tied to the trade on the road, however there is much more to know about this city. Here we want to introduce one of the most important historical cities of China.
When and for how long should I go to Xi’an?
Most travel guides recommend to visit China some time in spring or autumn, and while this advice is correct for many cities, it is not for Xi’an. In the middle of August, we enjoyed temperatures of about 25-30°C.
In total, we spent 5 days in Xi’an, however we came to realize, that it was too long. You can visit all the sights mentioned in this article within 3 days (not including arrival and departure).
Where can I stay overnight?
During our stay, we stayed in the Xi’an im Silkroad Youthspace Chang’an, a good choice for everybody, who wants to get a central but cheap accomodation. The bell tower is just around the corner, while the muslim quarters are just a 5 minutes walk.
What can I eat?
The cuisine in Xi’an is very diverse and uses many central asian and muslim dishes. Almost every dish is Halal, which also makes Xi’an a great destination for Muslims.
To get more into detail, we want to introduce 3 typical dishes from Xi’an.
For breakfast, we usually had a „Roujiamo“ (肉夹馍), that’s a little bit like a kebap, just smaller and a little bit more spicy. Almost every shop makes them differently and the prices inside the muslim quarters are unfortunately the highest. We therefore recommend to take a look around and try them at different shops. A Roujiamo should cost about 8 Yuan.
For lunch or dinner, we can recomment the „Yangrou Paomo“ (羊肉泡馍). This dull looking soup consists of bread crumps, lamb and noodles, the best ones can be found in the Huiminjie (回民街). Do not hesitate to take a look into the more simple looking locations, they are usually the best. One Yangrou Paomo should cost about 35 Yuan.
As a last recommendation, noodles and dumplings in the north of China are usually the best. The ones in Xi’an are of course made with lamb, you can get a big plate for 2 people for about 40 Yuan.
What can I see?
As you could see in our recommendations about food, Xi’an is a very diverse city, which was mainly influenced by the trade on the silk road. But this is not all, in fact, Xi’an is the root of Chinese civilization, the terracotta army of the first emperor of China is burried here and you can still see one of the best preserved city walls of the country here.
The Terracotta Army
Qinshihuang was the first emperor of China and therefore the first person who managed to unite China under one flag. Of course he was admired by his people, which is why he received a big, impressive tomb. Different from the egypts of that time however, he did not receive a big building or temple, he received his own army to protect him in his afterlife. Each and every soldier in his army is unique, they all have different weapons and some even have their own horses or other vehicles.
Both the grave itself, as well as the army were forgotten in the 2500 years that passed since the death of Qinshihuang. Just in the 70ies, some farmers found some terracotta warriors during their work, leading to the government protecting the whole area and starting an excavation.
Today you can visit the site of the terracotta army as a tourist, you will just have to go to the central trainstation north of the city wall and take bus number 5/306. Don’t be scared by the big waiting line, in our case the line was going quite fast.
The Terracotta Army is located at the end of the bus line, from where you can just follow the signs to get to the ticket counters. The entrance fee is 150 Yuan per person, however students with a Chinese student ID can get a discount of 50%.
We recommend to ignore all the tourist guides that you might encounter on your way to the site, even if they say that Chinese use a guide to visit the site. It might be right, that it is hard to get an impression of the site without the proper introduction, however there are signs everywhere. If you are too lazy to go from sign to sign, you can also get an audio guide for 40 Yuan (plus deposit of 100 Yuan) at the entrance of pit number 1.
Optionally you can also visit the grave of Qinshihuangdi, however it should be clear, that after 2500 years, there is not much left. In fact, the inside of the grave is filled with mercury, so up until now, nobody ever took a look inside the grave.
In the park that is used to honor the first emperor, you can find a tomb stone and all in all it is a nice and small park.
Both from the museum as well as from the park you can find busses to go back to the city.
We almost spent the whole day at the army, we just arrived back in the city in the afternoon.
The city wall of Xi’an
The entire old city of Xi’an is surrounded by a big city wall, which has a total length of 8km. The wall was first built during the Tang dynasty, expanded during the Ming Dynasty and renovated a few times, the last time during the 80s. As a tourist, you can climb the city wall and it is in fact possible to take a walk around the whole city up there.
The wall does follow a strict structure though, with ramparts in a regular distance and big gates in every direction. If you are going to visit the city wall by foot, we recommend only to walk from one gate to the next, if you do want to see all of the city wall though, we would recommend to rent a bike up at one of the gates.
In contrast to what many websites told, the entrance fee is the same at all gates (57 Yuan, 50% for all students). Also, the south gate might be the most impressive gate in the city, but unless you really want to see the Xi’an impression show, I recommend just to take a look at one of the other gates, which have a more traditional look without a big stage and the whole equipment required for such a big show.
The Muslim district
The Muslim district is the whole area northwest of the belltower. This is actually linked to the fact, that the silk road was starting somewhere in the small alleys and bazaars around here.
Today, this area is mainly inhabitated by the minority of the Hui, one of the muslim minorities in China. They are mainly operating small shops and restaurants around here, depending on the area more or less touristy. Most of the dishes recommended in the food section can be found here as well.
Most snacks and souvenirs however can be found in the Huiminjie (回民街, 5 minutes from the bell tower on Dongdajie (东大街), then to the right and underneath the big shopping mall), we do recomment though, to look a little bit further than only one road.
Right in the middle of this massive bazaar, you can find an oasis of peace: the great mosque of Xi’an. This is actually one of our biggest recommendations in Xi’an, however a surprise to everyone that visited a mosque in another Muslim country. On a first look, this mosque might as well be a Buddhist temple. The minaret for instance has a lot of architectural traits of a pagoda, while the entire mosque itself is not just one single building but more like a park, filled and surrounded with small buildings with teachings of the Quran both in Arabic as well as in Chinese.
The entrance fee for the Mosque was 25 Yuan.
The Da Ci’en Temple and the big wild goose pagoda
Xi’an is not only a very important city for the Islam in China, but in fact also the centre of Chinese Buddhism.
To get the full picture, Buddhism is originally from India and slowly spread over the silk road to Xi’an and therefore also greater China. At that time however, there were almost no Buddhist teachings in Chinese, which is why a monk called Xuanzang went all the way from Xi’an to India, to travel around, learn about Buddhism and collect different scrolls, teachings and so on. In total, he collected 657 scrolls and brought them to Xi’an, where he translated them from Sanskrit into Chinese. If this story sounds familiar to you, that’s not a coincidence: The journey to the west is based on these events.
The Da Ci’en Temple is, where Xuanzhang eventually translated all the teachings and therefore opened Buddhism to Chinese people.
If you want to take a look around the temple, you will just have to pay the entrance fee of 50 Yuan and if you want to climb the pagoda, it’s an extra 30 Yuan. The Pagoda was also once build by the monk Xuanzang, however it burned town and was rebuilt with 7 stories.
The Palace of the Tang Dynasty
Xi’an, or at that time Chang’an, has been the capital of China multiple times, for instance about 1300 years ago, during the Tang dynasty. Of course the emperors had their own palace in Xi’an, the remains of one palace can still be found just north of the train station. To get there, we recommend to go to Anyuanmen (安远门), from where you just need to walk about 15 minutes to reach a big replica of the former gate to the palace.
The main entrance to the palace can be found 300 meters north from there, the entrance fee is 60 Yuan and there is a 50% discount for students.
The area itself is barely more than a few ruins, however the central building is still impressive and especially the garden is preserved very well. Furthermore, almost every building has its own description, so that you can get a good impression of what life was like 1300 years ago.
Additionally, the whole area is used as an exhibition space for modern art, so that you can enjoy an interesting combination of old and new.
All in all, this place is a great destination for everybody who wants to get to know more about the countries history or just take a walk in peace, far from the crowds of the city centre.
If you are more interested in the history of China, Xi’an still holds many more old palaces, for instance one from the Han Dynasty. This palace is much bigger, older, but also harder to reach and even more just a collection of the bases of buildings. Most of these sites are more interesting for people who are really into history and want to find out as much as possible about it, but not for the average tourist that wants to get a broad overview over the city.
Without doubt, Xi’an was one of the most interesting destinations on our trip throughout China. The city had a longer and richer history than most other cities and the silk road with its middle eastern influences makes it a very diverse city with a lot of great food to taste.
We hope that we could give you a good overview over Xi’an and hope that you will have a great trip here as well!