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Guide to Exploring Xi'an, China

Terra cotta warriors of Xi'an, China.
The famous terra cotta warriors of Xi'an, China.

Everyone knows the terra cotta warriors, and for Xi’an that fame is something of a quandary. That’s because tourists narrowly equate the city with the terra cotta warriors, most of them spending just two days in Xi’an, thinking they have seen what the destination has to offer. Yet Xi’an has so much else — it gave birth to the Han culture, and sustained a bewildering array of empires — that even a week of furious sightseeing isn’t enough to cover just the heavy-weight attractions. Add to this the new sights that are popping up yearly, mostly associated with the city’s royal epochs, and you begin to realize that you don’t know Xi’an at all, and that it might be well impossible to see everything in one visit. Below is a roundup of eminent attractions that will keep you busy for a week; some of these attractions are well-known, and they have to be seen, but some others are new attractions that few people know of — they are even overlooked by guidebooks.  

Terracotta Warriors

The Terracotta Warriors Museum (28km from city center on bus #306; open daily 8 a.m.–6 p.m.) is understandably impressive: in the pits excavated at the royal mound of Qin Shi Huang, thousands of life-size figures are set in battle formation under a huge hangar. They make an outlandish sight, eerily life-like, each figure bestowed with unique facial features. The scale of the army is unfathomable — bear in mind that what’s exhibited is a small part of the entire collection — but the downside is the sight’s fame. The deluge of tourists impede the quiet contemplation needed to take in the scale of the creation, so best is to visit this place quickly and then plan a longer day-long foray to another royal tomb that’s just as impressive, better-presented, and little-visited.  

The latter is the Han Yang Ling Museum, which opened last year at the tumulus of Emperor Jingdi, a Han ruler from 188–141BC. The figures are stylistically different — while the terra cotta warriors are life-size and have their costumes incorporated into the carved figures, the ones at Han Yang Ling are only three feet tall and were once dressed in garments (which have since deteriorated). The underground museum is built over the ten pits of the tumulus (out of a total of 81 pits fanning from the mound) that have been excavated. A glass enclosure envelopes the pits, and visitors walk on top of the glass peering down on the long trenches below, where the figures poke out of the earth in a half-excavated state. Each pit represents a department of state — the emperors believed they would take their entire state apparatus with them to perpetual rule in the afterlife — and the animal-figures and jars of food were supposed to sustain the entire state during its journey to the next life. These figures were placed in wooden tunnels at the time, then the wood deteriorated and the earth caved in – now the figures, some broken, are half-embedded in the earth in the incompletely-excavated trenches. That’s what makes the museum so evocative: it’s a living archeological sight.

The museum is about 40km out of Xi’an on the airport expressway; a round journey in a taxi costs about RMB100; open 8.30 a.m.–6 p.m..

Xi’an Museums

Xi'an has four major museums, and you'd be hard pressed to visit them all. Best is to focus on the largest and best one, the Shaanxi History Museum (91 Xiao Zhai Dong Lu; 029-85254727; open daily 9 a.m.-6 p.m.), which would take the best part of a day to tour. The museum's halls are packed with thousands of relics, ranging from the Neolithic era to clutters of terra cotta figures, and it's also now got a separate underground wing where 200 Tang murals dislodged from royal mounds are on display. The murals, painted in stucco from natural dyes, faithfully depict scenes from royal life 1,300 years ago — these include a game of polo, a royal banquet, defensive towers, and so on.

Entrance to the Shaanxi History Museum is free, but the mural wing has separate arrangements. It costs RMB150 and requires advance booking; you would have to do a double trip, first to buy a ticket, and then eventually to return on the day and time specified on the ticket. The aim of these measures is to limit visitors, and hence the deterioration of the natural dyes due to carbon dioxide buildup. But don't let these complex arrangements deter you: the murals, made at a time when old China was at its artistic pinnacle, are worth the double trip.

Muslim Street and Gao Fu House

Right in the city center, behind the Drum Tower, the so-called Muslim Street is at the heart of Xi’an’s Muslim quarter. Yet the street is now a commercialized, sanitized, and tourist-oriented version of its former self. For a more faithful glimpse of the district’s way of life, duck into any of the side-streets branching west from the main Muslim Street, and you’ll find a colorful tapestry of hole-in-the-wall eateries, outlandish bicycles, butchers bristling with offal, stalls of persimmon cakes, and small mosques tucked into alleyways (and open for free for tourists).

Back on the main Muslim Street itself, one thing that’s authentic is the Gao Fu House (200 Bei Yuan Men Xi; 029-87232897; open daily 10am–10pm). The 400-year-old house was originally built by Gao Yue Song after he had clinched his position in the royal court when he placed second in the imperial examination. Seven subsequent generations of his family also served the emperor, and the vast estate — consisting of 86 rooms arranged around four courtyards — once housed the intellectuals who advised Gao and his descendents. These thinkers weren’t paid; they simply had their families’ needs taken care of within the disciplined household, which has rooms with titles such as men’s reception, women’s reception, girls’ room, boys’ room, ‘introspection room’ (where unruly boys were punished), owner’s bedroom and living room, a private temple dedicated to the ancestors, and so on.

Partly built of bricks, partly of wood, with huge beams supporting the upper floor, the house is an excellent specimen of old Chinese architecture. A variety of wooden carvings embroider the porches and balconies and upper floor; floral motifs bloom on the panels of doors and windows; and panels of stone carvings–such as the excellent piece that symbolically depicts a sitting man unable to reach the fruit-laden trees, perhaps a metaphor for laziness–are scattered throughout the courtyards. You can also watch an excellent shadow puppet show for an extra RMB5. It dramatizes a peasantry love scene, and the execution — the emotional oration, the trumping traditional music, the vivacious movements of the puppets, the timbre rising and falling — leaves one feeling the euphoric force of unconsummated love.

City Wall

Xi’an’s defensive city wall girdles the old part of the city — the new city has spilled over the fortifications. The 14-km-long wall, which is skirted by a water-filled moat, was last rebuilt in 1568, and some sections crumbled or were knocked down since then. But now it’s complete again: the broken sections were reconstructed in 2007, and the reconstruction has been carried out so sensitively that the rebuilt parts blend seamlessly with original sections. This means it’s now possible to cycle or walk in a loop on top of the ramparts; cycling takes an hour, and walking thrice as much, but it should be one of the first things to do in Xi’an. For starters, it’s the best way to take in the defensive arrangement of the stout wall studded with ornate, traditional guard towers arising above its four gates and corners.

Additionally, a loop tour of the wall gives you an orientation of the city: the jumble of dense buildings that are set within the wall give way, beyond the wall, to swankier outgrowths of modern skyscrapers marching to the horizons. Best place to start and end the tour is at the South Gate (entry is RMB40), where you can find bicycles for rent.

Large Goose Pagoda and Small Goose Pagoda

The Large Goose Pagoda (Yanta Lu; daily 8 a.m.–6.30 p.m.) needs no introduction: it’s firmly on the circuit of package tours, playing host to hordes of tourists. This large Buddhist temple, Xi’an’s largest, has several prayer halls set in landscaped grounds, but it’s famous for the pagoda that dominates the complex: you can climb up into its seven storeys for good views. Yet the streams of tourists milling about detract from the atmosphere – although the temple is a place of worship, it feels more of a tourist circus — and once you see it, head off to the lesser-visited and more-rewarding Small Goose Pagoda (Youyi Xi Lu; daily 8 a.m.–6 p.m.). It’s set in a smaller Buddhist temple, and the pagoda — slimmer and older than its better-known neighbor — was built in 707 to store Buddhist sutras brought back from India. Tourist traffic is thin here, and that allows you to enjoy the atmosphere of the place better. Additionally, after visiting the temple and climbing the pagoda, you can then explore the rest of the grounds — a large park full of water features, and the Xi’an Museum, which recounts the history of Xi’an and holds a fantastic collection of tri-color glazed pottery.

Tao Temples

Xi’an has two remarkable Tao temples within the city that are seldom visited. The oldest and best one is Chenghuang Temple, a 620-year-old temple in the city center (it’s down an alleyway off Xi Dajie; open daily 6am–6pm; free entrance). The temple enthrones the city god, the guardian of Xi’an; he’s also the controller of everything, whether that’s natural disasters, epidemic outbreaks, economic success, or whether someone is born a boy or a girl. That’s an omnipotence that perhaps explains the large number of pendants that clutter its temple halls, holding the names of worshippers who hang up the pendants in the hope that the city god would make their hankerings come true. But the city god — who was a general named Jixin in his human life, when he sacrificed his life to save that of his Emperor Lu Bang–couldn’t stop the Red Guards in 1966, which stormed the temple and wrecked all religious icons, and then turned the temple into a flea market.

Now China has changed, and the temple reopened in 2004. And, thanks to a hiatus of 40 years in maintenance, the temple is all the more attractive in its crumbling weathered state. Sagging ceilings, cracking wood, chipped carvings, grass growing among the bamboo-themed tiles on the roofs, musty smell of rot, decrepit grounds — all of this gives the temple an ancient feel that is palpable and not only imagined. Best of all are the dense and fine wooden carvings that proliferate throughout the doors in outpourings of fantasy and symbolism. These depict various animal motifs, particularly representations of dragons, and floral themes in the traditional Chinese style; all are ensconced by carved whorls that are as dense as unkempt ivy. Some of the carvings are half-broken, some are entirely gone, but by the time you visit all might be whole again thanks to a restoration project that got underway last April.

Further from the city center, Xi’an largest Tao temple is Baxian Gung (Yongle Lu; daily 8 a.m.–5 p.m.). It has several temple halls sprawling along interconnecting courtyards and a lush garden outback. The main hall, the Hall of Eight Immortals, enthrones Dong Hua Dijun, the temple’s highest deity. The hall also holds lesser gods and two cone-shaped columns that are riddled with small niches, all holding thumb-sized deities. If you visit in the afternoon, you might catch the musical religious rite, but any time there is much to hold your attention, and informative panels in English make sense of it all. The deities installed in the various halls conjure a world of fantasy: Lingguan, the guardian of Taoism, is flanked by the Greed Dragon and White Tiger; Lu Dongbin is one of the Eight Immortals and his task is to aid all sentient beings attain the Tao; Tai Bai Jinxing is the deified planet of Venus, symbolizing fame, wealth and honor; Dou Mu Yuanjin is the mother is 12 stars and controller of all other stars; and Sun Simiao was once a medical and pharmaceutical authority during the Tang Dynasty. 

Modern Art at the Textiles Factory

Got a spare afternoon and like to check out some modern art? Then head to the Textiles Factory (Fangzi Chen, 238 Fangxi Jie, Xi Bei Yi Ying), a defunct factory that has been reclaimed by artists who have set up their live-in studios in its cavernous concrete warehouses. There an eclectic range of modern art ranging from abstract paintings, a variety of sculptures, and things made of twisted metal. One of the warehouses also holds a café looking over exhibits put up by various artists; there are also regular workshops, talks, and other events held in the workshops, especially in the summer (from December to March, when the temperature plummets, most artists move to heated apartments and only live in the factory full-time from April to November).

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