In its previous incarnation as Chang’an, Xi’an was the first imperial capital of China. Vestiges of this ancient world remain dotted in and around the city, ensuring its place on tourists’ ‘must-see’ lists. November, although cold (average daytime temperatures are around 10°C), is a good time to visit to avoid the crowds and make the most of cheaper flights and accommodation.
The first emperor of China, Qin Shihuang (221-210BC), envisioned an army of protectors in his afterlife and commanded that thousands of terracotta soldiers be buried with him upon his death. Thanks to their chance rediscovery 38 years ago, by a group of local farmers digging a well, we mortals can now ogle them too. Located 23 miles outside the city centre, the Museum of Terracotta Warriors actually consists of three pits (Binmayong; 029 8139 9047; open 8.30am-5pm daily; 150RMB; buses 306 and 307 leave frequently from Xi’an train station).
The first is arguably the most impressive: rows of fully excavated, life-size soldiers and horses stand, as they would have when they were first buried more than 2,000 years ago, in trenches below your feet. Pit two contains the archers, generals and chariots, while pit three is thought to be the command centre.
Last year, a further two smaller pits were opened to the public. Located next to the burial mound of the emperor, these pits contain terracotta officials and topless male performers. The same ticket that gets you into the Museum of Terracotta Warriors allows you access to the burial mound area and it is a free, 10-minute shuttle bus ride away.
Almost as fascinating, but with fewer visitors, is the tomb of Jingdi (Hanyangling; 029 8603 1470; open 8:30am-5.30pm daily; 90RMB; bus 游4 leaves hourly from Xi’an library), an emperor of the Han Dynasty, which succeeded the Qin Dynasty. Glass walls and floors allow you a closer look at the excavation site, although the figures here are only doll-size.
Xi’an is much more than just a staging post to the ancient tombs. For hundreds of years the illustrious Silk Road brought to it a mix of cultures, and even today the city still has a sizeable Muslim community. The Great Mosque (Daqingzhensi; 8am-7pm daily; 25RMB) here is one of China’s largest, and wandering through the gardens (non-Muslims are not allowed inside the prayer hall) you’ll spot more Islamic influences in the architecture than you find at Beijing’s Niu Jie Mosque.
Despite the modern metropolis that has grown up around it, Xi’an has managed to retain its old city wall; it’s wide enough that you can rent a bike and pedal along the top. For the best panorama of the city, however, climb Big Wild Goose Pagoda (Dayanta; open 8am-6.30pm daily; entrance 50RMB; 30RMB to climb the tower), a 64m-tall structure, which originated in the seventh-century Tang Dynasty period. If you stick around here after dark, the fountain and light show (from 8.30pm) in front of the pagoda can be fun, if a little tacky, and at the back you’ll find dozens of locals dancing the night away.
Close to the Museum of Terracotta Warriors is Huaqing Palace (Huaqing Chi; open 7.30am-7.30pm daily; 110RMB), the hot-spring frolicking grounds of the great Tang Dynasty beauty, Concubine Yang. Although the reconstructed buildings hold little charm, the lakes and the green backdrop of Mount Li make a pleasant strolling ground after a trip to see the warriors, and you too can soak in the hot springs on-site – at the basic but functional baths (from 30RMB per person for 40 minutes).
Where to eat and drink
Head to Muslim Street to gorge on snacks such as grilled quail eggs, rose petal glutinous rice cakes and persimmon cakes sizzling in hot oil. For a more filling option, go to Jia San (93 Muslim Street; 029 8725 7507), famed for its guantang baozi (soup-filled bun) – the challenge is to pick one up without tearing it, so you can suck out the soup.
For the quintessential Xi’an snack, roujiamou
(pulled pork, or sometimes beef, sandwiched in bread), visit Fanji (53 Zubashi Jie; 029 8727 3917
). Be sure also to taste Xian’s yangrou paomo
(bread soaked in mutton soup), which is best-served in local joints off the main streets, such as Tie Lao Shi’s (85 Daxue Xi Xiang; 029 8721 9193
For a watering hole with character as well as modern sophistication, head to King Garden Bar (Lianhu Lu Yuyangmen; 029 8797 3366), a courtyard space set right on the city wall, adorned with red lanterns. Elsewhere, Fubaoge teahouse offers an authentic tea-drinking experience coupled with Xi’an’s own brand of crosstalk comedy (66 Fudexiang; 029 8721 1031; performances 8-10.30pm Wed-Sun).
Where to stay
Boasting an indoor swimming pool, as well as its own museum dedicated to ancient Chinese artefacts, The Westin Xian (www.starwoodhotels.com; doubles from 1,265RMB
) is close to the city centre (only a ten-minute walk from Big Goose Pagoda).
Centrally located and reasonably priced, Huashang Mountain International Hotel (029 6268 2222; doubles from 508RMB) has smart, modern rooms, including glass-walled bathrooms, with interior blinds that are operated from the bedroom rather than inside the bathroom – which does make you wonder about the designer’s intentions.
For the budget-conscious, Shu Yuan Youth Hostel (www.itisxian.com; dorm beds from 58RMB; doubles with private bathrooms from 180RMB
) is a courtyard conversion by the South Gate of the city walls.
How to get there
Return flights from Beijing can cost as little as 1,000RMB, including taxes, if booked in advance through www.ctrip.com
. Overnight trains depart daily from Beijing West, taking around 12 hours and costing 250RMB for a hard sleeper one-way.