Xi’an (often spelled as Xian and pronounced “she ahn”) was the ancient imperial capital of China for over 11 centuries. According to Xi’an natives, “If you want to see China over the past 100 years, go to Shanghai. If you want to see China over the past 1000 years, go to Beijing. But if you want to see China over the past 5000 years, go to Xi’an.” While this may be a slight exaggeration, there is no doubt that Xi’an’s history has been illustrious – 13 dynasties had the city as their capital. Xi’an, formerly known as Chang’an, was a key city on the Silk Route connecting Asia with Europe.
Much of this history remains buried, either literally — in the dirt surrounding regal burial mounds which dot the rural countryside — or amidst the sky-rise development that has swallowed much of the city. Yet Xi’an’s public spaces and charming alleyways manage to appear more authentically “Chinese” than Beijing’s grandiose plazas and avenues. The old Muslim Quarter is particularly colorful and worth exploring on foot. So far, Xi’an enjoys equal fame with Athens, Cairo, and Rome as one of the four major ancient capitals.
The Lantian Man, which was found in Lantian County of Xi’an, has inhabited in this land about 800,000 years ago. The founded skulls fossils is said to be the earliest and best preserved ones in China too date.
The Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-24AD), which is the third dynasty setting up its capital in Xi’an, constructed its capital -Chang’an on the relics of the Qin’s Xianyang. Once, Chang’an City was the largest one in the world, covering an area of about 36 square kilometers (13.9 square miles). Now, the site of the Weiyang Palace is preserved well in Xi’an. The famous ‘Silk Road’ which starts from the Chang’an City appeared during the period of Wudi, opening the communication between China and overseas countries.
With its abundant cultural relics and sites, Xi’an is a great place to visit. Renowned for the nearby Terracotta Army (bingmayong), other attractions include the World Heritage Listed Mausoleum of Emperor Qin Shi Huang, well-preserved Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644) city wall, the Bell Tower, Big Goose Pagoda, Small Goose Pagoda, Great Mosque, Shaanxi History Museum and nearby village of Chen Lu.
Xi’an is peppered with the enormous tombs of emperors, dukes, generals and other wealthy people who would commence building as soon as they achieved power. In 221 B.C., Ying Zheng (259-210 B.C.), King of Qin, became the First Emperor of Qin, (Qin Shihuangdi), when he managed to consolidate the neighboring states under his rule. He had begun work on his tomb shortly after becoming king of Qin at the age of 13, and the work took a staggering 39 years to complete.
The cultural and historical significance of Xi’an, as well as the abundant relics and sites, help Shaanxi enjoy the laudatory title of ‘Natural History Museum’.
- Foremost is China’s greatest archeological excavation, the TerraCotta Warriors and Horses.
- Located nearby the Terracotta Warrior Museum, Qin Shihuang’s mausoleum is larger than Egypt’s Great Pyramid, and has still not been fully excavated.
- If time, spending some time at the Huaqing Hot Springs on the way back from the Terra Cotta Army site. For centuries emperors came here to bathe and enjoy the scenic beauty, and it has been a favorite spa since the Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D). The palace complex has also been the scene of political intrigue, so there is plenty of interest to discover during your visit.
- 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.
- Xi’an’s Great Mosque (Da Qingzhensi) is one of the oldest, largest and best-preserved Islamic mosques in China. Founded during the height of the Tang dynasty in 742, the mosque is the beating heart of the city’s sizable Muslim community (residents in Xi’an for over 1,200 years). Spacious surrounding courtyards have a garden-like feel, displaying a beautiful fusion of Arabian and Chinese architectural styles.
- Muslim Street (Huimin Jie) just north of the Drum Tower is an old street paved with bluestone plate, both sides of which stand a row of muslin restaurants decorated in Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) Dynasties’ styles. This is the right place to taste Xi’an snacks, and have a chance to experience locals’ life on the street. Al fresco family-run barbecues line both sides of the street, filling the air with the smell of roasting meat. Try the succulent yangrou chuanr (kebabs), roujiamo (fried pork or beef in pitta bread with green peppers and cumin) and heletiao (dark brown sorghum or buckwheat noodles), accompanied by an ice-cold Yanjing Beer.
- If you need souvenirs head for the covered market on Huajue Xiang, also close to the Drum Tower. Although there is a lot of tacky junk on offer, it is also possible to pick up a bargain if you have a good eye and know how to negotiate. As a rule of thumb divide the seller’s price by four and stand your ground.
- Another street of interest to many is Shuyuan(Academy of Classical Learning) Gate which is a cultural street also designed in ancient architectural style. Strolling on this street, you can buy many articles unique to China, such as the four treasures of study, calligraphic works and paintings.
There are many historical relic shops in Xi’an, such as Shu Yuanmen (an art street), which is laid out in the style of an ancient street; Best buys:
- Calligraphy implements (writing brush, ink stick, silk paper and ink stone);
- Rubbings of calligraphy and paintings;
- Shaddows of shaddow play (made of donkey skin or bull skin, totally handmade);
- Xun (the oldest known musical instrument, discovered from Banbo Village, 6000 years ago)
- Paper cuts and and other folk arts.
Xi’an Antique Market; and Wenbaozhai Tour Shopping Center. Tang tri-colored glazed pottery and replicas of clay figures of warriors and horses, as well as folk handicrafts of paper-cut and cloth art, can be found there.
The narrow street beside the Great Mosque is one of the most interesting places to find Chinese junk to nice pieces of handicraft. And at a reasonable price. Of course, you need to exercise your oriental patience and bargain a lot..
Praised as ‘the capital of table delicacies’, Xi’an is rich in Shaanxi snacks. Among all, the most famous and popular one is the Muslim Snack Street. Here you will find slow roasted legs of lamb, along with a variety of noodle, soups and speciality sandwiches.
Yang Rou Pao Mo (羊肉泡馍) (a soup dish that involves breaking wheat flour flat bread into a bowl and adding a mutton stock). Before dinner, you will be served one or two pieces of wheat flour flat bread which you into tiny chunks, the smaller the better. The waiter or the waitress will then hand your bowl to the cook who mixes the bread and mutton soup with an appropriate relish. When the steaming hot meal is brought in, the waiter will also offer you sweet crisp pickled garlic, coriander, and hot pepper sauce. The most famous, the Tong Sheng Xiang (Prosperity and Fortune) Beef and Lamb Paomo Restaurant done in Tang Dynasty style, is a time-honored establishment in the Xi’an Bell and Drum Tower Square.
Rou Jia Mo (肉夹馍) (Pork between Pita Bread), is the most popular local snack in Xi’an. The meat is mostly common pork, stewed for hours in a soup consisting of over 20 kinds of spices and seasonings, so that the palatable flavor could be ensured. The pita bread in this snack is made in a frying pan baked repeatedly for a long period of time. The Rou Jia mo enjoys the reputation as “Xi’an hamburger ” and is usually around RMB 5-7 in Xian, but the flavor varies from vendor to vendor due to the different seasonings applied.
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