Destination Guide to Xi’an

Since the discovery of Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s Terracotta Army, Xi’an has become a major tourist destination in China.  Whilst historians could easily spend a week in Xi’an, most travellers usually stay for two or three days.  The Army of Terracotta Warriors is undeniably the main attraction in Xi’an but if you have the time there a few other places worth visiting.  

Army of Terracotta Warriors

The Terracotta Army is one of the world’s most famous archaeological finds and it’s easy to see why. It is believed that Emperor Qin ordered the creation of the army statues to be buried with him as a show of his glory and to protect him in his afterlife.  There were many amazing details about this army including that:

  • The warriors remained underground for over 2,000 years before being accidently discovered by farmers digging a well in 1974.
  • One of those farmers was Yang Zhifa. When President Bill Clinton visited the Terracotta Warriors he wanted to meet the person who made the discovery. Apparently, President Clinton then asked for his autograph but it turns out he couldn’t read or write.  The Chinese government, slightly embarrassed, then sent him to a calligrapher so that he could learn how to write his own name.
  • Nowadays, Mr. Yang is paid a monthly allowance and even spends a couple of days a week at the museum to sign books purchased there.  Of course we purchased a book as a keepsake of our visit but we can’t be sure which “Yang” signed our book or whether he was in fact one of the farmers at all.  Maybe that is why they prohibit photos of Mr. Yang!
  • According to “Treasures of the Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor”, the museum covers an area of 56.25km2 and took 37 years and approximately 700,000 laborers to build.
  • The museum is divided into three main pits with pit no. 1 being the largest of them all.  This pit is believed to contain over 6,000 warriors and horses as well as a great quantity of bronze weaponry.  Only 2,000 warriors are on display.
  • Most of the terracotta figures were broken into pieces that archaeologists have had to reassemble.  It apparently takes about one month to restore one warrior.
  • No two soldier’s faces are alike and all the statues are life-sized.  The craftsmanship is truly amazing.
  • The terracotta figures were originally painted. Today only a handful of statues contain small amounts of paint.
  • Preserving the painted has proved particularly challenging during the excavations. In some cases the paint has peeled off within minutes of being exposed to the air.

  • Nearly 40,000 bronze weapons were unearthed from the pits.
  • There are still many more pits and artifacts to unearth, including Emperor Qin’s tomb.

Timing is everything when it comes to visiting the Terracotta Warriors, as the crowds can be unbearable. We visited during the first week of April in 2015 and were fortunate enough to not feel like we were herded through the different pits.  We also used a local tour guide who was happy for us to take our time in each pit to ask questions and take photos.

City Walls

The city wall in Xi’an is the most complete ancient city wall in China.  It was built in 1370 during the Ming dynasty.  The wall has a perimeter of 13.7km and it is 12 metres high.  Just like the Great Wall, the City Wall was originally built for defense purposes, with a deep moat surrounding the walls plus watchtowers and drawbridges.

You can walk along the wall or hire a bike to ride on the walls and get a sense of the old Xi’an versus the new.  Or jump rope, as First Lady Michelle Obama did during her visit in 2014!

If you are an avid runner, Xi’an hosts the International Marathon every year on the wall every November.  There is a 5km, 10km and half-marathon race.

Muslim Quarter

If you love a bit of street food or you’re an avid photographer this is one area that you will definitely enjoy.  There’s such a buzz to this area – everything from the food stalls to the souvenirs and bustling local life make this place a feast for the eyes.

This was one of my highlights of travelling to Xi’an and a place I wish I had more time to capture from a street photography perspective.  The Muslim quarter is home to the city’s Hui community (Chinese Muslim’s). It can get very crowded so hold onto your little ones if you are travelling with kids.

Great Mosque

From the Muslim Quarter you can walk to the Great Mosque, which is one of the oldest, largest and best-preserved Islamic mosques in China.  According to records, the mosque was built in 742 during the Tang Dynasty.  It’s amazing how tranquil and quiet it is inside after walking through the markets to get there!

If you have the time, the other main attractions to see in Xi’an include the Drum and Bell Towers, Big Goose Pagoda, and the Tomb of Emperor Jingdi (Hang Yangling).

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