No trip to inland China would be complete without a few days in Xi’an. As the former capital, Xi’an still draws travelers every year to glimpse its star archaeological attractions. The atmosphere is decidedly more archaic and authentic than bustling metropolises like Beijing and Shanghai.
There’s plenty to see and do here—from ancient architecture like the Bell Tower, Drum Tower, and Wild Goose Pagodas to natural sites like Mount Huashan and the Huaqing Hot Springs.
– Terracotta Army –
A stop in Xi’an wouldn’t be complete without seeing the Terracotta Army, also known as “Terracotta Warriors and Horses”. Buried and forgotten for nearly 2,000 years, the collection of more than 8,000 life-size figures of warriors, chariots, horses, and acrobats was built to safeguard Emperor Qin Shi Huang (260-210 BCE) in the afterlife.
It was only rediscovered in 1974 and has since been dubbed a UNESCO World Heritage Site and an eighth wonder of the world.
– Beiyuanmen Muslim Street Market –
Located in the Muslim district of Xi’an, the Beiyuanmen is an impressive stretch of Middle Eastern souvenirs and tasty food. The street runs about 550 yards north of the Drum Tower and is said to be one of the main starting points of the Silk Road.
Chinese referred to the Arab and Persian merchants who settled in the area as Hui people, and their descendants still sell their wares along the street.
Nowadays, you can stroll along the long, peaceful promenade while checking out the snack vendors’ fresh and fried delights. Try some of the local favorites like lamb skewers, dates, gravy-filled dumplings, and flat bread soaked in mutton.
– See a Performance –
If you’re in Xi’an between April and October, I recommend catching a performance of The Song of Everlasting Sorrow. You can take a free shuttle from the railway station to Mount Lichen.
This historical drama, adapted from a T’ang-era poem, is performed twice an evening at Huaqing Hot Springs just below Lishan Mountain. The performance is a large-scale event of music, dance, lights, and costumes against a backdrop of ponds, willow trees, pavilions, and palaces.
One of the more dramatic of Chinese laments, it is a tragic love story of T’ang Emperor Xuanzong (685-782) and his beloved concubine Yang Yuhuan. Tickets are available at the Tourist Service Center at Xi’an North Railway Station.
– Ride a Bike on the Ancient City Wall –
Xi’an has the best preserved ancient city walls in China. Built in the T’ang Dynasty in 1370, they stand nearly 40 feet high and are an outstanding length of more than eight and a half miles.
I definitely suggest hopping on a rental bike and cycling two to three hours on the circumference.
The ride is fairly simple and effortless, but be sure you bring something to drink as the street vendors are few and far between. If you’re lucky, you may catch the Changing of the Guard, which takes place three times a day at the south gate.
– Day Trip to Mount Huashan –
If you’re in need of a break from the city, take a train or long-distance bus out to Mount Huashan. The mountain, which stands more than 6,500 feet high, lies about 75 miles east of Xi’an and is one of Taoism’s Five Great Mountains.
Huashan is a beautiful cluster of five peaks with dramatic and breathtaking cliff faces. It is one of the most dangerous hiking trails in the world because of its steepness and narrow passes.
The risk is doubled in the summer because of the sheer number of people trying to make the ascent at the same time.
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