China Travel Guide
At the heart of China, bordered by the Yellow River to the east, the dusty province of Shaanxi has had its lion’s share of splendor. In 1066 BC, the Western Zhou dynasty established its capital at Hao, near modern-day Xi’an. It was from here, about 850 years later, that China was unified by its first emperor, Qin Shi Huangdi. This set the stage for Xi’an to serve as the seat of political power to successive dynasties including the Western Han, the Sui, and the Tang, for over a millennium. By the 9th century, Xi’an, known then as Chang’an, was the largest and wealthiest city in the world, immersed in the riches that spilled along the Silk Road. At the peak of the Tang era, Xi’an’s population of over a million people worshiped at as many as 1,000 temples within the confines of a vast city wall.
The city’s treasures are abundant, from the silent army of Terracotta Warriors just northeast of Xi’an, fashioned to guard the tomb of China’s first emperor, to the impressive Shaanxi History Museum, with over 3,000 exhibits ranging from Shang and Zhou bronze vessels to Tang-era ornaments and funerary items.
Xi’an’s other key sights include the extensive Eight Immortals Temple associated with Daoist legends, and the two Goose Pagodas with their strong connections to Tang-era Buddhism. Many visitors also make a trip to the holy mountain of Hua Shan, to the east of Xi’an, for its stimulating combination of energetic hiking opportunities and quiet sanctity.
Towns & Cities
Areas of Natural Beauty
Shaanxi History Museum
One of Xi’an’s premier attractions, this roomy, modern museum contains over 370,000 relics chronicling Shaanxi civilization and culture from as far back as prehistoric times. The collection is strong in ceramics, bronzes, jade pieces, gold and silver items, ancient coins, and calligraphy mainly from the pre-Ming periods, reflecting Xi’an’s later decline. Look out also for some interesting Tang-dynasty frescoes and the chance to examine some of the renowned terracotta soldiers up close. Exhibits are well displayed and accompanied by both Chinese and English captions.
- 91 Xiaozhai Donglu, corner of Cuihua Lu
- 029 8521 7140
- 5, 19, 521 from train station
- Apr–Sep: 8:30am–5:30pm Tue–Sun, Oct–Mar: 9am–4:30pm daily
the modern Shaanxi History Museum
The exhibits are arranged in chronological order with Shang and Western Zhou exhibits in Gallery 1. On the second floor, Gallery 2 covers the Han, Western Wei, and Northern Zhou periods, while Gallery 3 concentrates on the Sui, Tang, Ming, and Qing dynasties. The two wings of the museum house temporary exhibits that can vary in quality and explanation.
- Shang Cooking Pot
- Tang Sancai Horse
Tang Sancai Horse
This three-color (sancai) piece is a fine example of the polychrome earthenware pottery that has remained unsurpassed since Tang times.
Tang Dynasty Agate Cup
This beautifully colored ox-head cup displays Middle Eastern influences, probably derived via the Silk Road. The gold snout is a removable stopper.
Among the small number of Ming artifacts at the museum is this kettle with gold tracing in a peacock and peony (a flower symbolizing wealth and rank) pattern).
Song Celadon Pot
This round-bodied pot is decorated with a lion-styled spout and floral motifs. The light green glazed piece was fired in the Yaozhou kilns, one of ancient China’s largest and most famous kilns.
Standing as though poised to charge, this magnificent Han-dynasty ornament has a patterned body and stylized horns that arch high over the beast’s back and end in a face.
Inscribed with the archaic script used for Qin official texts, this remarkable bronze artifact was issued to generals to authorize the mobilization of troops.
Zhou Wine Decanter
Capped with a lid in the shape of a tiger and incorporating a tail-shaped handle, this ox-shaped zun (a type of wine vessel) was excavated in 1967. The elaborate surface pattern is typical of Zhou-dynasty animistic design.
Shang Cooking Pot
The ogre-mask motif of this vessel is indicative of the Shang society’s absorption in the world of nature spirits and supernatural beings. The bronzes of the Shang era are regarded as the dynasty’s most significant creative achievement.
in the courtyard, Great Goose Pagoda
Great Goose Pagoda
This Tang-dynasty pagoda, built in AD 652, is attached to the extant Ci’en Si (Ci’en Temple). Known as Dayan Ta, the pagoda was built in memory of the Gaozong emperor’s mother, Empress Wende. The monk Xuanzang, who traveled to India via Central Asia and returned with bundles of sutras , officiated at the temple, translating the hundreds of scriptures from Sanskrit into Chinese. The 210-ft (64-m) high pagoda, built on his orders for their storage, is a square, sturdy structure with a brick exterior and wood interior. At the height of the Tang dynasty, Xi’an’s extent was almost seven times larger than it is today, enclosing within its walls both the temple and pagoda.
The Dayan Ta can be climbed, and visitors throw money from the windows for good luck. The large temple complex, smaller now than during its Tang heyday, can also be explored. Its main hall contains three statues of the Buddha flanked by 18 luohan or arhats.
At the back of the pagoda is a huge relief depicting scenes from Xi’an’s history.
Xi’an: farther afield
The several worthwhile sights around Xi’an are best visited by the Western Tour buses that depart from Xi’an train station in the morning. Located 15 miles (25 km) northeast, the modern city of Xianyang, China’s first dynastic capital, is mainly visited for its museum and the surrounding imperial tombs. Housed in a former Confucian Temple, the Xianyang City Museum displays relics from Qin and Han times, and its highlight is an army of 3,000 miniature terracotta soldiers excavated from a nearby tomb. Mao Ling (Mao Tomb), 25 miles (40 km) west of Xi’an, is the tomb of the Han emperor Wudi (141–87 BC). The largest of the Han tombs in the surrounding region, it has a museum that houses stone sculptures and further relics from the tomb complex. The impressive Qian Ling (Qian Tomb), 50 miles (80 km) northwest of Xi’an, is the burial site of the Tang Gaozong emperor and his wife, the indomitable Wu Zetian. The Imperial Way is lined with stone figures, while the southeast section of the area contains 17 lesser tombs, including the vividly frescoed tombs of Prince Zhang Huai, the emperor’s second son, and crown prince Yi De, the emperor’s grandson. The mountainside mausoleum of the Tang Taizong emperor lies at Zhao Ling (Zhao Tomb), 43 miles (70 km) northwest of Xi’an.
Situated 74 miles (120 km) northwest of Xi’an, the .0 Famen Temple is well worth the long journey. This shrine is one of China’s first Buddhist temples, and a venerated place for Buddhist pilgrims the world over. It was built in the 2nd century AD to house a finger bone of Sakyamuni (the Historical Buddha) donated by the Indian king Ashoka, who was dispensing Buddhist relics (sarira) among Buddhist lands. The sacred bone enjoyed extensive veneration, and was periodically removed from the temple crypt and paraded through the streets of Xi’an during the height of the Tang era. After the dynasty’s fall, the crypt was lost in obscurity, possibly as a result of anti-Buddhist purges. It is surprising that the crypt remained hidden for so long, as pagodas often have vaults for storing relics and Buddhist ornaments. In the 1980s, an exploration following a partial collapse of the pagoda exposed the crypt, along with its relics and Tang-dynasty riches. Today, the finger bone is once again preserved in a crypt, while the temple museum displays many Tang-era artifacts. The sacred bone is occasionally taken abroad, as it was in 2003, when it went to Taipei in Taiwan.
Xianyang City Museum
- Zhongshan Lu
- 8am–5pm daily
now restored to its former glory
Mao, Qian & Zhao Ling
History of the Pagoda
Considered an archetypal element of Chinese architecture, the pagoda originates from India in concept and form as a development from the Buddhist stupa. However, Chinese architectural forms and styles were soon used in the design of pagodas, as can be seen by the pillar pagodas in the Yungang caves that clearly show multi-storied buildings. Over 1,500 years pagodas developed a variety of forms from pillars to squat tombs to soaring multi-story towers. Made of stone, brick, or wood, they could also be square or multi-sided. As they became uniquely Chinese they were also used slightly differently. Originally the focal point of the temple, they were superseded in this by the more functional hall. Feng shui led to pagodas being built without a temple on hills outside towns or overlooking rivers, to bring good luck or prevent floods.
This Dali pagoda is a beautiful example of a stone close-eaved pagoda. From a square base it is 260-ft (69-m) high, tapering to a lotus bud spike that recalls the Indian stupas.
Octagonal pagodas may have come about as a result of Tantric Buddhism which used a cosmology with eight cardinal points.
The Indian stupa
The Indian stupa was a symbolic tomb and receptacle for Buddhist relics that inspired the pagoda. However the stupa form was largely dropped until the 13th century when the Yuan imported Tibetan Buddhist stupas (also known as dagobas), popularizing the form for later dynasties.
The wooden pagoda at the Fogong Si, Yingxian is one of the finest surviving pagodas. Built in 1056, the octagonal building is called the Sakyamuni Pagoda.
- 75 miles (120 km) E of Xi’an
- from X’ian to Menyuan, then bus
- Cable car available
North Peak, Hua Shan
The westernmost and loftiest of China’s five Daoist peaks, the 8,563-ft (2,610-m) high Hua Shan is characterized by steep ascents, precipitous gullies, and peerless views. Crowned by five peaks (North, South, East, West, and Central), and towering southwest of the Yellow River as it loops east along the Henan-Shanxi border, Hua Shan (Flower Mountain) was traditionally likened to a lotus bloom. Also known by its other name, Xiyue (Western Peak), the mountain is believed to be presided over by the Daoist God of Hua Shan. For centuries, it was a magnet for hermits and ascetics in pursuit of immortality, and its crags and crannies still teem with Daoist myths. Its numerous temples have dwindled over the years, although several survive perched on the mountain.
Hikers can either drift to North Peak by cable car from the station at the eastern base, or make the strenuous 3–5 hour trek along with hordes of other pilgrims from Hua Shan village. From North Peak, one can either descend or follow the trail along the ridge to the other four peaks lying to the south. Spring and autumn are the best seasons to climb Hua Shan, since summers and winters are extreme. Night-time ascents can also be made. It is best to carry one’s own food, though refreshments are available from vendors and at hotels along the trail. Wear shoes or boots with a rugged grip as certain sections are treacherous. At various places near the summits, bunches of padlocks hang on chains. According to the custom, couples have their names engraved on them and then lock them here forever. Accommodation is available in Hua Shan village and on the mountain itself for overnight stays and watching the sunrise from East Peak.
- 155 miles (250 km) N of Xi’an
- from Xi’an and Beijing
The quiet town of Yan’an, set within the ribbed loess hills of northern Shaanxi, is best explored by train from Xi’an. Yan’an lures Mao fans, since the town was the Communist Party’s headquarters for a decade after the culmination of the Long March in October 1935. In the north of town, the Yan’an Revolutionary Museum houses a varied display of Communist relics, including Mao’s stuffed horse, weapons, photographs, and uniforms (although few captions are in English). Not far from the museum lies the Wangjiaping Revolution Headquarters Site, where Mao and other front-rank party leaders worked and lived. The Fenghuang Shan Lu Revolution Headquarters Site, the early residence of the Communists, houses memorabilia of prominent officers. Perched on a hill southeast of town, and with impressive views, is the Ming-dynasty Yan’an Bao Pagoda, which sometimes features on Communist memorabilia.
Yan’an Revolutionary Museum
- Zaoyuan Lu
- 8am–6pm daily
Wangjiaping Revolution Headquarters Site
- Zaoyuan Lu
- 7am to dusk daily