China Travel Guide

Xi'an

 
Drum at Xi'an Drum Tower
Drum at Xi’an Drum Tower

Capital of modern Shaanxi, Xi'an has served as capital to 11 dynasties over a period of 4,000 years, including the Western Zhou, Western Han, Qin, Western Wei, Northern Zhou, Sui, and Tang. The Chinese trace its lineage back even further to the mythical Yellow Emperor, who made Xianyang his capital (2200–1700 BC). Xi'an peaked during the Tang dynasty, when its position at the eastern end of the Silk Road transformed it into a bustling metropolis, luring foreign merchants and faiths, including Nestorian Christians, Muslims, Zoroastrians, Manicheans, and Buddhists. The city declined later but has some splendid sights and a thriving tourist economy.

Visitors' checklist

  • 744 miles (1,200 km) SW of Beijing
  • 8,000,000
  • Xiguan Airport, Xianyang 25 miles (40 km)
  • Xi'an Train Station
  • Xi'an Bus Station, CAAC (buses to airport), West Bus Station
  • Xi'an CITS 029 852 23170

Tourist Information

A view of the South Gate, Xi'an City Walls
A view of the South Gate,
Xi'an City Walls

Xi'an City Walls

  • Spring and summer: 8am–7pm; autumn and winter: 8:30am–5pm

Unlike many city walls in China, including Beijing's mighty ramparts – now mostly flattened – Xi'an's walls are still intact, forming a 9-mile (14-km) long rectangle around the city center. In 1370, during the reign of Hongwu, the first Ming emperor, these walls were built on the foundations of the Tang imperial palace, using rammed earth, quicklime, and glutinous rice extract. The 39-ft (12-m) high bastions have bases up to 59 ft (18 m) thick. Visitors can climb the walls at several locations, particularly at the steps east of the South Gate or at the West Gate, for walks along the busy ramparts. Though striking in themselves, the walls are modest compared to the mighty bastion that once encompassed 30 sq miles (78 sq km) of Chang'an, Xi'an's name during the Tang era.

Detail from the Nestorian tablet at the Forest of Stelae Museum
Detail from the Nestorian tablet
at the Forest of Stelae Museum

Forest of Stelae Museum

  * 8am–6pm daily

A short distance east of the South Gate, this museum's seven halls house over 1,000 stelae – stone pillars carved for commemorative purposes – the earliest dating from the Han dynasty. The tablets bearing dense reams of classical Chinese may only interest scholars, but others are engraved with maps and illustrations. The stelae in the first hall comprise a record of the 12 Confucian classics, including the Book of Songs (Shijing), the Book of Changes (Yijing or I Ching), and the Analects (Lunyu). These were carved on 114 stone tablets in 837, upon the orders of the Tang Wenzong emperor, as the standard texts to eliminate copyist's errors, and were kept at the Imperial Academy in Xi'an. The Daqin Nestorian Tablet in the second hall may be of more interest to visitors. The stele is topped with a cross and was carved in 781 to commemorate the arrival of Nestorian Christianity in Xi'an. The characters at the top of the stele refer to Rome (or Daqin), and Nestorian Christianity, the “Revered Religion.” Branded heretical for believing in the separation of Christ's human and divine attributes, the first Nestorians arrived in Xi'an in AD 635. They thrived in the city for two centuries before suddenly vanishing altogether.

The façade of the Forest of Stelae Museum, once the Temple of Confucius
The façade of the Forest of Stelae
Museum, once the Temple of Confucius

Inside the third hall, an engraved map of Chang'an reveals the scale of the city at the height of its glory. The fourth hall houses calligraphic renditions of poems by Su Dongpo (1037–1101) and other Chinese poets, and illustrations including etchings of Bodhidarma, the Indian founder of Chan (Zen) Buddhism. Useful reference material for the study of local history and society during the Song, Yuan, Ming, and Qing eras can be found preserved in the fifth hall. The museum's side halls display further historical and religious artifacts.

Iron bell in the Bell Tower
Iron bell in the Bell Tower

Drum & Bell Towers

  * 8:30am–5:30pm daily

The enormous Bell Tower, with its distinctive green three-tiered roof, is situated in the center of Xi'an, where the city's four main streets converge. Standing on a brick platform, this wooden structure was first built in 1384, two blocks west of here, before being relocated to its current site in 1582. It was later restored in 1739. The tower, which formerly housed a large bronze bell that was struck each morning, now stores a collection of bells, chimes, and musical instruments. A balcony running all along the outside offers splendid views of the town's main roads and heavy traffic. The Drum Tower, built in 1380, is situated to the west of the Bell Tower on the edge of the old Muslim Quarter, for centuries the home of Xi'an's Hui minority currently numbering around 30,000. Except for its recently restored interior, there is little to see inside the triple-eaved wooden Drum Tower.

Arabic script on a stone arch in the Great Mosque’s courtyard
Arabic script on a stone arch
in the Great Mosque’s courtyard

The Great Mosque

  * 8am–6:30pm daily

First built during the Tang dynasty, and located in the heart of the Muslim Quarter west of the Bell Tower, Xi'an's Chinese-styled Great Mosque (Da Qingzhen Si) is one of the largest in China. Originally built in 742, when Islam was still a young religion, the mosque's surviving buildings date to the Qing dynasty and have been recently restored. A serene oasis of tranquility, the mosque has four courtyards, the first of which contains a 30-ft (9-m) high decorated wooden arch, built in the 17th century, while the third houses the Introspection Minaret, an octagonal pagoda with a triple-eaved roof. Housed within the hall to the south of the minaret is a Ming-dynasty handwritten copy of the holy Koran. Located beyond two fountains is the main prayer hall, capped in turquoise tiles, its ceiling carved with inscriptions from the Koran. The prayer hall is usually closed to non-Muslims. Avoid visiting the mosque on Fridays, the Muslim holy day.

Also worth exploring is the charming Muslim Quarter, with its winding streets, low houses, narrow lanes, excellent ethnic cuisine, and resident Hui community.

Stele Pavilion Eight Immortals Temple
Stele Pavilion Eight Immortals Temple

Eight Immortals Temple

  * 9am–5:30pm daily

East of Xi'an's walls, this is its largest Daoist shrine, built on the site of a temple originally consecrated to the Thunder God, whose presence had been indicated by subterranean rumblings. It was later named Baxian Gong, after the Eight Immortals of Daoist mythology, who were glimpsed here during the Song dynasty. The halls and courtyards of this active temple teem with monks and nuns. Of particular interest are a series of slabs attached to the wall in the main courtyard, inscribed with Daoist literature and illustrations, including extracts from the Neijing, the bible of Daoist yogis and alchemists. Other plaques are etched with curious Daoist designs, including a tablet illustrated with the five mystic symbols denoting the Five Daoist sacred mountains. On the left and right of the Lingguan Hall are statues of the guardian beings, the White Tiger and Green Dragon, and an effigy of Wang Lingguan, the protector of Daoism. Statues of the Eight Immortals line either side of their hall.

The Small Goose Pagoda, originally 15 storys high
The Small Goose Pagoda,
originally 15 storys high

At the rear of the complex, the Doumu Hall is dedicated to the important Daoist Goddess Doumu, also called Doulao, the Queen of the Big Dipper. Also at the rear is the Hall of Master Qiu, where the dowager-Empress Cixi and the Guangxu emperor sought refuge when they fled Beijing's Forbidden City at the end of the Boxer Rebellion in 1900. Above the door of the hall is a tablet inscribed with the characters yuqing zhidao, meaning the Dao of Jade Purity, Cixi's dedication to the abbot. The temple hosts a popular religious festival on the first and fifteenth day of every lunar month. An excellent street market of curios, fakes, and memorabilia is held on Wednesdays and Sundays in the road outside the temple.

Small Goose Pagoda

  • Youyi Xi Lu
  • 7, 8, 40, 46
  • daily

Southwest of the South Gate, the 43-m (141-ft) high Small Goose pagoda, Xiaoyan Ta, is attached to the remains of a temple, Jianfu Si. One of the city's significant Tang relics, it was constructed to store sutras (scriptures) brought back to Xi'an from India along the Silk Road. Its brick tower, completed in AD 709, was meant to protect the sutras from fire, which often destroyed wooden temple buildings. The pagoda's top was jolted off by one earthquake and another in 1487 sent a large fracture along its length. A tremor in the next century reversed the damage.

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