Xi’an (西安) can be described as a city of stone, and from a stone city wall to ancient stone buildings, it certainly wouldn’t upset a visiting stone mason. Of course, the reason for all this stone is that this city was the ancient capital of China from the Zhou Dynasty (周朝, 1046-246 BCE) to the Tang Dynasty (唐朝, 618-907), has expanded outside the city walls to keep up with the times, but that doesn’t mean the past has been forgotten.
Xi’an, which was called Chang’an (长安) prior to the Ming Dynasty (明朝, 1368-1644), was the cultural and political center of China following the founding of the Zhou Dynasty in the 11th Century BCE, and today is one of the major epicenters of Hui Chinese culture, with 50,000 Chinese Muslims calling the city home. While the connections to Xi’an’s political past may not be so apparent, one of the many draws to the city is the tombs of a number of emperors lie outside the city, the most famous of which is the tomb of Qin Shi Huangdi the ruling emperor of the Qin Dynasty (秦朝, 221-206 BCE) — the first emperor of China — and the terracotta replication of his vast army.
Our train arrived in Xi’an Station at 5:00 AM after a grueling fifteen hour hard seat train ride from Beijing West Railway Station. While the train we took, a T-Class, was a step up from the older K-Class trains, with only an immobile seat to sleep on it proved just as unnerving. Arriving in the city at such an early hour, the subway station was closed, but this gave us a little time to relax while waiting for the bus to take in the cool morning air and unpolluted skies. After some hassle finding our hostel near the Bell Tower, we settled in for a quick pre-lunch nap.
First meal in Xi’an, featuring the local specialty, Shaanxi Cold Noodles
Going out around 12 o’clock noon, the cool morning had been replaced by a hot, unforgiving sun and almost cloudless blue skies. Our first stop was lunch, a smorgasbord of Shaanxi Cold Noodles (陕西凉皮面 Shǎnxī liángpí miàn) , rice with beef, and a fish sandwich that was almost as bland as the noodle dish.
Following this, we stopped at the Drum (鼓楼 gǔ lóu) and Bell Tower (钟楼 zhōng lóu), our first stone structures. We ascended the drum steps and had a look around at countless, as there was not only the large mock drums on the outside of the building but also a colorful exhibit of the drums of China’s ethnic minorities on the inside, an array of boldly shaped and exciting pieces with names like “Elephant Foot Drum” (象脚鼓 xiàng jiǎo gǔ) and “Alligator Drum” (鼍鼓 tuó gǔ). Next stop was the bell tower, a structure marooned on a traffic island in the center of the city, accessed via underground pedestrian walkways. While not as vast as the drum tower, it is no-less interesting than its drum laden counterpart, with the options of seeing a biān zhōng (编钟) music show, which is an ancient musical instrument consisting of a series of bronze bells that has been around for over 2,000 years.
The Drum Tower
As the day grew evermore hot, we went to the Muslim Quarter to fool around in the many souvenir shops and sample treats from the food stands. While more wood and gabled roofs than stone, the area is much like the hutongs of Beijing, with countless places touting wares found all over the China, as well as those specific to Xi’an (such as replica terracotta warriors and stuffed hand-made tigers).
Around 5:00 PM the blue skies turned to gray with rain, so we quickly made our way back to the hostel and called it a day.
This was the day we decided to take a day trip to see the Terracotta Army (兵马俑 Bīngmǎyǒng), a monstrosity of an archaeological dig found in 1974 just west of Xi’an. As we arrived late to the train station (where public bus 306 takes passengers to the museum), the lines reached all the way across the square, consisting of Chinese and foreigners alike, all wanting to catch a glimpse of this famous work of clay.
Pit No. 3, the army’s central command and the pit with the most headless figures
The army itself, consisting of nearly 8,800 soldiers and horses, was manufactured before the death of emperor Qin Shi Huang (秦始皇) in order to protect him from his enemies in the afterlife. The site consisted of three pits, all with different ranks and varying amounts of soldiers, officers, horses and the like. While pit one is the largest and grandest, the two other pits are interesting as well, as the second — which is just as large as #1 — has not been completely excavated, while the third is smallest and is thought to be the army’s command post due to the high ranking officers there. Perhaps the most interesting thing about the soldiers was the amount of detail that had been taken in making them, even to the point that none of the soldiers’ faces are the same.
It should be noted that, if you want to be safe, rise early and go to the train station to wait for bus 306. Also, watch out for people working for tourist companies advertising a trip to the terracotta army. They’ll often want you to pay to see five or so other sites before ever reaching your intended destination.
Xi’an City Wall
The third and final day was a bit rushed, as we not only had to pack, but there was one last thing that had to be seen: Xi’an’s ancient city walls (西安古城墙 Xī’ān gǔ chéngqiáng). The city walls themselves, which encompassed the entire ancient city of Xi’an — 14 square kilometers — were started in 194 BC and were finished four years later. The more recent incarnation of the walls were started in the Ming Dynasty in 1370 and were mostly rebuilt in modern times.
Leaving this city of stone was a sad event, as it seemed there was so much more to see. Alas, with the fast approach of final exams in our university in Beijing and the ever impending departure of our train, we had to wave goodbye to Xi’an.