Xi’an (Xī’ān 西安 in Chinese) was the first stop of my solo backpack journey throughout China during 2014.
The city is not only a good start for your Chinese wandering: it is the end and the beginning of the glorious Silk Road, the historic core of China and the ancient residence of the first Emperor.
A step back in time
Maybe not everyone knows that Qin Shi Huang was the first Emperor of the unified China, since he succeeded in conquering all the warring states and in 221 B.C. he became the sovereign of China as we know it today and settled the capital in Xi’an. The guy had his own way: it is said that he burned thousands of books and executed many Confucian scholars in order to control education, he started the massive project of the Great Wall and, following his delusional sense of grandeur, he ordered the building of a city-sized mausoleum located about 20 km away from the centre of Xi’an and guarded by the most famous Terracotta Army. While the mausoleum itself at the present time has not yet been excavated, the legend tells that the architects and builders employed by Qin Shi Huang were buried alive inside the tomb so that they could not reveal the secrets of the archeological site or come to steal the treasures that it contained. Now, that creeps me out.
Afterwards, Xi’an became a cosmopolitan capital (while Beijing was still a little town) and the point of departure and arrival of the Silk Road, bringing into the province Muslims and other ethnic minorities such as Hui. With its epic and legendary past, this city is the cradle of Chinese civilization and a melting pot of cultures and religions. The present urban centre is chaotic and noisy just like all around China, but take a chance to time travel around Xi’an and you won’t regret it!
- Terracotta Army (Bingmayong 兵马俑): the Terracotta warriors are without any doubt the main attraction of Xi’an. Silent and symbolic guardians of the first Emperor’s grave for more than 2000 years, these man-sized statues are so accurate and beautifully sculpted that none of them is identical to any other, each warrior has different features and his own expression. The archeological site was discovered by chance in 1974 by a farmer and its burial pits contains thousands of terracotta soldiers, horses, chariots, weapons and funeral objects crafted to follow and protect the Emperor in his afterlife. This massive UNESCO heritage is definitely going to impress you.
- Bell Tower and Drum Tower (Zhong Lou 钟楼, Gu Lou 鼓楼): these buildings were both erected around 1380 during the early Ming Dinasty and represent two main symbols of Xi’an; in the first the bell was stricken at dawn, in the latter the huge drum was beaten at sunset to indicate the end of the day. The tops of these towers both offer a panoramic view on the city.
- Muslim quarter (Huizuqu 回族区): the area in the north and west of the Drum Tower has hosted the Hui muslim community for centuries and its narrow alleys are filled with food markets, butchers’ and sweets shops, little mosques and clothes stands. This district is evocative and worth exploring at any time of the day and night: go and taste the typical delicacies of the Chinese muslim tradition and you won’t be disappointed. The Great Mosque of Xi’an is a perfect mixture of Chinese and Muslim architectural style located at the centre of the district. I got lost in the gardens of this beautiful religious complex, with its arches, rocks, fountains and pagodas, feeling like I had been throwned into another world.
- Birds and crickets markets: wandering around the Muslim quartier at some point you will reach the most peculiar, ancient and busy streets of the city. In the morning the Xi’an people gather to trade pet birds and other characteristic animals in China: crickets. These tiny creatures chirp into small wooden cages and get the attention of a crowd every day; go there and have a look just to experience Mulan‘s Disney movie come alive.
- City walls (Chengqiang 城墙): the massive ancient city walls of Xi’an date back to XIV century and form a rectangular perimeter of 14 km. You can climb from the South Gate and walk along the walls or even rent a bike for a cycling trip, enjoying the oldest buildings of the city from above. The map of Xi’an is a precise labyrinth of parallel alleys, and just at the right of the South Gate there is a quaint district of typical grey brick houses, ancient shops and stands of traditional objects, books and Chinese calligraphy kits. Most of the buildings have been rebuilt to specifically recreate the atmosphere of traditional China, but this is the right place to do your “cultural” shopping: just remember that the price displayed or claimed by the seller is not necessarily what you are supposed to pay, always do your best to bargain over prices when in China!
How to get there
Xi’an is one of my favourite Chinese cities and I would certainly recommend to go there if you have to choose your itinerary; its rich cultural heritage and mixture of traditions make it a must-see in your journey. The easiest way to get there is taking a flight to Beijing and then a domestic flight to Xi’an. Or, if you have time to dream about the glorious past of China, choose a bed on a train departing from the capital (a 12-hours trip, more or less) but book in advance in one of the many train tickets offices spread all over the cities.