Xi’an, China

Central Xi'an and the view from the top of the Wild Goose Pagoda, China

Central Xi’an and the view from the top of the Big Wild Goose Pagoda. Photo by Chensiyuan.

Visit Xi’an

Xian is one of China’s oldest cities and was the empire’s capital for 1, 000 years, ruled by 73 emperors so it’s not surprising that there are so many remnants of Chinese history here.

Xi’an (known originally as Chang’an) was the east end of the Silk Road and was consequently rich both culturally and financially though many ancient sites were destroyed during the turbulent 20th century, not least by Chairman Mao’s great leap backwards.
Xian in the 21st century is a modern city with the usual downsides of heavy traffic, poor air quality and dull skyscrapers but local government has worked on preserving and improving access to some memorable sights, not least the Terracotta Warriors.

Things to Do in Xi’an

Walk the city wall

A guard tower on Xi'an's magnificent City Wall, Shaanxi, China

A guard tower on Xi’an’s magnificent City Wall. Photo by Ronnie Macdonald.

• Walking or cycling the massive 12m/36ft wide city wall. At 14km/9 mile long it will take about 4 hours to walk or an hour or two on rental bicycles or tandem bikes. Note that rentals do not happen on rainy days due to slippery bricks causing many accidents.

Those who prefer a less physical sightseeing trip can hop on an electric bus.

This improved version of the city wall was built during the Ming dynasty, 1368 – 1644. The wall has 18 gates but tourists can only enter via eight of them. Bikes are available to rent from any of the eight. The South Gate (Yong Ning/Eternal Peace) is the most spectacular and is near to the Bell Tower. In addition there are regular military shows at the South Gate during much of the day. The South Gate is open 9am to 10pm. Subway Line 2 has a stop there, Yongningmen Station.

Xian city wall on a typically hazy day, China

A view of the wall on a typically hazy day. Photo by Maros.

Around much of the wall is a fringe of recreational parks known as the Round the City Park. West Park is the largest and open to the public free of charge. It is green and wide and furnished with many facilities including fitness equipment and is a good spot to see locals doing their morning exercises.

See the Bell Tower

The Bell Tower at the very centre of Xi'an, China

The Bell Tower at the very centre of Xi’an, a traffic island with history. Pay to enter, the ticket includes the Drum Tower. Photo by Jim.

See the Drum Tower

The Bell Tower at the very centre of Xi'an, China

The Drum Tower. Pay to enter, performances throughout the day. Photo by Vmenkov.

See the Terracotta Army

The Terracotta Army wide view, Xi'an, China.

The Terracotta Army, foot soldiers, archers, cavalry, chariots and generals standing in battle formation. Photo by Jim.

• Touring the huge and bizarre buried Terracotta Army. This is the biggest sight in Xi’an and the least convenient to reach at about 28kms from Xi’an city centre, near Emperor Qin ShiHuang’s mausoleum, the potentate responsible for the heavenly army. Constructed around 210 BC to protect the Emperor in his afterlife the army, was discovered by peasants in 1974.
Qin Shi Huang was first Emperor of China, uniting the country and creating a unified law, language, weights and measures system. The name China may well be derived from Qin, which is pronounced Chin.

The 8, 000 or so terracotta figures are each unique, with clay added to basic moulds for individuality. They are life-sized but vary in height, uniform and hairstyle according to rank.

It is estimated that the number of warrior statues – along with horses, musicians, acrobats and members of the imperial court – is about 8, 000 buried in 600 pits, mostly still unexcavated. The size of the site is 50 sq km and visitor numbers to the museum can be up to a staggering 40, 000 per day.
It is thought that the number of labourers and artisans needed to create the army and Emperor’s tomb at 700, 000.

Many terracotta warriors originally held real weapons such as spears, swords and bows and were painted in bright colours. Unfortunately the weapons were stolen in the years shortly after the burial of the army, while the colours have almost entirely disappeared with time.

Tour the Qin ShiHuang Mausoleum

The Qin ShiHuang Mausoleum is just 2km east of the Terracotta Warriors Museum, free with the museum ticket and accessible by free shuttle bus.

The mausoleum is in a large park and still under an earth mound which is being excavated so there’s very little to see. While visitors cannot enter the burial chamber they can climb the mound on one of several paths and relax after an overcrowded couple of hours in the museum.

Visit the City God Temple

City God Temple exterior, Xi'an, China

City God Temple.

• Visiting one or more of the religious institutions such as City God Temple, Big Wild Goose Pagoda or Grand Mosque.

Visit the Tomb of Emperor Jing of Han

One hour east of Xi’an is the Han Yangling tomb of Emperor Jing of Han, an apparently benevolent Taoist ruler unlike the dramatically well organised but cruel Qin Shi Huang.
Nowhere near as busy as the Terracotta Army, Jing’s museum has been extremely sensitively developed with partially exposed excavations under glass, clever lighting and all sorts of regal treasures on show, from soldiers to lacquered boxes. Less overwhelming than Qin Shi Huang’s tomb, this place has a far more tranquil atmosphere and far less tourists.

Visit the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda

The Big Wild Goose Pagoda, Xi'an, China

The Giant (Big) Wild Goose Pagoda. Photo by Lisa N Marrs.

Built by Emperor Gaozong Li Zhi of the Tang Dynasty in 652AD this Buddhist pagoda is a Xi’an icon and visible for kilometres around. The fountain in front of the pagoda hosts a pleasant music/water show during the day. Pay to enter. The view from the pagoda is at top.

Visit Shaanxi Historic Museum

• Visiting the Shaanxi museum which contains a vast collection of artefacts from prehistoric times to the Qing dynasty, including pottery from a nearby neolithic village and superb ancient bronzes. The best displays are things used by the royal family from the Tang Dynasty. It’s a bit old-fashioned apart from the high-definition movies in the exhibition halls. Try to get there early – with your passport – to obtain one of several thousand free tickets given out daily.
The museum is about half a kilometre from the Big Wild Goose Pagoda.

Attend a traditional Chinese show

A traditional Chinese music concert in Xi'an, China

A traditional Chinese music concert in Xi’an. Photo by rpoll.

• Xi’an has a strong Tang Dynasty connection so music shows and perfomances often tell the story of Tang times such as the love story of Emperor Ming and his concubine Yang, with recreated Tang Dynasty costumes, traditional music, poetry and dancing adapted from original Tang art and drama.

Visit the Tang Paradise resort

A traditional Chinese music concert in Xi'an, China

Qujiang Tang Paradise resort. Photo by Charlie Fong.

Near the Big Wild Goose Pagoda, Tang Paradise is inside the Qujiang Resort in southeast Xian and claims to be the biggest cultural theme park in northwest China, offering a display of Tang Dynasty culture with twelve differing regions encompassing landscapes but also poetry, song, dance, food, lifestyles and science.

Other Sights near Xi’an

Nearby is Huaqing Hot Springs, spouting warm mineral waters favoured by emperors. You can soak tired bodies here but it’s not an especially cultural experience.

The Banpo Museum‘s remains of a Neolithic Chinese village (4, 500 BC).

The Famen Si temple with a Buddha’s finger and its adjacent Tang dynasty museum.

The holy mountain of HuaShan (aka Mount Hua and Flowery Mountain) which you can partially ascend by cable car, with sufficient refreshment stops further up if you choose to keep on climbing.

Some way to the east, 13km south of Luoyang are the brilliant Longmen (Dragon Gate) Cave Temples of marble, wood and tiled structures containing over 100, 000 Buddhist statues and reliefs 1km long in 1350 caves; started in 492 AD, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Best seasons in Xi’an

The best time to visit Xi’an: March-May when rainfall is reasonably low, sunshine hours are good and temperatures range acceptably from average highs of 14C/57F (March) to 26C/79F (May) and average lows of 4C/39F to 14C/57F. Dust storms can occur during March and April.
OK: Autumn, September – October (erratic conditions, maybe nice, maybe wet and chilly. Average highs around 24C/75F, lows around 10C/50F).

Time to avoid: mid-winter December – February (very cold tho’ dry, often well below freezing); June – August (summer rainstorms and heat averaging 31C/88F+, humidity 70%-80%), 1st weeks of May and October (Chinese holidays so attractions are very crowded) and the Chinese New Year (sometime January/ February).

Blue skies are rare and a bleached haze – if not stinging grey pollution – is likely to be be the default view.

Getting There

By train

Trains run to/from many tourist cities and take variable time according to the train chosen. The shortest time may be the quite pricey bullet train. e. g. Xi’an – Beijing 2nd class cost $84 in 2015.

Beijing: 5-13 hours
Shanghai: 11-20 hours
Chengdu: 13-18 hours
Guangzhou: 8–24 hours
Kunming: 36-53 hours
Lanzhou: 8-10 hours
Lhasa: 36 hours

Note that during peak travel periods such as holidays, train tickets may not be available unless booked a week or two in advance. Sleepers take up to 6 travelers and are much more comfortable than plain seats but of course costlier.

Xian’s station is at the north end of Jiefang Road and plenty of city buses go close to there. Bus 603 from the station will take you into the city for almost nothing but hostels frequently operaste a free pick-up service.

By bus

Shaanxi Province Long-distance Bus Station is just 100m from Xi’an railway station, across the city wall.

Buses are cheap and interesting but hardly comfortable

Huashan: 2-3 hours
Lanzhou: 8-10 hours
Pingyao: 7-8 hours
Zhengzhou: 9-12 hours.