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With 6,500 years of history up Xi’an’s sleeve, travellers expect big things – and the ancient capital of China easily delivers

Every year thousands of tour groups stream through Xi’an in central China following their bobbing pink flag through the crowds, often with only one thing on their minds: the Terracotta Army. It’s a postcard-perfect visit that sums up thousands of years of Chinese imperial history in a single visit. And while there’s a wealth on offer back in the city, no trip to Xi’an can be adequately kicked off without first visiting Emperor Qin’s warriors.

Xi’an by numbers…

13
imperial dynasties called Xi’an their capital

70
emperors have ruled Xi’an throughout its history

8,000
clay soldiers can be found in Terracotta Warrior pits

1987
the year the Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List

3,100
years’ worth of history

7,500,000
population of Xi’an

1,250
years the Great Mosque of Xi’an dates back

“No trip to Xi’an can be kicked off without visiting Emperor Qin’s warriors”
TERRACOTTA WARRIORS

Located on the outskirts of the city, the Terracotta Warriors consist of thousands of life-sized painted statues dating back to 210-209 BC. Complete with unique facial expressions, build, armour and even tiny nuances of ethnicity and facial hair, the army continues to protect the emperor’s final resting place. The giant warehouse houses millennia of Chinese history in all its former glory with more than 8,000 warriors, 130 chariots and 700 horses on-site. However, most of the warriors are still buried in the outskirting farmland and are being painstakingly brought back from their long sleep. It wasn’t until 1974 that the warriors were rediscovered by local farmers, many of whom can still be found there answering questions and sharing their stories with visitors. 

Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of unified China, ordered this army to be created and buried to guard his tomb and fight his battles in the imperial afterlife, and although buried for thousands of years, they’re back in full force today. 

In peak season (March – November) it will cost you AUD $30 (approx.) to see the Terracotta Warriors. Ticket prices drop to AUD $24 (approx.) for the rest of the year and children under 1.2 metres tall enter free of charge.

DE FA CHANG
With its rich trading history, Xi’an became the start of the Silk Road, lending itself to a surprising amount of Middle Eastern influence. As a result of this trade route, pomegranate trees can be found bearing fruit all over the city’s suburbs, while mosques and intricate public works are found around every corner. But before you hit the city, you can’t go past a tray of Xi’an dumplings. De Fa Chang, near the Muslim Quarter overlooking the Bell and Drum towers, is an age-old restaurant famed for its dumpling feasts (a must in Xi’an). In no time, dumplings will be ferried out on trays and plates; but these aren’t your ordinary Chinese dumplings. Not content with typical dim sum forms, these are shaped into rabbits, chickens, money bags and more. Their skins are made of everything from buttery, flaky pastry to near-opaque film and multi-coloured dough. It’s a feast for the palate too as the filling evolves from a savoury wild mushroom duxelle to a faintly sweet red bean paste or a carrot-and-beef meatball. There are even baby pearl dumplings to be cooked in a dainty hot pot of lamb broth.
BELL AND DRUM TOWER

A full stomach means you’ll be ready for a full day of exploration. Two unmissable structures in the heart of Xi’an will demand your attention. Staring at each other from opposite sides of Zhonggulou Square like two star-crossed lovers, the Bell and Drum Tower are reminders of Xi’an’s commitment to the past. Dating back to the Hongwu period of 1368-1398, these intricately designed buildings act as the symbols of the city. 

The Drum Tower is named after the huge drum it houses. Every day at dawn the drum beats to signal the end of the day, in contrast to the Bell Tower heard chiming at sunrise. Both structures contain intricately crafted wooden drums and cast-iron bells that can be explored, but it’s at night that the pair is able to shine best, illuminating the skyline.

HOW MUCH WILL IT COST?  A joint ticket, to both the Bell and Drum Tower, is priced at AUD $11 (approx.).

WILD GOOSE PAGODA

To embrace the past in Xi’an, the Big Wild Goose Pagoda is a must-see”

One thing Xi’an isn’t short on is pagodas. And if you’re going to embrace the past in Xi’an, the Big Wild Goose Pagoda is a mustsee. Located in southern Xi’an, the 65-metre, seven-storey Buddhist pagoda dates back to AD 652 during the reign of Emperor Gaozong. Its original purpose was as a home for sacred Buddhist sutras and figurines brought from India. Ringed by pavilions with stone carvings and temples, the pagoda celebrates the scholar Xuanzang, a Buddhist monk who travelled China and India in search of wisdom and sacred texts. Entrance to the pagoda and temple costs AUD $19 (approx.). 

Its simple stone construction may lack the intricacies of smaller temples, but it’s grand. Climbing the seven storeys offers a spectacular view of a modern sprawling city blended with the past.

TANG PARADISE

A must-see site when visiting the city is Tang Paradise, a somewhat historical theme park celebrating the city’s vibrant past. Just a short walk from Big Wild Goose Pagoda you’ll be treated to a cross between the glitz and glamour of Disneyland and the grandness of a royal court. Lakes, gardens and pagodas stretch out across an immaculately maintained 165-acre park dubbed the biggest cultural theme park in north-west China. 

Every effort has been made to bring the Tang style to life and create a tableau of the rich lifestyle of the Tang dynasty (618-907). However, it’s the Royal Garden that acts as the beating heart of the park. The highly opulent gardens lend themselves to the level of lush abundance you’d expect from royalty. The exhibition perfectly recreates the grandness and prosperity of the Tang culture. But experiencing all the delights the park has to offer will cost around AUD $27 (April – October) and AUD $20 during off-peak season (November – March).

CITY WALL

Xi’an isn’t without its modern face, but it’s an idea you’ll only grasp when ascending the 12-metre-high City Wall that borders the central and most historically preserved section of the city. Beyond the old city, past a small moat and a green belt where people toyed with kites, were Xi’an’s towering skyscrapers. And behind those were the still sprouting high-rise flats. 

Pedal power is the best way to travel the wall. Pedalling along the uneven brick surface of Xi’an’s City Wall, and circumventing all the city traffic, you’ll get a real feel of the size of the ancient city enclosed. It takes around two hours to do a full lap of the wall but you’ll likely be taking it at leisurely pace, absorbing the views and structures along the way. 

The City Wall as it stands now was built in 1378 but looks remarkably new. Although its bricks have been repaired over the years, around 80 per cent of the wall is original, making it one of the most complete and intact city walls in China. Xi’an’s secret ingredient for everlasting walls, apparently, is glutinous rice flour. 

There are plenty of other design quirks too. The City Wall has four main gates, facing north, east, south and west, each with its own token animal. The north has the tortoise, the east the dragon, the south the phoenix, and the west the tiger. The outer and inner gatehouse of each entry point joins to form a square where, in the central courtyard, a tree grows. Symbolically, a square with wood in the middle makes the Chinese character for “trapped”. Incidentally, this was also where invaders were held captive during the city’s turbulent history until they met their inevitable death. 

Today, the City Wall forms a different sort of defence – one that stops the invasion of superstructures tall enough to pierce the sky. At least, that seems true when we look down into old Xi’an and see the elegant, tiled rooftops. xian-tourism.com

CYCLING THE CITY WALL

The best way to take in the City Wall is by bike. Here are three things you need to know…
1. There are plenty of vendors, so hiring a bike is easy. It’s around AUD $10 for two-hour hire and AUD $20 for a tandem bike. You’ll have to leave an AUD $40 security deposit, which is refunded when bikes are returned.
2. It will take you around two hours to cycle the entire length of the wall.
3. The ride can be quite bumpy; it’s not recommended for learner bike riders.

DID YOU KNOW?
The Xi’an City Wall surrounding the old city is an impressive 13.7km in length.