Discover Xian, the fascinating birthplace of one of the world’s greatest civilisations.
Locals believe that one who has not seen the terracotta warriors, has not truly experienced Xian.
Home to an array of ancient ruins, museums and cultural relics, China’s oldest city, Xian, represents the bedrock of Chinese culture. The most famous, and among the country’s best-loved attractions, is the Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor. Locals believe that one who has not seen the terracotta warriors, has not truly experienced Xian.
The architectural ensemble mirrors the urban plan of the capital, Xianyang, and is the largest preserved mausoleum of its kind in the nation. The first Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, began planning his burial place even before rising to supreme power, the construction gaining momentum with each political and military success.
The proclamation of the Empire of Ten Thousand Generations in 221 served as catalyst for final building stage, where 700,000 workers were tasked with creating the subterranean city, modelled to scale after the palace and empire. Booby-trapped to discourage tomb robbers, its treasures were shielded by a progressive system of automatically triggered weapons.
Of the three pits, Pit 1 is the most impressive, containing an army of 1,087 warriors, the infantry and cavalry corps, with archers safeguarding the flanks. Pits 2 and 3 contain warriors, carts and horses, officers and dignitaries – each of the figures completely unique, from intricate facial features to hairstyles denoting rank. The statue army is thought to reflect the exact number of imperial guards, demonstrating the meticulous precision in the vast undertaking.
It’s worthwhile arranging a guided tour guide of the UNESCO world cultural heritage site through Shangri-La Hotel, Xian, whose guides are extremely knowledgeable. Accustomed to making daily trips throughout peak tourist season, they know every inch of the tomb, best photo angles included, to ensure that visitors experience the stunning archaeological reserve in it entirety.
If the excursion has worked up an appetite, the best place to refuel is Muslim Quarter, back in the heart of town, famous for its beef rou jia mo – China’s answer to the big mac, and liang pi, cold noodles drizzled in a peanut and chilli sauce. It's as much a feast for the eyes, particularly at night, when the streets transform into a clamorous feeding frenzy of heaving queues, mouth-watering aromas and tendrils of smoke.
It’s also a great place to people-watch, as the hub of the Chinese-Muslim community, where Iranian, Iraqi and Afghan merchants settled after travelling along the Silk Road. The eclectic fare reflects the mishmash of cultural influences, ranging from yang rou pao mo, a mutton noodle soup topped with crumbled unleavened bread, to dumplings in every imaginable colour, shape and size.
Those with a sweet tooth also have plenty to indulge in. Try the feng mi liang gao, cold honey glutinous rice smothered in a date sauce, sesame seeds and topped with ground nuts. Stands selling jing gao, glutinous rice lollipops, were equally well patronised, steamed in wooden moulds before being lathered in rose water, crushed nuts, sesame and sugar.
Walk off the spread by exploring the Xian City Wall, one of the largest and best-preserved ancient military defensive systems in the world. Built by the first emperor of the Ming Dynasty, Zhu Yuanzhang, during the 14th Century Ming Dynasty, the 13.6 kilometre wall stands at 12 metres tall, surrounded by a deep moat, and features 98 ramparts, each with its own sentry. Bikes are available for rental, while a complete loop of the wall on foot takes more than four hours.
Art lovers may wish to skip the workout and head to the adjacent Shuyanmen Ancient Culture Street, to browse calligraphy and traditional paintings by lauded local artists. More than 100 shops are dedicated to peddling the instruments of the four treasures of study in the Ming and Qing styles, comprising stone inscription rubbings, art and ancient seals.
Other famous Xian icons also include the Drum and Bell towers, situated in the heart of the commercial district. In ancient times, the bells were chimed throughout the day so that local officials could keep track of the time when completing their duties. Today the towers have been transformed into museums, where visitors can admire the wooden structures adorned with colourful paintings and glazed tiled rooftops. Despite the city’s cosmopolitan vibe, its former glory is never far from memory.