The City of Xian


Xian is one of my most favourite cities in China.  I have been to Xian twice now and I loved it both times. There is so much to see in Xian that you can easily spend a week there without getting bored and some off the stuff is so amazing that you don’t mind seeing it twice either. Moreover, at least in October, when I visited it did not seem to be overcrowded either.  The grounds of Jianfu temple which houses both the Small Goose Pagoda and Xian’s Museum were actually pretty tranquil and quite pleasant to walk around in. Apart from the Big Goose Pagoda and Small Goose Pagoda there are plenty of other places to visit including the Drum and Bell Towers, the City Walls, the Shaanxi History Museum, the Temple of Eight Immortals, the Muslim Quarter, the Great Mosque, the Forest of of Stelae Museum (see below) and the Temple of Eight Immortals. That alone will keep you busy for a few days. 

Big Goose Pagoda in Xian
Musical Fountain in front of the Big Wild Goose Pagoda

That is assuming that you are not doing any shopping or souvenir hunting. If you looking for Chinese paintings or calligraphy, your best bet is probably Shuyuan Xiang near the Forst of Stelae Museum. Here you can to buy Chinese paintings, calligraphy or even art supplies (brushes, inkstones, paper etc) or you can even have a  Chinese seals (with Your Chinese name ingraved ) made here.  However, I suggest that if you do this be prepared to spend a little bit of money as the cheap ones look pretty horrible.

Shuyuan Xiang

There are plenty of sights to visit outside of Xian as well, the most famous obviously being the Terracotta Army.  However, you should also go and see the Tomb of the Han Emperor Jingdi which consists of a museum and the tomb itself which is still being excavated. The  tomb consists of 21 burial pits, some of which have been covered by glass floor so you can walk over the tomb and admire the finds.  The museum itself contains about 50000 terracotta statues including farmers, servants and domesticated animals, thus providing a good description of daily life in ancient China.  In addition to these two sites I also visited Hua Shan, one of Taosim’s five sacred mountains and Famen Si.

Small Wild Goose Pagoda

The Small Goose Pagoda is located within the grounds of the Jianfu Temple, about a kilometre south of the old city walls.  It is one of the two famous Buddhist pagodas erected Xi’an during the Tang Dynasty about 1300 years ago, the other one being the  Great Wild Goose Pagoda. Initially, the buildings that make up the Jianfu Temple were intended as the residence of the Tang Emperor Zhongzong. However, in 684 CE, in order to  honour the recent death of his father Emperor Gaozong, he had it transformed into a Buddhist Temple .  The  Jianfu Temple could house 200 Buddhist monks and it became the residence of the monk Yijing, famous for his translations of the  Buddhist scriptures. About 13 years earlier Yijing had set out by sea for India in search of Buddhist teachings and scriptures. He returned to Xi’an with some four hundred volumes of holy Sanskrit scriptures after traveling over thirty countries, for more than 20 years.  While at the Jianfu Temple, Yijing translated altogether 56 volumes of scriptures in Jian Fu Temple and wrote the book “Biography of Eminent Monks in the Tang Dynasty in Search of Buddhist Truth in India” 

The Small Goose Pagoda itself was built later one, somewhere between 707 and 709 AD and was so-called simply because it was smaller than its neighbour the Great Wild Goose Pagoda. Originally, the Small Wild Goose Pagoda was 45 meters high and consisted of 15 storeys. However, it was severely damaged in the earthquake of 1556 and today only 13 storeys remains.

Overall, the Small Wild Goose Pagoda has survived 70 eartquakes, a testament to the ingenuity of the Tang Dynasty architects. The base of the pagoda is made of packed earth which is distributed into a hemispherical shape which means that during an earthquake the tremors are distributed evenly  throughout the base of the temple thus protecting it from damage. Interestingly enough, in 1487 a colossal earthquake resulted in a 30cm wide crack that spread all the way up the pagoda, from top to bottom. Even more  remarkably,  in 1521, a subsequent earthquake appeared to seal the crack entirely.  Recently, however, it was discovered that the crack had not really disappeared but had merely become less visible and so, in 1965, the pagoda underwent extensive repairs. Today you’ll find, when you enter the pagoda, that the second, fifth, seventh, ninth and eleventh storeys have been reinforced with steel girders, although these have been cleverly hidden. Nestled within Jianfu Temple, near the Small White Goose Pagoda, you’ll also find the 10 Ancient Pagoda Trees, which are all over 1,000 years old. They are surrounded by ancient stone carvings, which were once part of house gates, and ancient hitching posts for horses. 

Just to the south of the Small Wild Goose Pagoda you will find the Xi’an Museum which boasts about 130000 artefacts which we unearthed from ancient tombs in the surrounding area.

Small Goose Pagoda in Xian

The Jianfu Temple and  the Small Wild Goose Pagoda are all part of the Xi’an Museum, which is open every day between 09:00 and 16:00 except of Tuesdays when it is closed. The following public buses will take you there: No. 18, 203, 204, 218, 224, 32 or 407.

Big Wild Goose Pagoda

Da Ci’en Temple rests on the site of an ancient pagoda that was built in 589 A.D., during the Sui Dynasty, and was called Wu Lou (Five Storey) Temple. Over the years this temple fell into disrepair but in 648 AD during the Tang Dynasty, Prince Li Zhi,  who later became Emperor Gaozong, started construction of a new temple in commemoration of his mother Empress Zhangsun who had suffered an early death. As Li Zhi wanted to pay tribute to his mother’s kindness he named the temple “Da Ci’en”, meaning “kindness and grace” in Chinese. It was said that even after he had become emperor, Li Zhi still took time to look out from Hanyuan Palace at the temple twice a day in order to pay homage to his beloved mother. The temple originally had 13 separate courtyards and 1,879 rooms, all of them unmatched in their grandeur, but tragically, after the fall of the Tang Dynasty,  the temple fell into disrepair once more. It wasn’t until the Ming Dynasty, that the temple was renovated. Apart from the pagoda, all the surviving halls and rooms were all date back to the Ming and the Qing Dynasties.

Daci'en Temple

The history of the pagoda itself, began during the Tang Dynasty, when the famous monk, translator and traveller Xuanzhang entreated Emperor Gaozong to allow him to build a Buddhist pagoda in Da Ci’en Temple. As Xuanzhang was the current abbot of the temple and as he was a well-respected scholar throughout the country, Emperor Gaozong conceded to his request and Xuanzhang was able to personally supervise the building of the Great Wild Goose Pagoda. The original building was completed in 652 A.D. and was made of rammed earth with an exterior stone façade. It was originally only 54 metres (177 ft.) tall and only five storeys high. Its main function was to house the sutras and figurines of Buddha brought to China from India by Xuanzhang. Xuanzhang spent a phenomenal 17 years and travelled through 100 countries to gather these relics, including 657 kinds of sutras. He then enlisted 50 other monks and scholars to help him translate 1,335 volumes of sutras from Sanskrit into Chinese. This endeavour on Xuanzhang’s part heralded a whole new era in the history of translation. The Da Ci’en temple is one of the three main temples specialising in the translation of the Buddhist Sutras in ancient China.

Having been constructed of rammed earth with a stone facade the pagoda eventually collapsed five decades later. In 704 CE, the  Empress  Wu Zetian had the pagoda rebuilt and added five new stories. However, a massive earthquake in 1556 heavily damaged the pagoda and reduced it by three stories, to its current height of seven stories. During the Ming Dynasty it was once again repaired and renovated, and has remained virtually unchanged to this day.

Big Goose Pagoda in Xian
The Big Goose Pagoda

The Forest of Steles Museum

Xi’an’s Stele Forest (Bei Lin) Museum, which is located near the south gate of the City Wall, must surely be one of the oldest museums in the world. as the Forest of Steles dates back to the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1279 CE). The Stele Forest itself began with the Kaicheng Shi Jing Steles  and Shitai Xiao Jing Steles, two groups of steles carved in the Tang Dynasty and displayed in the Temple of Confucius and the Imperial College in Chang’an (Xi’an). In 904, a rebel army sacked Chang’an, and the steles were evacuated to the inner city. In 962, they were returned to the rebuilt temple. In the Song Dynasty, a special hall with attached facilities was built to house and display the two stele groups. It was damaged in the 1556 Shaanxi earthquake during the Ming Dynasty and has subsequently been restored.

It houses nearly 3,000 steles and it is the biggest collection of steles in China. One of the most famous steles in the museum is the Nestorian Stele, a Tang Dynasty Stele that provides a record of 150 years of early Christianity in China. It is a 279 cm tall limestone block with text in both Chinese and Syriac describing the existence of Christian communities in several cities in northern China. It reveals that the initial Church of the East had met recognition by the Tang Emperor Taizong, due to efforts of the Christian missionary Alopen in 635. According to the Stele, Alopen and his fellow Syriac missionaries came to China from Daqin (the Eastern Roman Empire) in the ninth year of Emperor Taizong  (635), bringing sacred books and images.

The temple is within easy walking distance from the Bell and the Drum Tower or if walking is not your thing you can get there by bus (No.  14, 23, 40, 208, 216, 221, 222, 258 and 309).  You need to get off at Wen Chang Men and the walk 5 minutes to the museum, which is open between 08:00 and 18:00. The admission fee is about 60 Yuan.

The Terracotta Army

Historian Sima Qian recorded that the building of Qin Shi Huang’s mausoleum began in 246 B.C., when the Emperor was only 13 years old, and supposedly took over 700,000 labourers and 11 years to complete. Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s mausoleum was built on Mount Li because, with its rich gold and jade mines, it was considered a particularly auspicious location. The mausoleum was designed to protect the Emperor and provide him with everything he would need in the afterlife. Thus the mausoleum is a necropolis, an immemorial, stone representation of the palace that Qin Shi Huang occupied in life, with offices, halls, stables, towers, ornaments, officials, acrobats and, most importantly, a lifelike replica of his army. The presence of the necropolis was corroborated by Sima Qian, who mentions all of the features of the Mausoleum except, rather bizarrely, the Terracotta Army.  After the death of the Emperor in 210 B.C., the Mausoleum was hermetically-sealed and remained unopened for nearly 2,000 years. It wasn’t until 1974, when some farmers were attempting to dig a water-well near Mount Li, that Pit one of the Terracotta Army was accidentally unearthed. Archaeologists flocked to the site and began excavating the area, eventually discovering three more pits of Terracotta Warriors in the process. The warriors were all found arranged as if to protect the tomb from the east, which is where all of the states that were conquered by the Qin Dynasty lay. To date, approximately 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots with 520 horses and 150 cavalry horses have been uncovered from these pits.

What makes the Terracotta Army so brilliantly unique, on top of its impressive size, is the fact that every single figure is different. Their height, uniform and hairstyle are all different, depending on military rank, and the face of each warrior has been uniquely moulded based on a living counterpart. Originally the figures were all beautifully painted and held real weapons but tragically most of the paint flaked off when it was exposed to dry air during the excavation and the weapons had almost all been looted long before the site was excavated. In Pits one and two there is evidence of fire damage and it has been posited that Xiang Yu, a contender to the throne after the death of the first Emperor, may have looted the tombs, taken the weapons and attempted to destroy the army. Many of the current warriors on display have been pieced together from fragments as they were badly damaged when the roof rafters collapsed during the fire.

In spite of this unfortunate damage, some of the figures have maintained their colour, such as the famed Green-Faced Soldier[2] of Pit two, and some weapons, such as swords, spears, battle-axes, scimitars, shields, crossbows, and arrowheads, have been recovered from the pits. Some of the weapons were coated with a layer of chromium dioxide, which has kept them rust-free for nearly 2,000 years. Some are still sharp and carry inscriptions that date manufacture between 245 and 228 B.C., meaning they were used in combat before they were buried here.

It is important to note that each warrior was not moulded and fired as it is now but was crafted as part of the first known assembly line to have existed in the civilised world. The heads, arms, legs, and torsos of each warrior were created separately at separate workshops and then assembled later on. It is believed that originally only eight face moulds were used and then clay was added and sculpted onto the face after assembly to give each warrior their individual facial features. 

During the time these figures were being mass produced, each workshop was required to inscribe its name on whatever part it had made, which is how we know that each part of the warriors and other figures was manufactured separately.

Hua Shan

Hua Shan is located about 120 kilometres east of Xi’an and it is one of the Five Great Mountains of China, namely the Western Mountain and as such it has a long religious history. As early as the 2nd century BCE, there was a Daoist temple known as the “Shrine of the Western Peak” located at its base. Daoists believed that the God of the Underworld lived in the mountains. Unlike Taishan, which became a popular place of pilgrimage, Huashan, because of the inaccessibility of its summits, only received Imperial and local pilgrims, and was not well visited by pilgrims from the rest of China. Huashan was also an important place for immortality seekers, as many herbal Chinese medicines are grown and powerful drugs were reputed to be found there. Two famous Daoists, Kou Qianzhi  (365–448) and  Chen Tuan  (920–989) are reported to have had revelations on the mountain. Kou Qianzhi was an important Daoist reformer who founded the movement known as the Northern Celestial Masters and whose influence was so great that he had Daoism established as the official state religion of the Northern Wei Dynasty. Chen Tuan who is reputed to have invented Kung Fu spent the last part of his life in hermitage on the west peak. In the 1230s, all the temples on the mountain came under control of the Daoist Quanzhen School. In 1998, the management committee of Huashan agreed to turn over most of the mountain’s temples to the China Daoist Association. This was done to help protect the environment, as the presence of taoists and nuns deters poachers and loggers.

Four different routes lead to the North Peak which is the lowest of the five peaks.  The most popular trail, starting at the East Gate,  is now known as “The Intelligent Take-over Route of Hua Shan,”  was “improved in 2000 and consists of about 4000 steps. There is also a cable car line built along this trail. The second trail also takes you to the North Peak, but start at the Western Gate and is probably the slightly more scenic option as it takes you past a variety of caves, crevices and temples. Finally, the second cable car will take you to the West Peak. The hike up the mountain to the East Peak will probably take you 4 or 5 hours. Also be advised that the mountain can get very crowded and that most people visiting it are not really equipped for mountaineous terrain!!

The easiest way to get to Huashan is probably by high-speed train from Xi’an’s North Station, which takes about 30 to 40 minutes. On arrival at the Huashan station take a free minibus to Shengtai Guangchang, which is also the main tourist center.

Tomb of Emperor Jingdi

This tomb, also referred to as the Han Jing Mausoleum, Liu Qi Mausoleum or the Yangling Mausoleum, is the burial place of the Han Dynasty Emperor Jingdi (188–141 BC). A competent ruler Emperor Jingdi did much to improve the life of his subjects: he significantly lowered taxes and even ameliorated punishments meted out to criminals. In addition he used diplomacy to reduce the number of unnecessary military expeditions. In particular he continued his father’s policy of “heqin” (marriage treaties) with the Xiongnu thus avoiding any major conflicts with his northern neighbour.

Tomb of Emperor Jingdi

His tomb, only located 20 km north of the city, surely is Xi’an’s the most underrated attraction. While everyone has heard of the Tomb of The First Emperor of China Qin Shi Huang and his Terracotta Army, the nearby tomb of Emperor Jingdi, now an excellent museum, is practically totally unknown. The museum is entirely located underground and was built over a number of the burial pits, filled with figurines, which you are able to clearly see through the glass floor.  In a striking contrast to the martial nature of the Terracotta Warriors, the Tomb of Jingdi had dozens of burial pits filled with objects and figurines of a more domestic nature, thus illuminating the lives not only of the royal family but also of everyday people. Apparently, the layout of the pits was designed strictly in line with imperial hierarchy, and the pit locations and many of the items found were representative of the government divisions. Some of the pits contain large numbers of 18-inch or so high ceramic human figures, which  had once been dressed in accordance with their occupation and rank while others are filled with domestic animals.  Initially all the figurines had movable wooden arms, but these and their clothes have rotted away during the last 2000 years.

I visited the Han Yangling Mausoleum just after I saw the Terracotta Army and I am not totally sure which one I actually preferred. The Terracotta Army is definitely more impressive due to the fact that there are 8000 life-size soldiers starring at you. However, it is also far more crowded, which is not unexpected since  after the Great Wall it must surely be the second most famous attraction in China.  The Tomb of Jingdi was exciting and interesting for exactly the opposite, namely the intimate nature of the artifacts some of which have been beautifully excavated and restored and some of which have been left in situ in the burial pits. Moreover, because of the near total lack of visitors you can look at the exhibits in piece and quite you can take your time looking at the exhibits allowing for a much more personal experience. 

Burial Pit No. 18

In order to get to the mausoelum, you need to take a bus to City Library (Shi Tu Shu Guan) Station from where you can catch the tourist bus No. 4 to the Han Yangling terminal. The bus operates between 08:30 and 17:00 and runs every hour. the museum itself is open between 08:30 and 18:00 and the entrance fee will set you back by 50 to 70 Yuan depending on the season. 

Food - The Muslim Quarter

If Xian is one of my most favourite places in China, this is one of my most favourite places in Xian. At least in 2011 and 2012 this place was absolutely amazing. The atmosphere was brilliant and the choice of food available was mind-boggling. While in Xian I do not think that I ever ate anywhere else. You can either sit in one of the many small restaurants, eat your dumplings and watch the world go by, or you can wonder from food stall to food stall and create your own menu so to speak. Watching the food being prepared in front of you is also quite entertaining and the best thing is that you know that the food has been freshly prepared and has not been sitting in a pot somewhere for the whole day.

Night Market in Xian
Muslim Quarter - Night Market in Xian

During both of my visits I stayed in the X’an Qixian (Seven Sages) Youth Hostel, which I can only recommend. It is located inside a traditional Chinese Courtyard house and it is ideal for exploring Xi’an by foot as it is situated within walking distance of the Drum and Bell Towers, the Muslim Quarter and even the Museum of Stelaes.