After the Great Wall the Terracotta Warriors may be China’s most well known landmark. The rows of ancient soldiers bring a lot of tourists to Xi’An, however as a city it has so much more to offer. Xi’An was the capital city of China, before it moved to Beijing in around 905. It’s an ancient city, an as such it is a melting pot of cultures with a diverse and interesting history. Here are my top three things to explore in the city.
1. Muslim food streets
It you come to Xi’An this is a must do visit . Xi’An was once the start of the silk road and middle eastern travels settled in the city bringing their food and culture with them. Located in the Muslim quarter Beiyuanmen (Běi yuàn mén, 北院门) is a busy street that comes alive at night. Full of vendors selling tasty snacks you can eat your way from one end to the other. The atmosphere is festive and the drum tower lit up at night is a site to behold. Vegetarians beware the main street food on sale is lamb kebabs and there are frequently carcasses hanging above stalls. That being said there are many tasty vegetarian options. My favourite being ‘honey cold rice cake’ ( Fēngmì liáng gāo, 蜂蜜凉糕) a yellow sticky rice and date cake served on a skewer.
Whilst you are in the Muslim quarter the Great Mosque of Xi’an (Qīngzhēn dàsì, 清真大寺) is worth a visit. The entrance fee is only 15 Yuan and you are free to wander all the grounds, except for the prayer hall. The gardens are beautiful and the Chinese architecture mixed with Muslim traditions is an unique combination. A great spot to spend a relaxing afternoon away from the city crowds.
In between BeiYuanMen and the Mosque is HuaJue alley (Huà jué xiàng, 化觉巷) a tourist souvenir street. Full of all the classic Chinese brick-a-brack this can be a much nicer place to do that last minute souvenir shopping, compared to more crowded markets in Beijing.
2. The Small Goose Pagoda (Xiăo yàn tă ,小雁塔)
Xi’an is home two famous pagodas, the Big Wild Goose and the Small Goose Pagoda. Of the two, the smaller one is definitely my favourite. Construction started on the pagoda in 707 AD and when it was first completed it reached a height of 45 m. It was damaged in a major earthquake in 1556 and now stands at 43.4 m tall.
The grounds are peaceful and the number of visitors is small. Climbing to the top of the pagoda through the eternal stair case provides some great views of the city. It is free to enter the site and climbing to the top of the pagoda will only set you back 30 Yuan.
The pagoda was built to store translated copies of Buddhist texts, and was a hub of religious knowledge in its day. In the present the grounds still retain a sense of peacefulness and feels less touristic compared to its big brother. Open from 9:00 am- 5:00 pm daily. Located in the southern part of the city, check out the location on Google maps here.
3. CuiHua Mountain （Cuìhuà shān, 翠华山)
Cuihua Mountain is located about 20kms south of Xi’An city and is the highest peak of the Zhongnan mountain range at 2604m, check the location here. It is a beautiful area and quite accessible by public transport. Less popular than Hua Mountain it’s easy to find yourself alone on the walking trails, just avoid public holidays and weekends.
Numerous earthquakes throughout history have caused the area to have an interesting geological landscape. The sky lake was formed when an earthquake created a natural dam.
Getting out to the Cuihua scenic area takes about 2 hrs and is a great spot for a day trip, as long as you are willing to get up early. From the Exhibition Centre subway stop ( Huìzhăn zhōngxīn, 国展中心) jump on the 905 bus, if unsure just check with the driver it is heading towards Cuìhuà shān. The bus does not take you all the way to the top of the mountain, instead you have to change to another 905 bus for the last 20 mins. It is a strange system but easy to navigate. Total bus trip is less than 10 yuan.
The bus takes you to the entrance gate where a full priced ticket is 75 yuan. You can catch a buggy from the entrance gate to the lake, but I would recommend you take the footpath. When you come to some stalls look for an information sign and the steps leading up from it. This takes you via a longer route to the top of the mountain. The extra walk is worth it to get away from the main tourist route. This path travels past streams and waterfalls and the atmosphere is serene. Once you reach the peak you can take the other trail down which is shorter and winds through a few interesting caves.
Once down at the lace there are a bunch of different boats for hire and a nice walking path that circles the water. There is also an additional walk to a Daoist temple which is quite beautiful if you are up for another hike.