Discovering Xi’an besides the terracotta army
Many travelers only go to Xi’an to visit the mausoleum of Emperor Qin and the famous terracotta army. There is no denying that this is an archaeological wonder. However, Xi’an has more to offer and is definitely worth discovering. It is an ancient imperial city that was deeply influenced by its position on the Silk Roads. Arabic and Persian traders came here and assimilated with the local Han people, creating a unique culture embodied by the Hui Muslim community. The history and architecture also reflect these various influences. Welcome to Xi’an, meaning the “Peace of the West” in Chinese.
A big town but with a compact old city
When we arrived in Xi’an (pronounce “Shi-an”) by high-speed train from Beijing, we were astonished by the size and modernity of the city. From the windows of our taxi, we saw a forest of modern skyscrapers glittering in the night.
Today, it is one of the 10 largest cities in China with a population of 8.5 Million people. That said, Xi’an was already one of the largest city in ancient times. During the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD), it was the capital of China under the name Chang’An and was one of the most populated cities in the world with 2 Million inhabitants.
Despite its size, we soon discovered that most of the heritage and history is concentrated within the ancient city walls in the very center of the city. Therefore, it is possible to visit and enjoy the landmarks by foot.
When we arrived at the southern gate of Xi’an ancient walls, I was a bit disappointed because there are a lot of modern buildings inside the walls. I thought that it would only be traditional architecture, hence the name “old city”. However modernism has engulfed into the area.
Despite this small negative surprise, I was still captivated by the architecture, history and food discovered during the day.
The Bell and Drum Towers
Xi’an host both a Drum and Bell Tower. These twin buildings are located in the center of the old city within the ancient walls.
A good idea is to start your exploration at the Bell Tower. A taxi can drop you there or you can take the modern subway until the station Zhonglu (Line 2) just next to the tower. From there, you can access most of the city landmarks via pedestrian areas.
We were wondering about the meaning of a drum and bell tower in a Chinese city. Indeed you can find them in other cities like Beijing. We quickly learned that the bell and drums were used to indicate the time of the day to the population at a time when no other mean was available.
The bell was ringed in the morning to mark the start of the day. The drums were played at dusk, indicating the end of the day to the laborious population. Both towers were first built in the late 14th century under the Ming dynasty.
The Bell Tower
The Bell Tower occupies a huge roundabout with car traffic circling around as well as beautiful flower gardens in bright colors.
To access the entrance of the tower, we had to go down in an underground pedestrian roundabout. At the entrance, it is possible to buy a combined ticket to visit both towers (50 RMB instead of 35 RMB each).
Then, we climbed up the stairs to reach the inside of the tower itself. From inside, we could admire the architecture, notably the wooden roof structure including so-called dougong.
Basically, dougong are series of overlapping wooden brackets used to help distribute the weight of the building, especially the beams or roofs above them. You will find them in most traditional Chinese buildings.
Going up further, we accessed the open-air balcony circling around the tower. From there, we enjoyed the view on the sister Drum Tower located next door and the modern city-scape.
Finally, there is a giant bell at the bottom of the building reminding us of the purpose of waking-up the city. Too bad, I could not ring it :-)
The Drum Tower:
After the Bell Tower, we walked to the neighboring Drum Tower via a pedestrian square full of trees and flowers.
When we visited the interior, we could enjoy a traditional instrument performance given by women in traditional costumes. We climbed in the tower to arrive on the upper level balcony. From there, we could see the busy main street of the Muslim Quarter with all the food stalls and animation.
We also recommend admiring this tower from outside after dark. At night, the special lighting make the facade shine in red and golden colors. This is very nice for pictures!
The Hui Muslim community
Hui people form one of the 56 recognized minorities in China. Hui are Muslims by confession but ethnic Han, the dominant group in China. There are around 10 Million Hui in the whole China, mainly concentrated in the northern regions of Gansu and Ningxia close to Xi’an.
That said, Hui are also present in Beijing or in the southern province of Yunnan bordering with Burma, Laos and Viet-Nam.
The Hui community living in Xi’an is formed by descendants from Persian, Arabic and Central Asian traders. The city was called Chang’An back then and was the most eastern point of the terrestrial Silk roads including mythical cities such as Constantinople (present Istanbul), Samarkand or Bukhara (present Uzbekistan).
These trading roads were connecting present China with Central Asia and the Middle East through the Gobi desert and the mountains of Central Asia.
From the 6th until the 15th century AD, this immigration from Muslim people was encouraged by 3 succeeding Chinese imperial dynasties - the Tan, the Song and the Yuan. These Muslim “immigrants” mixed with the local Chinese population, giving birth to the Hui community.
The Hui population is concentrated in the Muslim Quarter of Xi’an within the ancient city walls. There, you will also find the Great Mosque and narrow streets with hundreds of street food stalls selling all kind of dishes.
The Great Mosque of the Muslim Quarter
We loved this Great Mosque because it is a unique blend of Chinese and Muslim architectural styles.
This is actually the largest and best preserved mosque in China, and still an active place of worship. We were lucky enough to visit during one of the 5 daily prayers at mid-day with no tourist around.
The mosque is an oasis of peace within the busy narrow lanes of the Muslim Quarter. Tucked behind walls, it is almost hidden.
On a stone inside, it is written that the mosque was built in 742 AD under the Tang, an imperial dynasty who was open to Muslim traders. However, most of the current buildings date back from the Ming dynasty in the 14th century.
The mosque is actually a long and narrow complex of 20 buildings within 5 courtyards surrounded by trees and plants. Courtyards are separated by gates and connected by pathways, a traditional feature of Chinese palaces and Buddhist temples.
The complex has all the attributes of a mosque - a minaret, a prayer hall with carpets - but does not look like a traditional mosque found in the Arabic world.
It combines traditional Chinese architecture with Muslim functionality. We believe that it what makes it very interesting!
In the center of the complex, there is a tall wooden pagoda with turquoise tiles that used to be the minaret, the tower from which the call to prayer was made.
Nowadays, the calls to prayer are done via a sound system that echoes in the whole district. The Chinese emperor ensured that this minaret was not higher than the Han monuments such as the neighboring Bell and Drum towers.
Therefore, you won’t be able to spot the mosque from far thanks to a minaret.
Walking between the courtyards, we noticed a combination of calligraphic styles carved in the stone stone of the walls in Arabic, in Chinese or in “Sini”, a combination of both.
In the wooden pagodas, we observed floral elements carved in the ceiling, a typical feature from the Arabic style. Again it is a real mixture of cultures and architectural traditions.
The main prayer hall is made of timber wood and has a typical Chinese turquoise roof. The roof is supported by dougong, this supporting wooden structure in traditional Chinese architecture.
There were only men, mainly senior and wearing the white little hat of the Hui community. At the entrance, they left their shoes as per the Muslim tradition and entered the praying hall building covered with blue carpets.
Unlike Arabic Muslim people, they did not wash their feet before entering as there is no ablution fountain to be seen. The prayer was led by an Imam with a white turban on his head.
With no tourist around, we stayed to watch in silence from the outside, a memorable experience !
Street food in the Muslim Quarter
Going out of the mosque, we quickly reached the narrow busy streets of the Muslim Quarter. There, we found a succession of street food stalls and restaurants offering all types of sweet and sour local dishes. The Hui community owns most of the little buildings there and most street vendors are Hui.
We tasted so many dishes, here are some famous treats:
Biang Biang Mian (Noodles)
This refers to wheat flour noodles that are hand-pulled to a long, thick and broad shape. They have a chewy texture. Most often, they are dressed with chili flakes, chili powder, ground pepper, minced garlic and spring onions. Finally, hot oil is poured on top. Delicious!
The name “biang biang” actually comes from the sound of the paste being worked on a board by the cook. You might also see cooks pulling the long paste directly on the streets.
The roujiamo is a flat wheat bread stuffed with minced meat - usually beef or lamb - and seasoned with pepper and cumin. Pork is not offered as we are in a Muslim area.
We also tried amazing fried potatoes. They are deep fried in a large vat. Then tossed in a wok with dried chili, cumin, salt, sugar, garlic, and scallions. Finally, they are served in paper bowls with a bamboo skewer for eating on the go. We did not know potatoes could be that amazing!
Spicy fried tofu
Another dish that we tried many times is fried tofu topped with red chilies, green spring onions and other seasonings.
Overall, there are so many colors and type of food including round bread covered with spices or grains, juicy pomegranates, yellow fluffy cakes and dried squids. It is an explosion of colors and smells.
We recommend going a bit away from the main touristy lane called Beiyuanmen Street. This street is located next to the Drum Tower.
It is nice but a bit touristy. We rather enjoyed walking towards the east via Miaohou Street. There, we found more authentic options.
We particularly liked walking there at dusk when the neon lights turned on, and the district becomes a chaotic Chinese place full of delivery carts, bikers, and locals stopping on their way home for a take-away. We usually don’t like super crowded places but this was interesting.
The Giant Wild Goose Pagoda
The Giant Wild Pagoda Goose is a 7-story brick pagoda built in 652 AD under the Tang dynasty. The pagoda is located outside the ancient walls of Xi’an, around 2.5 km south within the modern city.
It is now listed as a World-UNESCO heritage site. Indeed it is a key place for the introduction and spread of Buddhism in China thanks to the adventures and work of an adventurous monk, Xuanzang.
Xuanzang started a journey from Chang’an (ancient name of Xi’an) on the Silk Road to reach India, the cradle of Buddhism.
After a journey of 17 years through Central Asia and India, he brought back in Xi’an hundreds of sutras, these ancient Indian text books about Buddhism, as well as significant Buddha figures and relics of the Buddha.
In addition, he wrote a book called the “Great Records on Western Regions” that describes in details what he saw in these remote regions including religion, language, geography and history. This book has been used by many archaeologists in the modern eraa to find out “lost” monuments.
With the permission of the Chinese emperor of the Tang dynasty, Xuanzang supervised the construction of the pagoda that would host these Buddhist texts and relics. With the help of other people, he translated thousands of pages of the sutras written in Sanskrit, an ancient Indian language that he learned during his long journey.
Therefore he made them accessible to more Chinese and favored the spread of Buddhism in the country.
What we found interesting is that the Tang imperial dynasty was open to other beliefs and cultures as shown by the presence of Muslim traders, the construction of the Muslim mosque and of this Buddhist pagoda.
The pagoda is located in the center of an enclosed complex of wooden renovated temples. In front of the complex, there is a large open public square with a statue of the famous monk.
One must pay an entrance fee to enter the complex and then another fee to climb the pagoda. To be honest, the view from the top is not that outstanding as the pagoda is located in a modern part of the city.
Actually, we enjoyed more the view from the end of the public plaza with the statue of monk Xuanzang and the pagoda in the background.
A lot of wooden temples of the complex are recently renovated and do not convey a taste of authenticity. In addition, the Buddhist treasures from Xuanzang are not accessible to the public.
If you pass by at night, the pagoda is illuminated and there is a pleasant water show from the fountains on the plaza.
Finally, the name of the Giant Goose comes from a legend of two men who were craving for food while seeing a group of geese flying over their heads.
One man said that he hopes the Buddha would give him one. After that, a goose fell to the ground. They interpreted it as a sign of Buddha asking them to be more pious.
Where to stay: the new Hyatt Regency
We stayed at the Hyatt Regency hotel, a new modern property built on 3 floors. It is located in the modern southern district of Xi’an.
It was an excellent base to rest because the room was spacious and modern with a comfortable king-size bed. The hotel is a non-smoking property, which was also an important criteria for us. Still today, many hotels in China are smoking places.
We booked a lake-view room that offers a super nice view on an artificial lake surrounded by trees and buildings built in traditional style. The room with this view costs just a bit more than other rooms and it is definitely worth it.
We also really liked the continental breakfast offering both Western and Chinese options with a friendly English-speaking staff.
In case of need, there is a modern shopping mall opposite the hotel. There, you can find a huge supermarket, food courts and stores.
The only drawback might be the location outside the ancient city walls. By taxi, it takes maybe 15-20 good minutes to reach the old city within the walls. Chinese cities are so huge that taxis are often needed anyway and the hotel was just great!
Finally, the hotel is not far from the freeway to go to the Mausoleum of the Emperor Qin, a must see site for any visit to Xi’an. The concierge arranged a private driver with a comfortable car costing 400 Yuan (58 $) for the whole trip.
Regarding taxis, hotels always give guest a business card with the address written in Mandarin for the drivers who mostly don’t speak English.
Get souvenirs in Shuyuanmen street
If you look for Chinese handicraft and for a traditional street, the Shuyuanmen Street near the south gate of the ancient walls is for you.
The “entrance” is marked by a typical Chinese gate. Near this gate, there is also a small brick pagoda in a garden.
The Shuyuanmen street is lined with trees and is almost entirely pedestrian. All along, there are shops selling calligraphy, wooden objects, pens, stamps made in stone or small chinaware. In some courtyards, local artists create traditional painting and calligraphy for sale.
The architecture and vibe of the street reminded us of an old Chinese city. It was quite calm and serene compared to the crowded lanes of the Muslim Quarter and the modern city.
We felt it was authentic and the shops sold good products, not cheap souvenirs. That said, there was no visible restaurant here so it’s better to know in advance and plan to eat in the Muslim Quarter.
On a square near the ancient walls, we could even observe a senior doing is Tai-Chi session at dusk. Tai-Chi is an old martial art providing health benefits in the Chinese traditional medicine.
Definitely we enjoyed spending time there, away from the crowds. We even brought some nice souvenirs back home!
We hope that this article motivated you to spend time in Xi’an before heading to the mausoleum of Emperor Qin to see the terracotta army.
Recap of our addresses
How to go there?
From Beijing (West station), we took the comfortable high-speed train (journey time around 4:20 hours). We booked tickets on Trip.com, the famous and reliable Chinese travel website with an excellent English version.
However it is not possible to print tickets at home or to receive them by postal mail. Therefore, we had to go to a Beijing train station to retrieve them with our passports and the code of the reservation.
When to go there?
Visiting Xi’an during the Fall, especially October or November, is a good idea. We went there mid-October. There is good chance of sun, fine temperatures and limited perceived air pollution.
However, you must avoid to travel during the Chinese Golden Week when millions of Chinese travel within their country. It will last from October 1st until the 7th in 2019.