The Terracotta Warrior Army, a magnificent and awe inspiring masterpiece commissioned by the 1st Emperor of China to guard his mausoleum in his afterlife, was discovered after thousands of years in 1976 by a local farmer as he was digging a well; putting Xi’an on the map. Since then, tourists and locals alike have flocked to the city to see the hundreds of reconstructed soldiers, horses and chariots, visit the factory where replicas are produced, and observe the site of the Emperor’s final resting place- his mausoleum – which still has yet to be excavated.
Known less commonly for having the last standing ancient city wall in China, as its more commonly associated with the Terracotta Warriors today, Xi’an is a beautiful city in itself. It’s filled with a number of local gems and traditions that have been preserved through the years, and although Xi’an continues to evolve with higher end Western retail shops, and an increasing number of local Chinese who are relocating their own businesses to Xi’an, the city has maintained its ancient roots. It continues to extenuate its preserved architecture and culture, making exploring it quite unique to many other cities in China.
Taracotta Warriors. There is still much work left to do in order to fully rebuild the army to its original size, but you can get a small yet impressive glimpse into the sheer size of this army in Pit 1. It’s estimated that the full army, plus the Emperor’s mausoleum that the army surrounds, is a little larger than two Macao’s! As of today, only three of 160+ pits are open to the public- mainly because the paint used to decorate each piece was destroyed once exposed to oxygen upon original excavation, so in an effort to preserve what’s left, the Chinese are waiting until more advanced technology is available to excavate the rest.
As you tour the site, take notice of the different types of figures within the army:
- The archer whose pose is in a kneeling position with his hair knot on the left side of his head. This enables him to pull the arrows out of the bag on his back from the right side.
- The high ranking officer has his hair bun centered atop his head, with his hands folded in front. You’ll notice his forefinger on top slightly raised, and this is to signal that he is next in line to take charge after the Emperor.
- There are both Mongolian and Chinese officers. You can tell the difference as the Mongolian officers are broad both in their face and body, while the Chinese officers have more narrow faces and bodies.
- Rank of officer can also be understood based on the size of their belly. The fuller the belly, the higher ranking the officer.
- Note: None of the soldiers have any weapons left, as when the rebels originally smashed all the Warriors, they stole the weaponry to use to fight in the rebellion.
Insider tip: There are many day tour packages available which you can arrange through your hotel or hostel. At minimum, they should include transportation to and from your hotel, an English speaking guide, a visit to the mausoleum, and a Chinese lunch, starting at 340 yuan. If you don’t mind navigating the public transportation system, you can instead rent an audio guide once you arrive, and choose from a number of Western or Chinese restaurants to go for lunch.
- Rent a bike and ride atop the wall. It’s 14km in total, which you can ride through at your leisure. It’s a great way to get a feel for the immensity of it, and also get a panoramic view of the city below. Details: Bikes are available to rent at the top of all four watchtowers. Once you climb the steps up to the top, you’ll see the bike rental shop in front of you. For 90 yuan, you can hire a bicycle built for two. For 45 yuan, you can hire an individual bike. You’ll also be asked for a 200 yuan deposit (in cash) which you’ll get back once you return the bike.
- Morning Bazaar on Thursdays and Sunday’s. If you’re in Xi’an on a Thursday or Sunday, don’t miss the morning bazaar. Start with a local street food breakfast of cold spicy noodles, red bean mochi sesame balls, and red bean sticky rice. In lieu of coffee, opt for plum juice- sold in glass Coca Cola-looking bottles at all the local stalls. Pull up a stool to a small table on the street, and enjoy your breakfast as you take in the bustle of the local hutong setting up for the day’s bazaar. Then head into the thick of the market where you’ll find everything from fish of every kind, scorpions (alive or dead), turtles of every size, and grasshoppers, to used clothing, mugwort, and painted gourds to name a few. Take notice of the dental stands and eye care stalls along the way.
- Muslim Quarter. This is a not-to-miss experience, with its delicious food vendors adding motion and excitement into the already bustling streets. It’s origins date back to the 7th century when it was predominantly inhabited by a small population of Chinese Muslims, and one of China’s busiest stops along the Silk Road. It has since evolved, but has remained close to it’s early roots. Take notice of the shop keepers rolling chili peppers, candy makers hammering and twisting sugar, pigs hanging from poles, dumplings in baskets, and fruit pops with fresh fruits frozen inside. Note: The reason for pigs hanging in a predominately Muslim neighborhood is the result of non-Muslim Chinese locals moving to the neighborhood for a better opportunity to open their businesses. The non-Muslim shop owners are the ones selling the pork.
- Chang’an Culture Road. Walk through the authentic narrow alleys to see Chinese folk art, handicrafts and calligraphy. Insider tip: If you do a walking tour, you’ll be able to learn about the ancient Chinese education system, and see a Buddhist temple along the way as well.
- Stroll around the City Wall at night to see all the watch towers and Bell Tower beautifully illuminated.
Tuina massage is performed at a few hospitals around town where blind doctors perform the massage. It’s certainly different than a spa, but much less expensive, and you’ll be supporting a great effort! Note: You will be placed into a gender specific room where others will also be getting massages alongside you.
Must taste street food
- Hammered sugar candy (the creation of this candy is as much an experience to be watched as it is a sweet to be tasted. You can see the candy makers in action in the Muslim neighborhood)
- “Chinese pancake.” This is essentially a pita-like roll, filled with meat.
- Black bean mochi balls covered in sesame
- Cold spicy hand noodles (for breakfast)
- Hot hand noodles
- Sticky rice with sweet red bean. Note: This looks more like pulled pork when you see it in a pot
- Lamb soup (may want to head to a restaurant for this)
- Stir fried potatoes
- Fresh blended coconut milk in the Muslim neighborhood
- More on foods to try can be found here
- Each night at the Big Wild Goose Pagoda, there is a free water show. Times vary from 8pm – 9pm, so ask your hotel to check the schedule for you if you plan to go. The show last for around 30 minutes.
- Join in or simply watch as hundreds of women dance in the parks at sunset each night. Details: Takes place around 7:30pm each evening
If you’re looking for a clean, fun spacious place, in close proximity to all sights with an overly helpful English-speaking staff, consider staying at Travelling With Hostel – North Branch. They serve a delicious Western breakfast (at reasonable cost), and offer free guided walking tours of various parts of the city each day of the week. They truly go out of their way to make you feel at home in Xi’an!