Heading to China in time for Chinese New Year? Xian – the former capital of the Tang Dynasty and the starting point of the Silk Road (which connected China with the Middle East and Europe) – should feature high on every traveller’s China itinerary. The eternal city, called Chang’an in ancient times, records the great changes of the Chinese nation and together with Athens, Cairo and Rome, is regarded as “one of the four major capitals of ancient civilization”. Here we let you in on five things to see and do in this essential destination – those that get stuck at home in front of their computer, only have themselves to blame…
No visit to Xian is complete without taking a trip to the Terracotta Warriors – Xian’s premier sight and one of the most famous archeological finds in the world. The army of life size warriors and horses were built for Emperor Qin to serve him in the afterlife more than 2,000 years ago. However they were only discovered on the off chance in 1974, by peasants digging a well. Today the former farmers have become celebrities and sit outside the museum signing guide books – for a small price, natch – all day long.
The famous forces are instantly familiar, iconic landmarks guaranteed to jump start a cold tourist engine and offer an amazing insight into the world of ancient China. The attention to detail is truly incredible and each face has its own individual features. Start with the smallest pit (there are three in total) and work your way up to the largest pit (home to 6000 warriors and horses) for an impressive finale.
Most hostels and hotels run tours to the Terracotta Warriors (expect to pay approximately 300RMB per person including admission fees and lunch). Alternatively the army is easily reached by bus from the Xian train station.
THE TOMB OF QIN SHI HUANG
Qin Shi Huang’s Army of Terracotta Warriors may now be known around the world, yet his tomb (that the 7,000 statues were guarding) has yet to be excavated. The mausoleum is even larger than the Great pyramid of Giza in Egypt and lies a mile west of the Warriors. It reportedly took a work force of some 700,000 people, 38 years (from 246 – 210 BC) to complete. It’s still not known what exactly is inside in the World Heritage listed tomb, but legend has it that the egotistical emperor ordered the artisans to place precious stones into the ceiling, to represent stars in the night sky, and to create underground rivers of flowing mercury. The craftsmen were then reportedly buried alive, so that the location of the first (and most infamous) Emperor of China’s tomb remained a secret.
THE BIG GOOSE PAGODA
The most famous landmark in Xian proper, the Big Goose Pagoda was built during the Tang Dynasty in AD652 to house the Buddhist sutras brought back from India by Xuan Zang – the famous translator and Buddhist monk. Zang’s travels served as the impetus for Journey to the West – one of the most well known works of Chinese literature. Fast forward to 2010 and the Big Goose Pagoda, which is located in the Da Ci’en Temple in the south of Xian, is regarded as a masterpiece of Buddhist architecture: expect to see walls and doors carved with exquisite Buddha figures.
THE CITY WALL
The City Wall of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) is the largest and most intact Ming Dynasty castle in the world. Built in 1370 to serve as a defense against the Emperor’s enemies, the 12m high walls are surrounded by a dry moat. It takes roughly four hours to walk around the wall in its entirety. Alternatively if you’re feeling tired after traipsing around the Terracotta Warriors, you can catch a golf cart that will whizz you around the wall for 100RMB.
DRUM TOWER AND BELL TOWER
The Bell Tower, as its name suggests, houses a huge bell that was struck every morning in ancient times. With its magnificently carved beams, painted rafters and gold-tiled roof, this three-story wooden structure – the geographical centre of Xian – is worth an afternoon stroll with your camera. Around 500m north west of the Bell Tower, lies the Drum Tower. Built in the Ming Dynasty and repaired twice in the Qing Dynasty, the Drum Tower used to sound every evening to mark nightfall. Today the two towers offer arresting views of the surrounding area and serve as a wonderful example of Xian’s ancient architecture.
Where to Stay in Xi’an
An elegant beast of a hotel, the Sheraton Xian – conveniently located near the 600 year old ancient City Walls and only 35 minutes from the international airport – juggles the requirements of both business and leisure guests in some style. Bedrooms – there are 365 in total – are spacious, boasting vast beds equipped with goose down duvets, tea and coffee making facilities, huge windows and well-chosen furnishings in warm woods and rich earth tones.
Well heeled clients flitter around the up market coffee spaces, restaurants (the elegant Gate West gets our vote) and lively Marco Polo bar which plays host to an enthusiastic and energetic Filipino band every evening from 8pm. On the third floor, the impressive health and fitness centre (home to a gymnasium, sauna, steam room, in-door heated pool, Jacuzzi and table tennis) club also picks up a lot of trade. All told, whatever your reason for visiting Xi’an, the Sheraton is a fine place to stay.
For more information or to make a booking, visit www.starwoodhotels.com/sheraton/search/hotel_detail.html?propertyID=475