It’s hard to conceal our personal liking for this very deeply traditional Chinese city – despite the mass-market tourism that its charms attracts. The reason the bus-group crowds have come, of course, is the Terracotta Arrmy… although this isn’t even in Xi’an at all, but a longish bus-ride away. As one of China’s several former capitals, the scale and sophistication of the city – even many hundreds of years after the height of its development in the Ming Dynasty – still leaves you breathless with the scope and daring of the projects its monarchs undertook.
What to see in and around Xi’an
The Terracotta Warriors
There’s no way around it – you just have to steel yourself to visiting something at the same time and day as a modern-day army even larger than the terracotta one on display. The Chinese National Travel Agency make the visit into a full-day extravaganza – and in fact some of the other things on the trip are just as nice as the warriors. They take you to both the Great Goose Pagoda, one of the most magnificent of Buddhist structures in China… and along the way to the archaeological dig at Banpo (you might be interested in a few broken vases in some mud, even if we weren’t). You’re dragged into a factory that makes souvenir-sized models of terracotta warriors (this is probably the low point of the day – even the warriors themselves aren’t so acutely commercial as this load of tat). Finally there’s a nice Chinese-style lunch to set you up for the ordeal ahead – at last you get to the warriors. With a good guide, and a supply of ice-cold water on hot days, this can actually be enjoyable if you go at your own pace. But at least you’ve then seen the famous Terracotta Warriors and you can now relax and enjoy Xi’an.
The Xi’an City Walls
This enormous fortification must have been an amazing wonder when it was built… the Old Town remains encased in massive medieval walls that dwarf anything similar in Europe in scope and scale. You can walk the walls if you wish, although you’ll want some decent shoes and lots of mineral water – and a sun-hat.
The Old Muslim Quarter
It still surprises some people that China has any old muslim quarters – when islam was once the majority religion of the entire country. But this is all extremely relaxed and very pleasant – although mysteriously the local Chinese tourist agencies aren’t interested in showing you this? Behind the Drum Tower (on the City Main Square) you wander into a maze of small alleys that lead to the Bazaar – more of those faked antiques! At the very heart of the bazaar is the Mosque – but nothing like what you expect. Instead it’s a lovely oriental garden with summer-houses and prayer-halls in it, and a perfect way to relax from the bustle of the bazaar. Finally head into the main street of the area for pedestrian cafes selling unlikely-looking snack food for penny-ha’penny prices, and unusual items that probably aren’t intended as souvenirs, but you could make them into them anyhow. A set of pens and parchment to practice your Chinese calligraphy? Just the thing for your cousin in Manchester, and you can write your postcards sipping green tea from a bowl at a pavement tea-stall. Amazingly the city authorities see this area as a nuisance and are slowly knocking it down, street-by-street, to build more shopping plazas. Come soon before it’s all flattened.