The historic Chinese city of Xian is most famous for the terracotta warriors, which the above picture shows. But as one of China’s four greatest capitals, it boasts many other major historical sites that are well worth visiting as well. I went to three of these places the day after I arrived, including a world-class museum and a massive city wall that completely surrounds the city center.
On my second day, I woke up to a completely grey outside. This was the enormous grey haze that had swept in from the North, having enveloped Beijing for days. Fog or not, I had a whole day to check out Xian so I headed out to the Shaanxi Historical Museum and Big Goose Pagoda. These two places are located near each other which made it really convenient to fit into my travel itinerary; likewise the Small Goose Pagoda and Xian Museum are near each other. These two places are located further south, and outside the City Wall which surrounds downtown Xian and the Bell and Drum Towers. I took the subway at Beidajie and got out 5 stops later at Xiaozai station. The intersection was crowned with a four-way pedestrian overpass and after crossing that, I reached the museum in about 10 minutes. I saw to my horror a long line stretching out of the museum onto the streetwalk outside, which easily had several hundred people. However I learned these were the people lining up for the free tickets, and that I could instead buy a ticket for R20 which would also let me visit a special exhibit. Well, it was a quick decision of course. I quickly bought that ticket literally in a minute because this line was just a handful of people.
The museum was a large traditional Chinese pavilion topped by two
layers of traditional roofs with curved tiles. The museum proper was fronted by an archway and a courtyard. The building didn’t look very new and reminded me of the Nanjing Museum, which I visited last year. Entering the museum, one is greeted by an impressively large lion statue. The museum was packed with people which I found out as soon as I stepped into one of the galleries. There was a huge map of Shaanxi near the entrance and as I overheard a father showing his young son the map “Let dad show you where us Shaanxi people …”, I felt a little envious of them. Sure, my ancestral provinces have a lot of history too but Shaanxi really went back thousands of years ago. I was struck by the exhibits and the immense history on display. I enjoy museums a lot, especially Chinese ones, but what made this one special was that basically everything on display, spanning from hundreds to two thousand years ago, was from this area. Xian didn’t just exist for over a thousand years; it was a major city for over a thousand years. For a long time, Xian was really the center of the Chinese civilization. The exhibits ranged from a grotto of giant Buddha statues, to 2,700-year-old tripod vessels and bells going back to the Western Zhou Dynasty (1046-771 BC). There was a nice collection of the famous Tang triple-glazed pottery horses and camels (usually seen in distinctive green, yellow, and brown), of course, but the best exhibit of the museum has to be the terra cotta warriors and horses, arrayed in a large room within touching distance of visitors. The special exhibit that my paid ticket entitled me to was in the basement, one of two actually. The second one required a separate ticket which I didn’t bother buying. The special exhibition wasn’t that interesting, but it was also ancient. It was a treasure trove of gold, silver, precious stones and utensils that had been dug up in a village called Hejiacun near Xian in 1970.
The “funerary guards of honor” buried with a Ming prince, top, and a Northern Song dynasty (960-1127) Buddhist grotto which was excavated from a mountain, above.
Western Han Dynasty (206 BC to 8 AD) funeral pottery figures, top, and real terracotta figures and horses within touching distance.
After I was finished with the museum, I walked to the Big Goose Pagoda which was about 20 minutes away. Built during the Tang dynasty in 652 AD (over 1350 years ago), its stands seven stories high and its simple gray facade stands out as the only tall structure in that area. I had to cross an overhead bridge which gave me a good view of the construction going on all around, with much of the new buildings shopping centers and restaurants. I passed a large water fountain which faced the back of the pagoda, and then had to walk all the way around to the front since that was where obviously the entrance was. Along the way there were lots of visitors walking around, kids playing, and there were statues of ancient Chinese indulging in activities like wrestling. The weather was still very bad but the atmosphere was actually good. In front of the Big Goose Pagoda is a statue of Xuanzhang, the Buddhist monk traveler who journeyed all the way along the Silk Road to India and returned with sacred Buddhist texts and figurines which were placed in this pagoda. The grounds of the pagoda are actually bigger than they seem. There were even two small drum and bell towers, located near the entrance inside. Temple buildings and halls line the sides of the compound while the pagoda looms over everything from the back.
The Big Goose Pagoda with the statue of the Buddhist traveler-monk Xuanzhang in front, top, and a chui tang (blown candy) vendor doing his thing on the street outside the Shaanxi Museum.
I went into the pagoda, which required paying another entrance fee, and walked up the wooden steps to the top. It wasn’t very spacious inside, with basically each floor arranged in square cross, with a centre space and small hallways leading windows at all four points. I managed to catch a water fountain show from on top, at the same fountain I had passed earlier. This would have been a good vantage point to look out over Xian, but the air was still depressingly grey and it wouldn’t improve at all that day. The pagoda’s interior was a little disappointing but the grounds were quite pleasant and there was a nice, calm atmosphere inside that was a big contrast to the bustling construction and crowds outside. There were some nicely tended lawns and gardens with trees and a small pagoda forest consisting of 15-feet-high stone pagodas.
My next destination was the City Wall, which is the largest such wall in China and probably the world. I walked back to Xiaozhai station and got off three stops north at Yongninmen station, where the South (Yongning) Gate was. I walked to the entrance, crossing a bridge over a small moat. I bought a ticket and walked inside, where there was an open courtyard surrounded by walls over 30-feet high tall, with guard pavilion several storeys high on two sides of the walls. At this gate, there was a barbican (fortified gateway) and an arrow tower. When I got up onto the wall proper, it was as wide and large as info and pictures on the web showed. The wall was wide enough for two cars to drive across side by side and long enough to stretch into the horizon. Travel writers and travelers aren’t joking when they say it takes about four hours to walk the entire wall.
I walked to the east, passing a couple of smaller gates. On the left, there was a neighborhood of well-maintained old houses. On closer inspection, several bars and hostels were in these houses. This was part of an old town, which I had never heard of before, likely near or inside Shiyuanman Street. At fixed distances, there were two-storey watch towers. One housed a tourism office, where I got a free English map, while others housed souvenir stores and even a bicycle exhibition. There were a good number of people, though I wouldn’t say it was too much. A fair amount of people whizzed past on bikes, which you could rent, including even tandem bikes (ones where two or more people sit on and pedal in unison) and these people seemed to be having a great time. If it wasn’t for the bad air, I would have wanted to bike. Along the way, signs described the history behind the surrounding neighborhoods where princes or court officials lived. Interestingly, and ironically given the recent Diaoyutai anti-Japanese protests, I saw two signs commemorating Japanese scholars who had lived in Xian, including Abe Nakamaro/Chao Heng (698-770) who served the Tang in several administrative positions!
Inside the entrance to South Gate where the imposing Arrow Tower greets you, top, and part of the park that’s situated right outside the city wall.
It took about half an hour to walk from the South Gate (which was the middle of the south portion of the wall) to the SouthEast corner, then another half an hour to the Eastern Changle Gate, where just like at South Gate, two massive pavilions, the “zhalou” and the “jianlou” (Arrow Tower) overlooked the gate entrance. A selection of ancient siege weapons like cannons and catapults stood at one side of the wall, while tour buses filled the courtyard below. The Arrow Tower housed an exhibition of photos of Xian in the past century. At this point it was already almost 5.30 and I decided to turn back. I had actually wanted to turn back earlier, since the haze was terrible, but I wanted to stay late enough to see the night lights turn on on the wall. It was funny, the haze, since it was grey and obscured your views of the distance on all sides, but in the immediate vicinity, the view was clear enough. It started to get dark but it wasn’t until about 6.30 that the lantern lights that lined the sides of the wall were turned on. It was a lovely sight, especially the watch towers and gate buildings which were all lit up in bright yellow and blue lights. When I left the City Wall, there were only a handful of people around and the entrance through which I had entered was closed. I exited the North entrance of the South Gate with the lit-up Arrow tower a beautiful sight looking back. This nice feeling gave way to some fear because in front of the curb was a roundabout. To reach the street ahead required crossing the roundabout and I did this quickly but had to stop before I could cross the street to get to the sidewalk. I almost got hit by a car and luckily I spotted other people crossing the other side, so I ran across to them and crossed with them. I walked on the street heading directly north to the Bell Tower and it was awfully busy. The sidewalks were filled with vendors selling clothing, food, and accessories, and passsersby. When I reached the Bell Tower, I took the subway back to my hotel and bought biangbiang noodles (thick spicy noodles that were a Xian trademark dish) and a roujiamo at a Chinese fast food chain I had went to the night before. I’d spent the whole day walking and it was an intense relief to return to my hotel. The only bad thing was getting two calls late at night from women offering massages, who when I refused, stressed they were beauties (我們是美女, ah!). It’s ok, I said, I don’t want. I wanted none of this and plus, I had to get up early the next day to get to Huashan.
A neighborhood of renovated ancient houses lay just inside the South Gate, to the West.
Arrow tower at the East Changle Gate.
A map showing Xuanzhang’s travels along the Silk Road to India, top, and a view from inside the Big Goose Pagoda of the entrance, which is in the middle. The top half of this picture shows the amount of heavy development which are mostly restaurants, stores, and hotels.