Things to Do in Northwest China
One of the city’s most fascinating sights, the Xian Great Mosque has a history dating back to the eighth century. It blends classically Chinese architecture with Islamic tropes to great effect. Rocky gardens decked with upturned roofs surround the 1,000-capacity prayer hall, which is open only to male worshippers. A pagoda does duty as a minaret.
The word “tower” doesn’t quite do justice to the enormous structure of the Xian Bell Tower (Zhonglou) rising on an imposing square base to a series of terraces and three graceful pagoda roofs. Originally built in 1384 during the Ming Dynasty, it has become a symbol of Xian thanks to its stellar views and classic Chinese architecture.
Bell and Drum Tower Square is located in the heart of Xian, right at the intersection of the four main roads running from north to south and east to west across the city. Linked by an underground passage, the square’s Bell Tower and Drum Tower are its main attractions, standing as ancient symbols of the Old City. Built in the Ming Dynasty, the towers were once used to keep time, and today they attract tourists and locals who gather in the square to marvel at their architecture.
As well as these impressive towers, there are a choice of places to eat, shop, and enjoy some people watching and live music in the square. It’s the perfect place to learn about the history of Xian and take some impressive photos. If arriving at the square in the early morning, you’ll find a gathering of locals, mostly elders, going about their morning exercises. Visit at night, and you’ll find more of a younger crowd taking an evening stroll or simply enjoying the atmosphere.
Bell and Drum Tower Square is a highlight on various full-day tours of Xian and is usually combined with other top attractions in the city, such as the Terracotta Warriors and Horses Museum, the Big Wild Goose Pagoda, and Muslim Market.
Topped by a substantial archery tower, the South Gate (Yongningmen) stands high above the 39-foot-high (12-meter-high) Xian City Wall. Many city-wall tours start here, with bicycles and chauffeur-driven golf carts available to rent. The structure is particularly spectacular when the tower and the fortifications are illuminated at night.
One of Xi'an’s newest attractions, the Xian Museum, stands nearby one of its oldest, the Small Wild Goose Pagoda, built around 707. The 15-tiered stone structure has witnessed centuries of history—a history on display in its neighboring museum through a collection of archaeological pieces, jade ornaments, calligraphy, and Buddhist art.
Xi'an has one of the most extensive and best-preserved defensive walls in the world. This colossal structure was started under the Ming Dynasty in 1370, a few years before the Drum and Bell Towers. The wall comprises 98 ramparts, each with its own sentry house, as well as 18 gateways, of which the most impressive is the South Gate.
The original home ofwushu (Chinese kung fu) and base of the Shaolin warrior monks, Dengfeng’s Shaolin Temple nestles in the shadow of Mt. Song. Monks perform live kung fu shows, while aspiring students come from around the world to train. A warlord burned the temple down in 1928, so most structures are recently built.
The 1974 discovery of thousands of life-sized Terracotta Warriors near Xian was one of the archeological sensations of the 20th century. The figures date from 210 BC and were meant to guard the first emperor of China in the afterlife. Today the UNESCO-listed Terracotta Warriors Museum (Emperor Qinshihuang’s Mausoleum Site Museum) ranks among China’s top attractions.
During the Tang dynasty, over 1,000 years ago, Huaqing Palace (Huaqing Hot Springs) was a popular retreat for emperors who ruled from the city of Chang’an (now Xian). Today, the site is home to a lake, restored pavilions, five hot-spring pools, and a hill with a Taoist temple. It also offers cultural shows on summer evenings.
Artists from the Northern Wei dynasty began carving in the Longmen Grottoes (Longmen Caves) in the year 494 and continued to do so for some 200 years. Today, the UNESCO-listed caves, known in Chinese as Longmen Shiku (literally: Dragon's Gate Caves), contain more than 100,000 Buddhist statues and images—one of the best and last remaining collections of Buddhist rock carvings in China.
The 2,300 grottoes and niches extend along the banks of the Yi River, but only a stretch of less than a mile (1 kilometer) is open to visitors. Many of the statues have been decapitated by vandals over the centuries, but many of the heads have been returned, giving visitors a more complete image of what the caves might have looked like in their heyday.
Among the most impressive caves are the Ancestor Worshipping Temple (Fengxian Si), the largest of the accessible grottoes at Longment; Ten Thousand Buddha Cave (Wan Fo Dong) with its 15,000 Buddha carvings; and the Three Binyang Caves.
More Things to Do in Northwest China
The Tang dynasty was a high point in Xian’s long and illustrious history. If you don’t mind forgoing a little historical accuracy in the name of entertainment, the Tang Dynasty Show evokes the color and spectacle of this golden age through traditional instruments, intricate costumes, set designs, and fine Chinese cuisine.
Xi'an is of inestimable significance in the history of China, having long been a cultural powerhouse and capital of numerous dynasties. The Shaanxi History Museum, a modern building echoing classic Tang Dynasty architecture, offers a time-traveling tour of the city and its surrounding province.
Xian's Drum Tower (Gulou), built during the Ming Dynasty, is set across from the equally ancient Bell Tower in the heart of the Old City. The structure's original purpose was to keep time, with its drums beaten each evening to mark sunset; sunrise was marked with the tolling of bells in the Bell Tower.
Built in 652, the Big Wild Goose Pagoda (Dayanta) is one of Xi’an’s oldest structures. While its form follows the typical pagoda style of several successive levels, it lacks the decorative frills typically associated with such buildings in China. Within you’ll find Buddha statues and religious relics brought from India along the Silk Road.
Banpo Village, a well-preserved archaeological site in the Yellow River Valley, dates back more than 6,000 years. Thought to be one of the oldest human settlements in China, this Neolithic village once comprised a defensive moat and about 45 circular mud-and-wood thatched houses—predecessors of later Chinese architecture.
Xian’s Muslim Quarter, also sometimes known as Muslim Street, is home to the majority of the Muslim Hui minority ethnic group. This community comprises descendants of Silk Road traders who eventually settled in Xian to form a tight-knit community that endures to this day. Visitors will find about 10 mosques in the area, as well as a lively food market and street food scene.
The Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor (Qin Shi Huang Tomb) houses China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang. It reportedly took nearly four decades to complete in the third century BC with a workforce of hundreds of thousands of people. Emperor Qin was entombed here, surrounded by his now famous terracotta army, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Little of the tomb itself has been excavated.
Tucked into the north range of the Qinling Mountains just outside Xian, Louguantai National Forest Park was where Laozi, father of Taoism, penned his foundational philosophy of theTao Te Ching. Travelers will find three Taoist temples within the park, as well as a bamboo forest and wild-animal-breeding center.
Also known as Guangren Lama Temple, Guangren Temple is the only Tibetan Buddhist temple in Shaanxi province. It dates back to the early 18th century but was extensively rebuilt during the 20th century. The 3-acre (1.3-hectare) area encompasses a multitude of halls and shrines, as well as a vast spirit wall and an ancient bodhi tree.
The Terracotta Warriors and Horses Museum might be Xian’s most famous archaeological site, but it’s not the only one. Confucian Emperor Jing Di’s burial place comprises burial pits where visitors can walk above ongoing excavations, as well as a museum with some 40,000 excavated miniature clay figures of animals, warriors, and officials.
Close to the towering South Gate (Yongningmen) of the Xian City Wall, Shuyuanmen Pedestrian Street is a pedestrianized lane that’s tailor-made for souvenir shopping. Head here for traditional arts and crafts, as well as Chinese signatures from jade to chopsticks, from teapots to calligraphy. The historic-looking buildings are reconstructions.
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