Things to Do & Must-See Attractions in Northwest China
The 1974 discovery of thousands of life-sized Terracotta Warriors near Xian was one of the archaeological sensations of the 20th century. The figures date from 210 BC and were meant to guard the first emperor of China in the afterlife.
A huge statue of the emperor now guards the entrance to the Terracotta Warriors and Horses Museum, undeniable high point of any trip to Xian. To avoid disturbing these priceless treasures, they were left in situ with enormous structures now shielding them from the elements.
Three enormous pits are filled with row upon row of these remarkable effigies, with the first pit alone holding some 6,000 examples in excellent condition. There is a fourth exhibition space which holds other pieces found here, including bronze horses and chariots.
While the Big Wild Goose Pagoda - or Dayanta - follows the familiar pagoda format of successive levels diminishing in size the higher they get, this solid stone tower is largely free of the frills associated with such buildings. One of Xian’s oldest structures, it was built in 652 and originally had 10 levels, though the top 3 were later lost in an earthquake.
The pagoda played an important role in the spread of Buddhism in China. Relics, figurines and writings associated with the Buddha were brought here from India along the Silk Road which ends in Xian. You can still see statues of the Buddha and other religious figures inside.
The Ancient City Wall at in Xi'an is one of the best-preserved city walls in China. It was built in the 14th century during the Ming Dynasty, under the regime of Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang, and expanded upon from walls remaining from the Tang Dynasty. Visitors can either cycle or walk along the Ancient City Wall, which is almost 14 kilometers long and takes around three hours at a leisurely pace. The site features a moat, a drawbridge, the main towers, watchtowers, and gates, all of which combine to depict an impressive ancient defense system.
The South Gate is situated near the Bell Tower and is widely considered to be the most significant, with greeting ceremonies by the government held in the South Gate Square, which has recently been restored. Like the other gates, the South Gate features three towers – the gate tower, which holds the drawbridge, the narrow tower and the main tower.
While the terra cotta warriors have been mostly excavated, their entombed emperor has been resting undisturbed in his mausoleum of underground caverns for over two millennia. Emperor Qin Shi Huang, born in 259 B.C., was China’s first emperor. He conquered six warring kingdoms, joined them and created the first unified nation of China – something no one had managed before. When he died, Qin was buried with the usual artifacts and even live people such as concubines, armies and servants, which was a custom at the time and supposed to be useful in the afterlife. Additionally, and maybe most famously, he was also buried with their clay replicas.
The mausoleum is part of the Emperor Qin Shi Huang's Mausoleum Site Park, which includes a garden, the museum with the terracotta warriors and horses, and Quin’s tomb itself, which can so far only be imagined.
Banpo Village, Banpo Bowuguan in Mandarin, is a well preserved archaeological site just east of Xian in the Yellow River Valley, which carbon dating suggests, dates back to over 6,000 years ago. It is thought to be one of the oldest human settlements in China. This Neolithic village once consisted of a ditch, a defensive moat against animals and intruders as well as about 45 circular mud and wood houses with thatched roofs, that can be seen as the predecessors of later Chinese architecture. This prehistoric archaeological site is highly contrasted by the modern apartment and office buildings, busy roads and factories surrounding it and shows a gap spanning millennia. When entering the museum, it feels a bit like time travelling to when Chinese civilization began, with artfully crafted and painted pottery instead of the tacky souvenirs sold outside.
Built in 742 during the Tang Dynasty, the Great Mosque in Xian is one of China’s oldest and largest mosques. As it stands today, most of the mosque structures date back to the Ming and Qing Dynasties and display an interesting mix of Islamic and Chinese architectural influences. The central minaret, for example, resembles a pagoda, and while the Great Mosque has the layout of a traditional Chinese Buddhist temple, it’s adorned with Arabic calligraphy and sits on an east-west axis in order to face Mecca.
While non-Muslims are not permitted to enter the main prayer hall, they are free to explore the first four courtyards and their gardens, archways and monumental gates. Surrounding the Great Mosque, which can be a bit tricky to find, is a bustling Muslim Quarter filled with souvenir stores and food vendors selling kebabs and other Chinese Muslim specialties.
The word “tower” doesn’t quite do justice to the enormous structure of the Xian Bell Tower - or Zhonglou, rising on an imposing square base to a series of terraces and three graceful pagoda roofs. This is nothing less than the symbol of Xian, positioned at the meeting point of its north-south and east-west axes. Originally built in 1384 under the mighty Ming Dynasty, it was subsequently moved to ensure it retained its central position, with its base later rebuilt.
Enjoy great views of central Xian from this masterpiece of classical Chinese architecture. You can still see the original bell here, though it’s no longer rung to announce the dawn (not that you would hear it over the traffic anyway); instead you can enjoy regular musical performances on a variety of smaller bells.
More Things to Do in Northwest China
The Drum Tower - or Gulou - was built during the Ming Dynasty, just a few years before the neighboring Bell Tower. It is largely in the same style as that building, though in a rectangular rather than a square format. From here sunset was marked by the beat of the drum, sunrise having been announced in the Bell Tower. Drums are a big deal here, in fact China’s biggest percussion instrument sits in the building’s center. There’s a smaller drum which you can beat three times for good luck (for a fee). Or leave it to the professionals, with regular performances of pounding beats and dancing.
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, and replaced an earlier wall which encompassed a much larger area.
You can get an idea of the Xian City Wall's - or Chengqiang - extraordinary thickness on the wide terrace which surmounts it. There are 98 ramparts, each with its own sentry house, as well as 18 gateways, of which the most impressive is the South Gate. The huge rectangle is further encompassed by a moat, showing the builders were leaving nothing to chance. This is now complemented with charming landscaped gardens.
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