4 Hours In …
The Chinese metropolis holds an abundance of ancient relics – and all without making the trip to see the Terracotta Army
1 BIG WILD GOOSE PAGODA Being the closest city to the Terracotta Army is Xian’s main allure for tourists – it is situated 20 miles from the UNESCO World Heritage Site – but there is plenty to explore in the city itself.
The easiest way to get around Xian is by taxi. My journey from the Hilton (inside the city walls) to the Big Wild Goose pagoda (4 miles south) cost ¥22 ($3.50) and took 15 minutes in some typically heavy traffic.
Surrounded by busy roads, the pagoda complex is a sanctuary of peace and quiet, and the perfect juxtaposition of Xian as it is and was. Originally constructed in 652 AD during the Tang Dynasty, the pagoda has been ravaged by war over the years, with the current version being constructed during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and renovated again in 1964, finally standing seven stories and nearly 200 feet high.
The complex costs ¥50 ($8) to enter and the first thing you will see is two small stone structures, the drum and bell towers, which were used to mark the passage of time for the temple’s Buddhist monks. There are also tranquil gardens, Buddhist statues and relics, elaborate relief wall carvings and a library.
If you are feeling up to the climb then the pagoda itself is open to visitors, costing an additional ¥40 ($6.50) to enter. The seven flights of narrow wooden stairs can pose quite a challenge on hot days but the payoff is wholly gratifying – the views from the top are spectacular. Tickets are discounted in the winter. Open daily 9:00 AM – 5:00 PM.
2 CITY WALL
Now head back towards the city wall, which is an attraction in itself. Xian has seen 13 dynasties come and go, and is considered the ancient cultural seat of a fledgling unified China.
Originally built by the Tang Dynasty, the wall was extended and fortified during the Ming Dynasty to its current grand form, measuring 40 feet high, and 8.5 miles in circumference.
The wall is surrounded by a large sunken moat and gardens, where the city’s older residents practice tai chi or play cards. If it’s not too far, it is best to walk around to the south gate as it is arguably the most ornate and impressive.
If you want to do a lap of the wall, the best way is by bike, which can be rented for ¥40 ($6.50) for 100 minutes. A deposit of ¥200 ($32) is required. Admission to the south gate is also ¥40 and it’s open from 8:00 AM until 11:00 PM spring and summer, until 7:00 PM fall and winter.
3 MUSLIM QUARTER
Walk directly north, towards the center of the inner city, for 15 minutes to reach the Drum Tower. The structure, another Ming Dynasty project, is located at one end of the city’s Muslim quarter, home to thousands of descendants of the Islamic merchants who came here when Xian held a key strategic position on the ancient Silk Road.
Just behind the tower you can find the bazaar. This snaking alleyway features an endless chain of sellers haggling over souvenirs and fake designer goods. Once you reach the other end you will be deposited back into the bustle of the Muslim Quarter, where you’ll find a host of street food vendors selling meat skewers, yang rou pao mo (mutton stew) and sickly sweet rice cakes.
Don’t sample too much, though, as a feast awaits at your next stop…
4 DE FA CHANG
Xian is in the Shaanxi region of China, where the dry summers mean there is little rice production, so the locals are more inclined to noodles and dumplings.
To try a dumpling banquet, head back towards the Drum Tower to the famous De Fa Chang dumpling house. While a bit on the touristy side – prices are high, ranging from ¥120 ($20) to the thousands for set menus – the theatrical nature of the banquet in the busy dining room makes for a memorable experience.
The dumplings come in a variety of shapes, many mirroring the filling, though vegetarians should not fear the rabbit-shaped baked dumpling, which is instead packed with sweet black sesame paste. They come out in giant stacks of bamboo steamers in a random procession of sweet, savory and spicy; fried, steamed and baked. Open 11:00 AM – 2:00 PM, 5:00 PM – 9:00 PM; 3 West Street, Lianhu; tel +86 29 8721 4060.
5 DE FU ALLEY
If you’re here in the evening, end with a drink at De Fu Alley, a 15-minute walk directly south of the Drum Tower. This narrow street is lined with bars and cafés with outdoor seating.
Head to the De Fu Lou Beer House for Chinese girls in Bavarian dress serving up German beers by the liter. Beware of the prices, though – the imported beer will make a NewYork bar look like a bargain. Most of the bars are European-themed but the whole atmosphere is very relaxed, and isn’t overrun by tourists. If you are feeling particularly brave, follow the raucous sounds of karaoke that echo up the street all through the night. BT