Xi’An’s Myriad of Pleasures- Temples, Towers, Pagodas and Dumplings

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As I’ve mentioned in previous blog posts, Xi’An wasn’t EXACTLY what I expected. Part of me envisioned a Chinese version of Bruges, Belgium, but that is definitely not the case. Xi’An is very much a modern Chinese city these days. However that doesn’t mean that Xi’An doesn’t have its pleasures ready to be explored. It has all sorts of temples, towers, pagodas, restaurants. It’s just that they are spread out around the city and sometimes found outside the city walls.

Xian Temples, Towers and Pagodas-1Bell Tower, pictured above, is located in the center of Xi’An within the city walls. It’s sort of the focal point of all the roads, particularly the roads leading to and from the main gates exiting the city, and a good chunk of the vehicle traffic goes around the large roundabout. Even though it was a completely different setting, I kept thinking of the scene in “National Lampoon’s European Vacation” where the Griswolds were stuck in a roundabout all day.

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A few hundred meters northwest of Bell Tower  is Drum Tower. It’s pretty much the same setup as Bell Tower. In both cases, you can pay to ascend the tower and get a view of the city outside. Neither tower is really of any historical value; they’re just attractive viewpoints.

Xian Temples, Towers and Pagodas-12Both towers are beautifully lit up at night and are some of the most attractive sites at night. Both towers are open from early morning to around 2130 at night for a visit. At night, the kites came out in force and swayed beautifully in the wind and the setting sun.

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Located a reasonable walking distance from the East Gate is a small, peaceful, interesting Daoist temple called Ba Xian An, or Temple of the Eight Immortals. The temple is located between narrow alleyways, and is across the street from one of the antique market streets.

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Xian Temples, Towers and Pagodas-8The colorful walls and decorations are very different than the other temples in town and the courtyard decorations are also really well done.

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Getting to the temple is a lot easier than my guidebook made it out to be. It assumed you would take the bus 4 or 11 from Bell Tower to the temple and walk from the bus stop. These were the directions listed “From the An Ren Fang bus stop, continue east 135m/450 ft before heading south down the first alley on your right; turn right when the road meets the T-junction. Immediately take a left and continue south to the back of the temple, following the incense vendors.”

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However I wanted to walk to the temple, because I wanted the exercise. I was staying at a hostel near the South Gate and tried to fit in an early morning visit to the temple before a day tour. It was about a 30 minute walk from the South Gate to the East Gate. It was all going well, until I tried to tailor my guidebook directions for a walk and it just wasn’t happening, particularly since the maps I had were a bit generic, and there were no signs pointing the way.

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On my second try, I decided to take a taxi just so I could be sure to find it. I discovered that I had nearly found it on my first trip. I just hadn’t walked far enough down the road and turned back in frustration. So knowing this, walking to the temple is very easy. Walk outside of the big East Gate and cross the divided street and keep walking straight down the main road. The road will curve a few times, but keep walking, and soon enough you will arrive at the temple complex on your left. You can’t miss it. The temple is open from 0830-1800, and with the low price of admission of 3 yuan, it is one of the cheapest visits in town.

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On my final morning in Xi’An (I had a noon flight back to Korea), I visited the Da Yan Ta, also known as the Great Goose Pagoda. The construction of this temple started in C.E. 652, and the style is similar to some temples in India.

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Also on site, very near the base of the pagoda is a the Da Ci’en Si or Temple of Great Goodwill. The temple is Buddhist, and is very elaborately and colorful decorations, like most Buddhist temples I’ve visited.

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The Great Goose Pagoda is about seven stories tall, and you can climb the pagoda for a panoramic view of Xi’An. It costs 50 yuan to enter the temple complex, with an additional fee of 20 yuan to climb the tower. I arrived at the pagoda shortly after it opened, so there was no crowd and it was easy (though temporarily strenuous) to climb the stairs to the top.

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However, the view from the top of the pagoda, while nice, is probably not worth 20 yuan in my opinion. The pagoda is located south of the city walls, and the walls aren’t visible from the tower. While attractive, the view is nothing special or particularly breath taking.

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The pagoda itself is located in a central part of an urban planned shopping complex and park. It is very attractively located, though decidedly modern with no real traces of antiquity left. There is a nice park immediately below the pagoda and I could watch couple ballroom dancing in the park (something rather common across China).

Xian Temples, Towers and Pagodas-17Getting to the pagoda complex is easy, particularly if you don’t mind some walking. Since the pagoda is located a few kilometers south of the South Gate, and since I was short on time on my last morning, I decided to take the subway. The subway is very new and opened within the last couple years. It is very clean, modern, and easy to use. I was afraid the subway would only have Chinese signs, but it is very well marked in English. The nearest subway stop for me was several hundred meters south of South Gate, and it was only a few stops. The nearest subway stop is off Line 2, Xiaozhai. Take exit C and walk eastward for about 10 minutes. You can also take a wide variety of busses or a taxi as well to the complex. Tickets will vary by length of trip, and there are self service ticket machines that are easy to use. However, one key point, is that the ticket machines don’t take 1 yuan bills (it does take 5 yuan bills), but does take 1 yuan coins.

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While there are a variety of bars in Xi’An, one of the biggest offerings for tourists is a night dinner and show.  Pretty much all hotels will offer up a tour to a dumpling banquet/show. There are a couple different possibilities, but the best one, or at least the closest to authentic, is Shanxi Grand Opera House (Shanxi Gewu Da Xiyuan). The typical night out is a massive dumpling buffet and a show.

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So many different dumplings are offered for guests to feast on. They were so delicious and JUST on the side of too much, but I didn’t want to stop eating them. The site is a large, beautifully decorated banquet hall.

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After dinner, the show lasts about an hour and shows examples of more traditional Chinese entertainment for the region.

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While Xi’An isn’t a sleepy, traditional hamlet, there are still plenty of interesting, beautiful and historical sites to be seen and experienced in town that can enhance any visit.







Xi’An’s “Other” Tomb- The Mausoleum of Emperor Jingdi (Han Yanling)

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Xi’An’s Terra Cotta Warriors is probably the most famous and well known historical site in the area, and with good reason. The Terra Cotta Warriors are very impressive in terms of scale of the excavations, the size of the warriors, and the artistic craftsmanship of the work, particularly when you consider that they were created well over 2000 years ago. However, that doesn’t mean it is the only tomb in town to visit (I mean that metaphorically, since both sites are well outside of Xi’An).

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This mausoleum belongs to the Emperor Jingdi who reigned from 157-141 B.C.E. Amazingly enough, even though that was over 2000 years ago, this tomb postdates the tomb of Qin Shi Huang (i.e. the Terra Cotta Warriors) by 300 years. Unlike the militarily turbulent time the Terra Cotta Warriors were built, Emperor Jingdi built his tomb during an economically peaceful and optimistic time, and the nature of his tomb reflects that.

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Like the Terra Cotta Warriors, Emperor Jingdi’s tomb was lost to history for over two thousand years, only to be stumbled upon in the course of other explorations. The Terra Cotta Warriors were accidentally discovered by villagers digging a well in the 1970s, and Jingdi’s mausoleum was discovered in 1990 during the construction of the highway from the Xi’An airport.

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Also like the Terra Cotta Warriors, only part of the tomb complex has been excavated. The main tomb is still a grassy hill, and only about 16 pits to the east of the main tomb have been excavated so far. Remains of the eastern gate are currently being excavated, and the southern gate post has been reconstructed.

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Emperor Jingdi set up his tomb in a sort of similar fashion as Qin Shi Huang’s tomb in the sense that there are a series of pits filled with figurines of persons, horses, chariots and other stuff. However, the figurines are only a third of the size of the Terra Cotta Warriors.

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However, the experience of visiting Emperor Jingdi’s tomb is a different experience than visiting the Terra Cotta Warriors. Both sites are enclosed in  buildings, but Jingdi’s tomb encloses the pits themselves so you can walk over them and see the figurines inside where they’ve rested for a couple thousand years.

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The chariots were made of wood and have long since disintegrated, but the fossil remains of the chariots and the wheels remain, preserved in the dirt. However, there is a model example of how the tombs probably looked like when they were first created.

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Since the timeframe Jingdi created his mausoleum was more peaceful, most of the figurines aren’t of military origin, but rather of a bucolic nature. There are many farm animals in some of the pits along with all the other figurines  from the royal court.

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The setup for the museum is in one building, rather than three like the Terra Cotta Warriors. Also, this is a very peaceful tomb to visit. Even though Emperor Jingdi’s tomb is only around an hour’s drive from Xi’An, and on the way to and from the airport, this site does not receive nearly the same amount of visitors as the Terra Cotta Warriors. Which means that instead of fighting through crowds to get a view of the pits, and having to block out the cacophony created by hordes of tourists, you can stroll through the mausoleum in greater peace and quiet.

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If you are fascinated by historical and archaeological sites, this place is definitely worth your time. All hotels and hostels will offer a half day tour to the tomb, or you can take a taxi there on your own. I do suggest that if you are visiting this tomb and the Terra Cotta Warriors, that you visit Emperor Jingdi’s tomb first. While it is a worthwhile place to visit, it is of a much smaller scale than the Terra Cotta Warriors, and there is the possibility of feeling let down if you see this tomb after.

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Xi’An Muslim Quarter and Great Mosque (Da Qingzhensi)

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The third item on my Xi’an must do list was visiting the Muslim Quarter. Muslims have a very long history in Xi’an, over 1,200 years, and the Great Mosque (Da Qingzhensi) was founded in Xi’an during the Tang Dynasty in C.E. 742. The mosque is tucked away deep inside the Muslim Quarter, at the confluence of narrow and busy shopping streets. To get to the mosque involves a walk through one of the busiest, most colorful and vibrant parts of Xi’an.

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The Muslim Quarter is the best place for souvenir shopping in my opinion. There are a wide variety of shops around the city, but most of the stores are either geared specifically toward to the local buying market or more Western stores. But the Muslim Quarter is packed with stores selling local crafts, trinkets, art, jewelry, knockoff clothing, and pretty much anything you could want to buy as a tourist.

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There are a couple ways to arrive at the Great Mosque. The main entrance to the Muslim Quarter is directly behind Drum Tower. One way is to travel down the narrow covered alleyway filled with vendors on the first left. Another possibility is to travel straight down the main street of the quarter for a few hundred meters, and take a left and then another left down the other end of the covered alleyway (follow the signs). Eventually you will find yourself at the mosque.

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Da Qingzhensi is a peaceful complex in the densely populated neighborhood. The mosque complex is filled with buildings built in an aesthetically pleasing blend of Arabic and Chinese architectural styles.

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The prayer hall is towards the back of the complex, and it has a blue tiled roof.

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The mosque has its version of minaret which is closer to a Chinese temple pagoda.

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After visiting the mosque, it is very easy to just wander around the rest of the streets of the quarter.

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The Muslim Quarter is brightly lit with neon lights at all hours, but it particularly comes alive at night. It is also one of the best places in Xi’an to indulge in a wide variety of street food. You could literally eat your entire day away in the quarter. There are so many different meats and seafood on a stick to choose from.

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There are sweets and beverages of all kind. I even planned on eating at a restaurant, one that came highly recommended for excellent Muslim food, Jiasan Guantang Baozi. Likely the food is excellent, however, it certainly was not what I was expecting. I was expecting Middle Eastern Muslim food, which I love very much. Chinese Muslim food is radically different, offering up all sorts of dishes from all sorts of meat parts I don’t typically see on restaurant menus. While the food is probably delicious, since it certainly wasn’t what I wanted, this restaurant was one of the few restaurants I actually walked out of without ordering.


Instead of strange meat dishes, I indulged in a very tasty local specialty. It’s called rou jia mo, and it is finely chopped pork pressed between two halves of a solid steamed bun. I capped that off with some local delicacy. I don’t know what the name for it is, but it is some very sweet, dense cake dipped in honey. I had never seen anything like that before, and assumed it was pineapple until closer inspection.

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As I mentioned before, definitely don’t miss the Muslim Quarter. It is very much worth your time.

A Bike Ride around the Xi’An City Walls (Chengqiang)

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In my opinion, the second must do in Xi’An is a journey around the city walls. The walls in ancient times used to be much bigger, but now encircle what was the ancient center of the city. The walls were originally went back to the Tang Dynasty, but these city walls trace back to the Ming Dynasty, even though the city walls are now modern and new.

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In the past few years, the walls have been completely reconnected again, so now it is possible to travel around the entire wall. The wall length is about 8.75 miles or 14 kilometers. The city wall is quite wide, and for the most part, fairly flat and easy to traverse. You can walk around the wall, you can ride in a golf cart, or you can do what I did and highly recommend, and bike around the wall.

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The city wall is open from about 0800-2200 daily and costs about 54 yuan for admission. I chose to go up the wall around late afternoon to early evening. I figured it would be the perfect opportunity to see the walls and the city during daylight, but be around for after the sun sets and see the city and walls lit up at night.

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Originally I figured I would walk around the wall, which would take about 3 hours at the speed I walk, not assuming lengthy stops for photos and enjoying the view. However, I am very glad I decided to bike around the walls. It only took me about 90 minutes to bike it, including stops for pictures. Of course I wasn’t just pedaling along at a leisurely pace. There are parts of the wall that are very scenic and the view is very captivating. However, there are also plenty of sections where the view wasn’t anything special. These times allowed me to get some speed going. There was something very freeing about speeding along the top of the wall with the wind whipping through my hair and the city sights speeding by.

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The most scenic spots on the wall, and also the most crowded, are around the four main gates. The most common place for entry into the walls is at the South Gate (Nan Men), with the second most popular entry being the East Gate (Dorg Men). It is also possible to enter at the North and the West Gates, but they are not as popular. It seems like most visitors to the wall congregate around their gate of entry, enjoy the sights and then leave. Once you get past the gates, most of the wall is fairly empty, and it is easy to bike.

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It was interesting to see the city from this vantage point and provided a good view of the contrasts of Xi’An. Before I came to Xi’An, I had visions of the city being sort of the Chinese version of an old, well-preserved walled city in Europe. I was disabused of that notion real quick, because Xi’An is a very modern city. Sure there are definitely remnants of Xi’An’s rich, ancient history, but they are tucked away or right next to something new and modern, so you have to search them out.

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I could see the very modern buildings that populate the city center, and particularly outside of the walls in the surrounding suburbs. It really provided an overview of how Xi’An has evolved into the city it is. I could see the desperate poverty of buildings that could be best described as veritable slums juxtaposed against super modern Western luxury stores just several blocks away. I could see the contrast of the ancient city walls overlooking McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken.

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After my bike ride around the city walls, I just relaxed and took in the view and waited for night to fall. Once it did, the walls lit up. The walls themselves are lined with lights, along with the rampart towers and red lanterns. The city looks bright at night, in contrast with the gray haze of daylight. The view was very beautiful, and peaceful, because by this point, most of the people weren’t on the wall, except around the South Gate and there was silence around me. The weather was also cooler after the sun set, and there was a mild pleasing breeze.

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Once darkness fell, the view of the city walls was very entrancing.

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Definitely don’t pass up the opportunity to visit the city walls when you visit Xi’An. It’s a unique opportunity to see the city, and biking is a great option. It only costs 45 yuan to rent a single bike for two hours, and that is more than enough time to ride around the walls and enjoy the views.

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Xi’An Bingmayong- Terra Cotta Warriors

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I spent Memorial Day weekend in Xi’An, China. I have been to China before a couple times, and I was fascinated by the historical relics that reside in the area. China is home to thousands of years of fascinating history and cultures, some who have only been recently recovered in the past several decades.

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There are a wide variety of things to see and do in Xi’An, and one of the things that should be at the top of the list is visiting Bingmayong, better known as the Terra Cotta Warriors.

The Terra Cotta Warriors are part of the tomb of Qin Shi Huang, and they date from around two thousand years ago. After Qin Shi Huang died, supposedly part of the tomb site was plundered by the empire’s enemies, but the tomb soon enough passed into history and wasn’t rediscovered in modern times until around 40 years ago when local farmers were digging for wells In the past 40 years, three pits have been excavated and their treasures unearthed.

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The easiest way to visit the Terra Cotta Warriors is with a tour group, and pretty much every hotel and hostel offers their own tour. The tomb is located about an hour’s drive outside of Xi’An, and is located about a 1500 meters walk from the parking lot. I liked that my tour guide had us visit Pits 2 and 3 first, because they are smaller. We finished up at Pit 1, so my viewing experience increased to end at the most spectacular site.

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It would probably be best if you went early when it opened around 0830, but most tour groups don’t seem to get there until late morning or after lunch. So just be aware, if you go with a tour group, you will likely be one of hundreds of people on site at the time.

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There are three pits on site to visit. Pit 1 is the largest and most famous, and therefore the most crowded. Wait long enough and a space by the railing overlooking the pit will open up, but it is definitely not a quiet, peaceful or solitary activity, unless you can block out the noise of the people around you.

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Pit 1 covers an area of over 14,000 square meters on site. Over 2000 terra cotta warriors and horses have been uncovered so far, and it is believed that over 6000 warriors might still be buried. All the warriors’ heads were hand crafted over a period of around 30 years by around 700,000 workers. All the warriors represented the minority groups found in the empire at the time, along with a mixture of horses and military forces.

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Pits 2 and 3 are smaller and there are less artifacts to see. Pit 2 consists of a mixture of military forces: archers, charioteers, infantryman, and cavalrymen. There are still plenty of warriors, some broken, some intact in Pit 2, along with remnants of wooden chariots.

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Pit 2 hasn’t been fully excavated yet, but some of the intact warriors have been removed from the pit itself and displayed in cases around the pit.

Terra Cotta Warrior senior officer

Terra Cotta Warrior senior officer

Terra Cotta Warrior midlevel officer

Terra Cotta Warrior midlevel officer

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Terra Cotta Warrior infantryman

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Terra Cotta Warrior archer

Terra Cotta Warrior cavalryman

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My tour guide stated that Pit 3 is thought to represent the headquarters element of the military formation. Comparatively fewer warriors have been unearthed in this pit (only around 68 senior officers), possibly because the pit might have been raided at some point throughout history.

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After the visit to the terra cotta warriors, we took a shuttle bus over to the Tomb of Qin Shi Huang, which is about a 10 minute bus ride away. On first glance, the tomb looks just like a forested hill, but the hill is definitely man made. The tomb has not been excavated yet. Part of the legend is it is booby-trapped with lakes of mercury. That hasn’t been independently verified, though my tour guide stated that mercury levels in the water around the tomb are higher than normal, so it is a possibility.

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As I mentioned earlier, the Terra Cotta Warriors are an absolute must do when visiting Xi’An. Even if you aren’t into archaeology, this is a historical site that should not be missed.

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