ike a lot of destinations, the first impressions you get of Xi’an, China, come on the ride into the city from the airport.
On this one-hour trip you pass hundreds of new high-rise apartment buildings. Clusters of towers line each side, and there are hundreds more in the distance to house the 8.7 million people in Xi’an. There are 37.3 million people in Shaanxi province and 1.3 billion in all of China at last report.
The sky is undeniably gray with smog, but there is a vibrancy to the road. It is full of new BMWs, Audis, VWs and a surprising number of Buicks. Chinese citizens have bought more than a million Buicks each year since 2016.
I pass through a toll plaza that looks like it has a temple built on top of it and enter the city with its historical architecture.
IF YOU GO: XI’AN
>> Flights: The quickest, and usually least expensive, airline routes are China Eastern via Shanghai, Air China via Beijing or Korean Air via Seoul.
>> Exchange rate: $1 is about 6.35 yuan.
Beilin Museum (Xi’an Forest of Stone Steles)
>> Location: No. 15, Sanxue Road, Xi’an city, Shaanxi province
>> Hours: 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.
>> Admission: 45 yuan
Xi’an City Wall
>> Location: Center of Xi’an
>> Three Gates: East, West and North. All are open 8 a.m.-8 p.m. in summer and 8 a.m.-6 p.m. in winter.
>> Admission: 40 yuan
Big Wild Goose Pagoda
>> Location: Yanta W Road
>> Hours: 8 a.m.-5 p.m.
>> Admission: Ci’en Temple, 25 yuan; climbing the pagoda, an additional 20 yuan
>> Location: 26 miles east of Xi’an in Lintong
>> Hours: 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m.
>> Admission: 150 yuan (A guide is an additional 150 yuan; there are not many signs in the buildings, so a guide is a great help.)
“A Song of Everlasting Sorrow” show
>> Location: Huaqing Palace, 15 miles east of Xi’an
>> Hours: Two shows nightly at about 8 and 9:30 from April to October.
>> Admission: Seats sell for 238-988 yuan.
De Fa Chang
>> Location: 74 Youyi W Road, Beilin Qu
>> Phone: 86 29 8767 6615
>> Location: Huayin, 75 miles east of Xi’an
>> Hours: The mountain is open all day. Xiyue Temple, 9 a.m.-5:30 p.m.; Jade Spring Temple, 9 a.m.-7 p.m.
>> Admission: March-November: 180 yuan; December-February: 100 yuan
>> Cable car fee: 140 yuan each way
My first stop is the Beilin Museum, which houses the Xi’an Forest of Stone Steles in seven exhibition buildings. There are more than 3,000 steles, which are stones slabs bearing Chinese calligraphy from every Chinese dynasty. There is also a gallery that holds 150 Buddhist statues.
The museum sits within the Xi’an City Wall. Construction on this feudal fortification was started by the first emperor of the Ming Dynasty in the 1300s. The wall is 8.7 miles around, 39 feet high and 45 feet wide, with bicycles available for rent on the top.
Also within the city wall is the Muslim Quarter, where about 30,000 Muslims live. Their history goes back to the Tang Dynasty in the eighth century as merchants traded and traveled on the Silk Road. Today the descendants of those merchants are still going strong, especially along Huimin Street with food stalls lining the road selling a variety of meals and snacks.
The next day I went to the province’s top tourist draw: the Terracotta Warriors. The collection of terra-cotta statues attracts about 15,000 people daily. I showed up late in the day, which turned out to be good timing as it was not very crowded.
Officially known as the Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor, who died in 210 B.C., the site holds thousands of statues. The whole mausoleum was built underground for Emperor Qin Shi Huang, who was the first to unify China. It has been said 700,000 people worked on it. After the emperor died, he was sealed in the tomb with many of his concubines.
The location and its contents were forgotten until 1974 when five farmers stumbled across it while digging a well. When they went to sell some of the fragments they found, they drew the attention of state archaeologists.
Excavations of the famed statues continue in three pits, each with a large building constructed over it. It is all quite fascinating, and as incredible as it is to witness today, there promises to be much more revealed in the future.
That night I attended the show “A Song of Everlasting Sorrow,” a mixture of Chinese music, dance, art, lighting and design.
The epic production about the tragic romance of Emperor Tang Xuanzong and his favorite concubine is not to be missed. The set is equally breathtaking, built at the Huaqing Palace with Mount Li as its backdrop.
My last day started with a two-hour drive out of town to Mount Huashan. A number of temples and shrines are scattered along on the slopes of the 7,067-foot mountain, a testimony to its historical and Taoist religious significance.
Mount Huashan has long been considered one of the most dangerous hikes in the world. The addition of a cable car has made it more accessible. The cable car takes visitors halfway up the mountain to a series of pathways with rails. Still, the steps are short and irregular; I did not make it anywhere near the top in my two hours on the mountain.
Back in Xi’an I had a late lunch at the famed De Fa Chang, known for its dumpling banquet. The restaurant is huge with four floors and more than 30 rooms. I sampled about 15 dumplings in a mix of shapes, colors and flavors.
In the late afternoon I walked over to the seven-story Big Wild Goose Pagoda, built in 652 by Emperor Gaozong of the Tang Dynasty, and marveled at the Buddhist figures and relics in the pagoda. The North Square of the complex boasts the largest musical fountain in China and every evening at 8:30 presents a fabulous, free light-and-water show.
My last evening was spent wandering around Kaiyuan Square, the area that occupies several city blocks just south of the pagoda. Beautiful lighting runs down both sides of the street, with statues, fountains and light shows down the middle. The spectacle combines a historical district with shopping and fun.
Xi’an is a fascinating place, and while I enjoyed my three days there, four or five would have been better.