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Immerse yourself in the legacy of China’s ancient dynasties
Steeped in legend and full of history, the capital of Shaanxi Province sits at the terminus of the great Silk Road. As one of the Four Great Ancient Capitals of China, Xian served as the seat of power for 11 of the country’s most important dynasties. Each of these have left their mark on the ancient yet modern city, which juxtaposes towering skyscrapers with age-old mausoleums, temples and pagodas.
The city’s fortified walls are the most obvious landmark. Built during the 14th-century Ming dynasty, they stretch for 14 kilometers (9 miles) around Xian’s historic heart. Strolling or cycling the walls‘ length is a great way to experience its unique blend of past and present. Look out for the great Bell and Drum Towers from the same period, whose namesakes once marked dawn and nightfall for local residents.
Other historic landmarks include the Tang dynasty Giant Wild Goose and Small Wild Goose pagodas. The first of these is the oldest and most impressive, with seven stories and an observation deck offering breathtaking views of the city. Don’t miss the Tang statues and stone stelae of the Forest of Stelae Museum, housed inside Confucius Temple, or the fascinating artifacts on display at Shaanxi History Museum.
Nowhere is Xian’s history more tangible than at the Mausoleum of Qin Shi Huang, located just to the east of the city. Here, the emperor’s tomb is guarded by the subterranean Terracotta Army, one of the most important archaeological finds of all time. Dating back to the 3rd century BCE, not one of the myriad life-size soldiers or horses is alike.
Xian also has a thriving Muslim quarter. Come to admire the blended Chinese and Islamic architecture of the Great Mosque, then stay to explore the labyrinthine side streets, where vendors ply street food and artisan crafts late into the night. When it comes to shopping, art is a particular highlight (think calligraphy, stelae rubbings and line-and-wash paintings). And if you try just one dish in Xian, let it be paomo, bread chunks soaked in a soup of lamb or beef.
For dinner and a show, there’s no better option than the Tang Dynasty Music & Dance Show at the Shaanxi Grand Opera House. This bastion of Xian culture pairs a famous dumpling banquet with a spectacular performance that uses authentic costumes, song and dance to recreate scenes from one of the country’s greatest dynasties.