May 2011

Old Chang'an

By April Fong

Most tourists flock to Xi'an just to see the famed Terracotta Warriors - only to realize there's much more to see and do

Best known as the hometown of the "Eighth Wonder of the World," most tourists travel to Xi'an just for two or three days to see the Terracotta Warriors. But old Chang'an – the eastern terminus of the Silk Road and home to the capitals of several major dynasties – offers a colorful lesson on Chinese history and is worth a longer stay.

Foodies, for one, will love the Shaanxi delicacies on the Muslim Snack Street. History buffs can envelop themselves in the city's numerous cultural and historical sites. And starting last month, the city launched the Expo Xi'an – its biggest international event yet – in hopes of drawing even more visitors from around China and the world to the city of "Perpetual Peace."

Xi'an City Wall

As China's largest and most complete city wall, this Xi'an attraction is definitely worth a visit. Built in 1370 on the order of Zhu Yuanzhang, the first emperor of the Ming dynasty, the Xi'an City Wall was actually constructed on the fortifications of the Tang Forbidden City.

Its perimeter stretches about 14 kilometers, and is surrounded by a moat and park-like strip. With its 12 meter height, the wall offers a perching spot above the city. Visitors can walk around the entire loop in about three or four hours, or hop on a golf cart for a ride around the wall. We recommend entering at the South Gate, where you can rent a bicycle for RMB20 per hour. Pedal away and behold views of Xi'an and its imperial architecture.

Muslim Quarter

Let the sights, sounds and crowded streets of the Muslim Quarter overwhelm you. Located north of the Drum Tower, the area – also known as Huimin Jie – is bustling with Muslim merchants running countless restaurants and shops. Check out the nut and dried fruit vendors, open-stall halal butchers and be prepared for a feast.

Try Xi'an's must-eat dish, yangrou paomo, a soup dish with crumbled flat bread, noodles and mutton. Other local delicacies include roujiamo (pita stuffed with finely chopped cumin-fried pork), liangpi (cold noodles) and sweets like shibing (dried persimmons).

Expo Xi'an

Beijing hosted the 2008 Olympic Games and Shanghai had the World Expo last year. Now, it's Xi'an's time to shine. The city launched its own mega event on April 28, the 2011 International Horticultural Exposition. Though it may not have the same appeal as an international sports competition or a large-scale commercial event, the Expo Xi'an is being seen by locals as a chance to bask in the global spotlight.

The event even has a Haibao-like mascot – the Chang'an Flower – a red, cartoon-like pomegranate blossom. In addition, major facilities and a number of venues have been constructed for the 418-hectare site, which is expected to draw about 12 million visitors during the event's six-month period. About 109 cities and organizations from China and abroad will be participating – including horticulturalists, farmers, agriculture companies, equipment producers and plant breeders.

Big Goose Pagoda

Also known as da yan ta in Chinese, this square pyramid structure is located four kilometers south of Xi'an's downtown core. Built in A.D. 652, it was constructed to house and protect Buddhist materials brought back from India by the monk Xuan Zang, who spent 19 years of his life translating the scriptures into Chinese.

You can climb to the top of the Big Goose Pagoda for one of the best views of Xi'an's grid-like layout. The pagoda's surrounding area – lined with parks, shopping centers and souvenir booths – makes for a lovely stroll. If you visit in the evening, catch the nightly fountain performance at the north side of the temple.

Shaanxi History Museum

Given that Xi'an and Shaanxi province are often called the birthplace of ancient Chinese civilization, it's not surprising that the Shaanxi History Museum is touted as one of the country's best. The museum has 370,000 exhibits and is divided into three main exhibition halls, featuring artifacts from the Qin, Han, Sui, Tang, Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties. Most exhibits include labels and explanations in English.

Check in time

After a hectic day of sightseeing, rest up at the Sheraton Xian Hotel. While it's one of the city's older international hotels – it celebrated its 20th anniversary in March – the Sheraton has improved immensely in recent years. The 365 guest rooms have undergone fairly significant renovations, offering travelers modern accomodation with elegant décor, cozy beds and immaculate bathrooms.

The hotel's health club is equipped with a gymnasium, sauna, steam room, game room and indoor swimming pool (which was under renovation at press time). Those who can't stay away from their email inbox will be comforted by Link@Sheraton, a free high-speed internet center in the hotel lobby. For more information, visit