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Also known as 'the ancient city', Xi'an is situated in central China in the southern part of Guanzhong Plain, with the Qinling Mountains to the north and the Weihe River to the south. In ancient times, the city was a major crossroads on the trading routes from eastern China to central Asia, and the beginning point of the famed Silk Road. In recent years this three-millennia-old city, once as prominent as Rome and Constantinople, has come back into its own as one of China's major tourist destinations.
In 1974, on the city's eastern outskirts, archaeologists stumbled across a treasure trove: an army of terracotta warrior figurines in battle formation standing in underground vaults. Hailed as the greatest archaeological find of the 20th century, the Terracotta Warriors of Xi'an have brought visitors from around the world to marvel at the astonishing sight, but also to embark on further adventures of their own along the ancient silk caravan route.
Besides the Terracotta Warriors, the city boasts myriad historical relics, museums and temples â€' unsurprising considering that Xi'an was the Chinese capital under 12 dynasties. The city wall is one of the widest, highest and best preserved in the world, and the Forest of Steles, with its collection of more than 3,000 ancient stone tablets, is both the largest and oldest in China.
The Stele Forest in Xi'an, also called the Beilin Museum, contains more than 3,000 ancient standing stones, dating back to the Tang dynasty (618-907). The museum itself is nearly as old, having been established in 1087. The steles are divided into seven exhibition halls, displaying classic examples of traditional Chinese calligraphy, painting and historical records. Travellers interested in history, writing and philosophy will delight in its collection, while English guides are recommended as a lot of the interesting cultural relevance of the inscriptions may otherwise be lost. The museum also enjoys lovely grounds with fountains, pagodas and a gift shop, making it a great place to relax after a long day of sightseeing.
In 1974, a group of peasants digging a well in Lintong District unearthed fragments of a life-sized warrior figure. Further excavation revealed several timber-lined vaults filled with thousands of greatly detailed terracotta soldiers, horses and chariots: an entire army assembled in position to follow their Emperor Qin into eternity. The pits are now open to public viewing and thousands of visitors flock to gaze at the stunning array of figures with their vivid facial expressions.
The Terracotta Army Museum consists of the original pit that was discovered in 1974, which has been enclosed to preserve the ranks of 6,000 soldiers found there. A second pit, containing 1,400 figures of cavalrymen, horses and infantrymen, and 90 wooden chariots, is also part of the museum.
Visitors can also see Qin's Mausoleum and view almost 100 sacrificial pits containing the skeletons of horses buried with him. There are also about 20 tombs holding the remains of his counsellors and retainers. The emperor's tomb itself is under a 249-foot (76m) high mound that has not yet been excavated, but is believed, according to historical records, to have contained rare gems and other treasures.
The graceful complex of the Shaanxi Provincial History Museum is built in the style of a Tang dynasty pavilion, itself a staggering sight. The museum's exhibits are even more breathtaking, consisting of about 113,000 artefacts unearthed in the province and chronologically arranged in three exhibition halls. The exhibits cover the Han, Wei, Jin, North and South, Sui, Tang, Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties, as well as the prehistoric and bronze period. Shaanxi province was a vital region for the cultural development of China, and the capital of 13 glorious dynasties. The Shaanxi Provincial History Museum stands as testament to the area's importance, serving as China's premier, world-class history museum. Travellers are advised to get there early to avoid massive queues.
The remains of the ancient settlement of Banpo, dating from about 5000 BC, are found in the Yellow River Valley east of Xi'an. The site makes up one of the most complete examples of an agricultural Neolithic settlement in the world. It contains the ruins of more than 40 homes, 200 cellars, a collection of pottery and tools, and more than 250 graves belonging to a matriarchal community of the Yangshao culture.
There is an on-site museum, with two smaller exhibition halls displaying various archaeological artefacts that have been unearthed in the area. More than 400 archaeological sites similar to Banpo have been discovered in and around the Yellow River Valley in China, giving the area the reputation of being the birthplace of ancient Chinese culture.
The Huaqing Hot Springs at the base of the Lishan Mountains is where ancient emperors bathed and relaxed. Huaqing is one of the Hundred Famous Gardens of China and the setting is tranquil and beautiful.
The spa has been operating for more than 12 centuries and its warm (109°F/43°C) mineral waters, containing lime, sodium carbonate and sodium sulphate, are still enjoyed by locals and visitors today.
The waters are particularly recommended for the treatment of dermatitis, rheumatism, arthritis and muscular pain. Even the Hibiscus Pool, dating from the year 712 and having been restored, is open to the public. There is also a fascinating museum at the site containing building materials from the Tang Dynasty.
Another attraction at the springs is the Hovering Rainbow Bridge, which reflects the sunset in such a way that it appears to be a rainbow. Visitors can also take a cable car up to take in marvellous mountain vistas.
The Great Mosque is the pride of China's Islamic community, with the religion arriving in the country along with Arab merchants and travellers in roughly the year 600. The Great Mosque in Xi'an is the best-preserved ancient mosque in China, having been built in 742. It is built in traditional Chinese style with platforms, pavilions and halls, and is divided inside into four courtyards. Visitors can explore the passages, courtyards and archways, with furnishings dating from the Ming and Qing dynasties.
The main prayer hall can accommodate 1,000 worshippers and its ceiling bears more than 600 classical scriptures in colourful relief. This unique mix of Islamic and Chinese architecture is surrounded by landscaped gardens, ideal for quiet sanctuary and contemplative walks. It remains a place of worship, so visitors should dress appropriately and behave respectfully.
Xi'an is semi-arid and has a continental monsoon climate, with four distinct seasons. The range in temperatures throughout the year is fairly steep, with hot days in summer, between June and August, reaching 93°F (34°C), and winter days, between December and February, getting as cold as 21°F (-6°C). Summers are usually hot and stormy and can be uncomfortably humid. Autumns are pleasantly cool and temperate, but can be rainy. Although early autumn tends to be overcast, it gradually becomes more pleasant and sunny. Winters are cold and dry with some snowfall. Springs are warm and pleasant, but highly changeable. There are occasional dust storms in spring due to the rapid rise in temperature. July to September is the wet season. The weather is actually quite pleasant all year round, with the possible exception of winter, but the best times to visit Xi'an are spring, between March and May, and autumn, from September to October.
Getting around in Xi'an is fairly easy. Buses run frequently, linking most attractions, and they are generally less daunting and more reliable than the buses in big cities like Beijing and Shanghai. There are also smaller and more crowded minibuses available. Taxis are plentiful and easy to find, but visitors should ensure that the meter is switched on as drivers tend to overcharge with 'fixed rates'. As in most Chinese cities, hiring a bicycle is also a popular option, although one should be careful on the busy streets. Bicycles are best for the more touristy areas and for taking a ride along the city wall.
The best way to see the city, or at least parts of the city, is to walk. Xi'an is relatively small and compact and easy to navigate on foot. It is also generally a safe city, which makes walking a more viable option. For slightly longer distances, tuk-tuks are available in the city. Tuk-tuks are covered wagons connected to motorcycles and are cheaper than taxis. Travellers should make sure to bargain with drivers before getting in so that they don't overcharge.
Xi'an is a treasure trove for travellers interested in archaeology and ancient Chinese history. The Shaanxi Provincial History Museum stands as testament to the importance of this region in the development of Chinese culture. The museum houses about 370,000 artefacts collected in the area and is well worth a visit. Another exciting archaeological site is the Banpo Village, which dates back over 6, 000 years and is one of the most well-preserved and complete examples of an agricultural Neolithic settlement in the world. Xi'an is also home to the Forest of Steles, a collection of 3,000 steles (stone tablets and ancient inscriptions) collected over the centuries in a library which is a haven for travelling scholars or anyone interested in the history of language and the written word.
Of course, when it comes to sightseeing, Xi'an is synonymous with its foremost attraction: the famous Terracotta Army Museum. The collection of nearly 8,000 warriors, unearthed in 1974 is a not-to-be-missed experience for any visitor to China. The recently opened Tomb of Emperor Jingdi in Xi'an also displays a number of terracotta statues and it is a far less crowded museum. On the way to the Terracotta Army it is a good idea to stop off at the Huaqing Hot Springs to bathe in the same pools used by ancient emperors and their concubines.
The Xi'an city wall is one of the largest in the world and hiring a bicycle to cycle along the top is a wonderful introduction to the city. Travellers can also walk the wall, stopping along the way to take some amazing photographs of both ancient buildings and new age skyscrapers.
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