Out of all the tourism destinations in China, Xi’an is the most ancient and has many indirect connections to India, making it all the more fascinating. As you drive into the city, the contrast to other metros like Beijing and Shanghai is clear. Xi’an is an old-world town, crisscrossed by its ancient wall that blends seamlessly into the cityscape. The roads have less traffic and you can see cyclists and auto-rickshaws, street vendors and traditional bazars. Most people know the city for the Terracotta Army, but there is much more to explore and enjoy.
Dominating the sky, in the centre of the city, is the enormous seven-storey Big Wild Goose Pagoda. What gives any Indian traveller goose bumps is the realization that this is where the seventh-century monk Xuan Zang brought back thousands of Buddhist sutras all the way from India. Now an empty structurewith much of its treasures lost during the Cultural Revolution, and the others kept away from public view – the towering pagoda is surrounded by modern temples and accommodation for Buddhist monks. A studio-cum-showroom at the side sells beautiful paintings, calligraphy and jade – all a bit pricey, but genuine.
It is evident that Xi’an is a city that has come to terms with its Communist past and is celebrating its ancient heritage once again. The glories of the ancient Tang dynasty are presented to the tourist with a new-found pride. The highlight of this is the spanking new Tang Paradise Theme Park spread over 165 acres and landscaped with water bodies, classical gardens, bridges, palaces and pavilions. Although every bit of this Tang heritage is newly built, it’s quite aesthetic and pleasing to the eye. You can explore the vast area on a golf cart, hopping on and off, as you like.
Driving through the streets of Xi’an, one can see how geared the city is towards tourism – monuments are lit up in the evenings, and an entire street of souvenir shops and multi-cuisine restaurants (including Indian) comes alive. The monuments are well maintained and some restoration work is happening round the year. The enormous City Wall can be approached through several gates, although the South Gate is the largest and most accessible. Once you climb up the initial flight of high stone steps (around 70 in number), you can walk or even cycle along the wall on a plain level and take in sweeping views of the city.
The medieval Bell Tower, stands at the geographical centre of the city, and is one of the best-preserved bell towers in China. On the first floor is a hall with an interesting display of drums. Standing solidly in the midst of a traffic roundabout, the bell tower is another example of how history weaves a seamless pattern in this city, now growing modern by the day.
And finally, a short drive into the eastern countryside takes you to the stellar attraction, the Terracotta Army. Created by the ‘first emperor’ of China, Qin Shi Huang, in 2010 BC, this fascinating ‘regiment’ of soldiers, generals and horses lay under the earth for two millennia, until farmers digging a well discovered it in 1974. Painstaking restoration has brought several 1000s of these statues on public display. You will never have enough of gazing at them, as each figure appears different. The drive to and fro the site of the Army gives you a glimpse of the peach and pomegranate orchards that this region is famous for. Pick up some packaged pomegranate toffee, which is much like mango toffee (aampapad) made here.
For shopping, avoid the malls and head straight to the Muslim Market. Any Indian will feel at home here, since it’s an old-style bazar, much like INA Market in Delhi, or Calcutta’s New Market. Lanes and lanes of shops are crammed with stalls selling knock-offs; t-shirts, ladies’ purses and luggage items are the best pick here. You can also hunt for genuine porcelain items, rustic and colourful farmers’ painting, brass curios and more. The adventurous eaters can sample the street food, which has a distinct Muslim stamp, with a variety of kababs and breads. Dried fruits and walnuts are also a favourite purchase here.
Xi’an was the eastern-most post on the Silk Route and thus had a deep connect with India since the times of Xuan Zang and earlier. Indians are loved here, and you might be requested by a friendly local to pose for a photograph. Hindi-Chini bhai bhai is a genuine emotion here, rather than a political statement.
Sheema Mookherjee is the publisher of Lonely Planet India. For more information on Xi’an, please refer to our China travel guide.