Xi’an, in the state of Shaanxi, is mostly known because of the nearby attraction of the Terracotta Army, an archeological wonder of immense historical value that receives million visits each year. Very few tourists, though, get to spend any time in the city itself: a big mistake! Xi’an is more than worth a two-day visit during your journey to China. Here are five top reasons to visit Xi’an.
The night market
It stretches over the area behind the Drum Tower towards the Muslim Quarter. It is one of the most lively and less touristy markets I have visited in my Asia travels so far. Xi’an used to be the starting point of the Silk Route, reaching all the way to Rome where spices, fabrics and culture from the East would reach the European royal courts. The Silk Route heritage – a mix of Asia, Persian, Turkish and European influences – is clearly reflected in the market: food stalls sell everything from kebabs to flatbreads in addition to local noodle soups and skewered meat and fish, including specialties of the many ethnic minorities in the area. The market is buzzing late into the night, with local families and travellers mixing around long wooden tables. Most items are priced around 10 yuan, so a tenner will get you a feast!
The mutton soup
Xi’an is famous in China for its Yáng Ròu Pào Mó (羊肉泡饃), a hearty broth made from mutton and served with thin rice noodles and pickled garlic; but the main curiosity is the dense, round loaf of unleavened bread which customers are required to crumble in their bowl before the hot soup is poured in. Not what you’d call a light lunch! For an authentic Xi’an experience, go eat the soup at Lao Sun Jia (2nd floor, Don Daije): it’s easy to miss, on top of a nondescript mall, but definitely worth a visit. Legendary for claiming to be the oldest restaurant in Xi’an and for its nonexistent service, it will serve you a very filling bowl of soup for a pittance (smiles excluded).
The Great Mosque
The state of Shaanxi has a large minority of Muslim and Muslim descent population (the Hui ethnic group), which has lived, mostly peacefully, alongside the Han majority until the rule of the Communist Party tried to quash all religions alike. The Great Mosque in Xi’an is a unique example of Chinese-Muslim architecture, with the minaret replaced by a pagoda and the main hall decorated by abstract symbols typical of Chinese culture. The streams and goldfish ponds in the extensive garden mix tastefully with the Quran quotes embossed on the pillars. The mosque is still a very active community and religious center and welcomes visitors in all areas except the Prayer Hall during the busy evening prayer.
The roast pork sandwich
Also known as ‘Chinese hamburger’ (Ròu Jīa Mó). The round loaf of unleavened bread which you can find mutton soup in comes back in this other Xi’an typical food specialty, this time split in half and filled with delicious roast meat and spices. For the best ‘burger’ in the centre of Xi’an, go to Fanjia Lazhi Roujiamo (NO 53, Zhupashi Street, Beilin district, just in front of the Citadines Hotel), but beware: it closes early so make it your stop before heading to the night market (if you can still manage to eat anything else afterwards).
The shopping malls
Yes, the malls. The giant shopping malls in Xi’an are not as stylish as in Shanghai nor as impressive as those in Beijing Sanlitun, but will give you an authentic insight in the life of common Chinese people, especially the youth, in a so-called “Tier 2” city. Western high street names sit next to their local imitations, including a spoof Apple store chain. As often experienced in China, the sheer number of people in a mall on a Saturday is impressive. Cantopop and Chinese rock music blares through the speakers and you get a real feel of the fast economic growth of the country.
One thing to avoid in Xian
Don’t get an expensive guided tour to the Terracotta Army, or give in to the persistent unauthorized cabbie who will ask you for a small fortune to get you there. Go to the Xian train station instead and get on the 306 bus (Y7, one hour), a much more authentic experience although not the cleanest vehicle you will ever see. Again, be careful, there are (of course) fake 306 buses that will ask for more money: check with the station staff.