Xī’ān’s fabled past is a double-edged sword. Primed with the knowledge that this legendary city was once the terminus of the Silk Road and a melting pot of cultures and religions, as well as home to emperors, courtesans, poets, monks, merchants and warriors, visitors can feel let down by the roaring, modern-day version. But even though Xī’ān’s glory days ended in the early 10th century, many elements of ancient Cháng’ān, the former Xī’ān, are still present.
The Ming-era city walls remain intact, vendors of all descriptions still crowd the narrow lanes of the warrenlike Muslim Quarter, and there are enough places of interest to keep even the most diligent amateur historian busy.
While Xī’ān is no longer China’s political capital, it’s woken up to the potential value of its hallowed history. In the last few years, the city has been campaigning for the Silk Road to be added to the UN’s World Heritage List, and there are continuing efforts to revitalise the Muslim Quarter.
Most people only spend two or three days in Xī’ān; history buffs could easily stay busy for a week. Must-sees include the Terracotta Warriors, the Tomb of Emperor Jingdi and the Muslim Quarter, but try to set time aside for the city walls, pagodas and museums. Better still, arrange a side trip to nearby Huà Shān or Hánchéng.