City Walls

Xī’ān is one of the few cities in China where the old city walls still stand. Built in 1370 during the Ming dynasty, the 12m-high walls are surrounded by a dry moat and form a rectangle with a perimeter of 14km.

Most sections have been restored, and it is possible to walk the entirety of the walls in a leisurely four hours. This affords you the opportunity to look down into the modern-day city inside and the sprawl outside the walls. English-speaking guides from the South Gate charge ¥80 per person. You can also cycle from the South Gate (bike hire ¥40 for 100 minutes, ¥200 deposit). Access ramps are located inside the major gates.

To get an idea of Xī’ān’s former grandeur, consider this: the Tang city walls originally enclosed 83 sq km, an area seven times larger than today’s city centre.

The Man Behind the Army

Qin Shi Huang (秦始皇), China’s first emperor, has gone down in history as the sort of tyrant who gives tyrants a bad name. It might be because he outlawed Confucianism, ordering almost all its written texts to be burnt and, according to legend, burying 460 of its leading scholars alive.

Or perhaps it was his enslaving of hundreds of thousands of people to achieve his (admittedly monumental) accomplishments during his 36 years of rule (which began when he was just 13).

In recent years, there have been efforts by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to rehabilitate him, by emphasising both his efforts to unify China and the far-sighted nature of his policies. A classic overachiever, he created an efficient, centralised government that became the model for later dynasties; he standardised measurements, currency and, most importantly, writing. He built more than 6400km of new roads and canals and, of course, he conquered six major kingdoms before turning 40.

Nevertheless, he remains a hugely controversial figure in Chinese history, but also one whose presence permeates popular culture. The first emperor pops up in video games, in literature and on TV shows. He’s also been the subject of films by both Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou (The Emperor and the Assassin and Hero), while Jet Li played a thinly disguised version of him in the 2008 Hollywood blockbuster The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor.