Nowhere better represents the roots of China as a nation than the historic city of Xi'an.


China’s first great capital city in the third century BC. It was here that the Qin Dynasty and the first unification of often warring states into a single entity was forged and is also the site of China’s most revered archaeological wonder, the tomb of Qin Shi Huang and his Terracotta Warriors.


Xi'an is one of the few places to view the hugely impressive ancient walls that once characterised many of China’s ancient cities. Chairman Mao’s Mantra of ‘destruction before construction’ led to the mass destruction of many of China’s heritage features, in an effort to eliminate connections with the imperialist past.

In particular, the stunning city walls and gates of the great cities were destroyed, most notably in Beijing itself, where the grand legacy of its once great gates is sadly lost forever. The only places to see what remains of these once mighty walls are in Nanjing, Pingyao and here in Xi'an.

In Xi'an, the Ming Dynasty walls, built in 1370 AD, partly on top of the earlier original Tang dynasty walls, escaped the decimation of elsewhere and are a real feature for visitors, standing 12 metres (40 feet) high and of a similar width.

The imposing defensive structure encloses the city in a rectangular form and measures 14 kilometres in length which, in spite of its impressive enough contemporary size, actually marks the decline in importance of the once mighty capital city, whose earlier Tang walls once enclosed an area seven times larger than the Xi'an we see today.

The wall has ninety eight ramparts, each topped by a sentry building, four watchtowers, situated at the corners, and four gates giving entry to the city at the cardinal points, each comprised of three towers.

With a walk of the walls taking around 4 hours, a cycle ride atop the battlements is a good relaxing alternative, easily halving the time. There are also electric cars available for the journey. Within the city itself, the streets leading from the gates converge at the city’s centre, where the Bell Tower stands, the largest and best example to be found in China.

Among the city’s other notable features is that of the Great Mosque, China's largest, a beautiful collection of structures within five courtyards, fusing Chinese and Islamic architectural styles, with pleasant Chinese gardens, and presenting a distinctly different ambience from that embodied by the traditional Arabic style.


For most visitors, the main attraction of this area is undoubtedly the world famous archaeological site, discovered in 1974.

The Museum of Qin Terracotta Warriors and Horses encloses an area of 16,300 square metres and houses the three pits containing the famous archaeological finds, a museum and a theatre exploring the sculptural methods used.

The most visually impressive excavation is Pit 1, the largest of the three, housing two thousand of the standing warriors thus far excavated from an estimated six thousand thought to inhabit this pit. Pit 2 contains around 1,300 warriors and horses, while Pit 3, the smallest, is the site of the army’s commanders and officers together with their horses.
At the head of this vast life-sized army is the Emperor, Qin Shi Huang (259 -206 BC), whose pyramidal earthen tomb, larger that the Great Pyramid of Giza, remains to be excavated.

Given the vast work and attention to detail lavished upon his accompanying army, one can only speculate on the undoubtedly wondrous treasures contained within the tomb itself. Historical records describe the great vault as being filled with jewels, with rivers of mercury and other such booby traps in place to prevent intrusion.

Scientific opinion presently inclines to leaving the tomb undisturbed until technological improvements allow for better preservation, particularly of its delicate precious silken contents, when eventually opened. The authenticity of the historical records has been reinforced by the detection via probes of mercury at levels exceeding 100 times that of normal.


To the east of Xi'an, the mighty peaks of Hua Shan mountain are collectively a historically important Taoist shrine, and one of China's most sacred mountains. Although not quite as shapely and picturesque as Huangshan and Sanqingshan, the summit temples and shrines scattered across the mountain and their views over the precipitous cliffs are certainly worth the visit.

For most visitors, the two cable car routes provide the best and by far safest method of enjoying the stunning views. Unlike China's other famous mountain sites, although the various peaks can also be climbed by three stair routes, this is assuredly not advised for most travellers. Despite some recent improvements, these routes remain potentially very dangerous indeed, requiring considerable care and a certain degree of self-control over nerves, which has earned the mountain the unenviable reputation of the 'most dangerous trek in the world'.

Part of the reason for this is related to the tradition, for well over a millennia, of Taoist practitioners placing their trust in their grasp of 'the way' during the ascent to the shrines. Linked to this, the mountain is also reputed to host rare and sacred plants, held to be of importance in the realisation of inner liberation and the pursuit of Taoist immortality, and the secrets of which were regarded as being legitimately accessible only to those pure enough in understanding to make the ascent, which in past times was far more unnerving and challenging than today.

For those brave enough to tackle the climb, some of the earlier sections, which no longer form part of the official ascent routes, include such delights as cut footholds, protruding metal metal pegs and hanging ladders draped scarily over yawning drops, are nevertheless still accessible to visitors and may appeal to extreme thrillseekers, such as the famous 'Plank Walk'. For this purpose, more cautious adrenaline seekers can hire a harness to soften the intensity of the experience.