How Xi’an became an unexpected highlight of my trip to China

written by Alison Armstrong August 16, 2018
Xi'an China travel guide

I walk in and my jaw drops. I’m standing inside an enclosure that covers more than three acres. The arched roof is split down the middle with skylights. The sun shines in, striking beams across the clay figures.

I’m looking at the Terracotta Warriors and I’m slack-jawed. The only word I’m capable of is “Wow!” The scale is barely comprehensible. The sculptures are arranged in battle formation in pits near the tomb of Qin, the First Emperor. They disappear into the distance and into the trenches from which they were unearthed. In this main pit alone there are an estimated 8000 of them, most of them still buried.

The warriors and their horses are life-size, and every face is different. I follow the walkway that surrounds the entire enclosure taking in the scale, the details, the enormity of it all: a mausoleum built for an emperor that includes everything he could possibly need in the afterlife.

Xi'an China travel guide As well as the warriors there are chariots, weaponry, drums, concubines, acrobats and musicians, and much more. I try to imagine them painted in the bright colours they would have originally worn back in 210BCE.

The entire necropolis is estimated to cover 98 square kilometres and is a microcosm of the emperor’s imperial court. Most of it is still buried, but the several hundred warriors and other artifacts that I see leave me breathless. It is without doubt one of the highlights of my visit to China.

I’d never heard of Xi’an until I joined Intrepid’s China Experience tour. We went there, of course, for its proximity to the Terracotta Warriors, but Xi’an turned out to be so much more than that…

Xi'an China travel guideOur guide, Peter, leads us into a pedestrian street paved with blue flagstones and shaded by trees. On either side for several blocks there are food stalls, and stores selling beaten silverware, pearls, fans, and other Chinese artifacts. There are restaurants and simple take-out stands. The variety of food is overwhelming, and I don’t know what most of it is. There’s candy and dried fruit, squid, prawn, and meat skewers, and in the smaller lanes stores selling clothing, jewellery, kites, lanterns, pottery, and everything imaginable.

It’s a crowded and busy kaleidoscope of aromas, noise, and colour.


Almost all the women are wearing hijabs, and many of the men wear taqiyas (skullcaps). We are in the Muslim Quarter of Xi’an where there are approximately 50,000 Hui Muslims, a community that began over 1400 years ago with the advent of the Silk Road.

Xi'an China travel guideWe go straight to a place that sells “Chinese hamburgers” and watch while the vendor uses a cleaver to shred well-cooked lamb into mincemeat. Meanwhile he’s heating a bun in something similar to a panini press. Hot from the press he slices the bun through the middle to form a pocket and throws in some sauce and the lamb: so good!


Xi’an, a city of 12 million people, was an early capital of China. The rectangular city wall, dating from the 1300’s, encloses an area of about thirteen square kilometres. Peter tells us that we can cycle the city walls. Wooohooo! We rent bikes, and as a group race off along the 14 km paved route above the city.

Xi'an China travel guideI’ve barely cycled over the past few years though I did do a little in preparation for the trip, but nothing like 14 km. I’m thrilled to discover that I can still do it. I like riding a bike. But I also discover that I’m fit enough to do 14 km without even wobbly legs at the end.  We have so much fun, stopping fairly frequently to take pictures, and then pedalling on.


Afterwards, we wait up on the city walls for the lights to come on. We’d seen them from the street on the previous evening, but to see them from the top of the wall, illuminating this long ancient elevated thoroughfare, is truly magical.

Xi’an just keeps on giving.

Xi'an China travel guideAnd giving. Dumplings are the specialty food of the city. At a dumpling dinner, we taste 16 different types of dumplings in a variety of flavours and shapes – pigs, ducks, and fish!

As we walk back to the hotel in the warm evening air we pass a small square where a man and a woman, surrounded by a crowd, are singing karaoke. Then we pass about 30 ladies. They are languidly dancing in formation, and following the movements of a woman up front. It’s like a very low-key aerobics class. Both are examples of something I come to love about China. Whatever you want to do, be it karaoke, dancing, fan dancing, playing and singing opera, tai chi, aerobics, or twirling ribbons, there will be a group you can join that practices in the parks and other public spaces. The life of the city is right there on the street.


Our last excursion in Xi’an is to the Yangling Mausoleum of the Han Dynasty. The clay figurines represent everything the emperor would need in the afterlife. There are 50,000 of them!

Xi'an China travel guideThere’s row upon row of farm animals, and thousands of warriors that would have been dressed in exquisite colourful silk robes at the time they were buried in 153CE. Like the mausoleum of the First Emperor, the scale and detail is breath-taking.

I had no idea what to expect of Xi’an, but with the Muslim Quarter and the cycling, the city lights and the Yangling Mausoleum, along with the Terracotta Warriors, Xi’an turned out to be one of the highlights of the trip.

Ready to explore the delights of this incredible city, and more? Check out Intrepid’s range of small group adventures in China.

(All images taken by Alison on Intrepid’s China Experience trip. To see more of her travel tales and photos check out her Intrepid author page and her personal blog,

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