The Great Mosque of Xi’an

Nestled within the Muslim Quarter in the city of Xi’an, the Great Mosque is the largest of its kind in China and, alongside being a popular tourist site, remains an active place of worship to this day. What makes this mosque particularly unique is that it combines traditional Chinese architectural features with Islamic ones, looking from the outside like a typical Chinese temple but bearing the hallmarks of an Islamic mosque within its interior. According to historical records engraved on a stone tablet within the complex, the original mosque was built on this site in 742 AD, during the Tang Dynasty (618-907). This mosque was built in order to accommodate the many merchants and travellers from Central Asia who settled in Xi’an, the then capital of China, and introduced Islam to the country.

The current mosque, however, was constructed in 1392, during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and was renovated numerous times thereafter, meaning that many of the structures we find today date back to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. At the time of its construction, the mosque lay just outside of the Ming Dynasty city walls in a neighbourhood that was designated for foreigners, but today this area has been incorporated into the city proper and can be found close to the city’s famed Drum Tower. 

Sprawling across an area of 12,000 square metres (14,352 sq. yd.), the Great Mosque of Xi’an contains over twenty different buildings. Unlike a typical mosque, it is made up of pavilions and pagodas, and is laid out much like a Chinese temple, with successive courtyards following a single axis. The major way in which it differs from a Chinese temple, however, is that its grand axis is aligned from east to west in order to face Mecca, rather than from north to south in accordance with traditional feng shui[1] practices. In-keeping with Islamic tradition, the mosque is richly decorated with geometric and floral motifs, but contains few depictions of living creatures, the only exception being occasional images of dragons. Fabulous works of calligraphy are displayed throughout the complex, some of which are in Chinese, some of which are in Arabic, and a handful of which are in a fusion of styles referred to as “Sini”, which consists of Arabic text written in a traditionally Chinese calligraphic style. 

The complex is made up of four successive courtyards that lead up to the main prayer hall, which is backed by a fifth and final courtyard. Each courtyard is lined with lush greenery and contains a signature monument, such as a pavilion, screen, or freestanding gateway. After all, in a complex this expansive, you need something to help you stand out! In the first courtyard, the signature monument comes in the form of an elaborate style of wooden gateway known as a paifang, which is 9 metres (30 ft.) in height and is topped with a brightly coloured glazed-tile roof. This paifang is matched by a similar one in the second courtyard, although this is not its central feature. That honour is reserved for the two stone steles[2] that stand opposite this paifang, which have each been carved by a famous calligrapher. The first was written by Mi Fu of the Song Dynasty (960-1279), while the second was inscribed by Dong Qichang of the Ming Dynasty.

Step through another elegant roofed pavilion and you’ll find yourself in the third courtyard, which is known as the Qing Xiu Dian or “Place of Meditation”. This courtyard is home to the illustrious Xingxin Tower or “Tower of the Visiting Heart”. With a name that romantic, you know it must be something special! This spectacular brick tower is over 10 metres (33 ft.) in height and serves a particularly unique function within the mosque. Traditionally mosques built before the Great Mosque of Xi’an would have a minaret, where the call to prayer would take place, and a separate bangke or “moon watching” pavilion, which was a staple of traditional Chinese temples. The Xingxin Tower, however, was the first of its kind to combine both of these functions, representing another merge between the traditionally Chinese and Islamic features of the mosque.

The fourth courtyard is home to yet another beautiful pavilion, which is known as the Fenghua or “Phoenix” Pavilion. Built during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), the pavilion was so named because of its resemblance to a phoenix spreading its wings. Alongside being a beautiful addition to the mosque, the Phoenix Pavilion serves a very special purpose, as it blocks a direct view to the prayer hall at the western end of the courtyard. The prayer hall, which is the main focus of the entire complex, is the only part of the mosque that is not open to the public and is still used today by the local Hui Muslims. Prayer services are held in this hall five times per day and the hall itself can hold upwards of 1,000 people at any given time. Behind the prayer hall, there are two circular moon gates that lead to the fifth courtyard, where two small manmade hills have been constructed for the ceremonial viewing of the new moon. 

[1] Feng Shui: This theory is based on the premise that the specific placement of certain buildings or objects will bring good fortune.

[2] Stele: An upright stone slab or pillar that bears an inscription and usually marks a burial site, like a tombstone.

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The Gao Family Mansion

With a history stretching back over 400 years, the Gao Family Mansion is the ideal place to experience what ancient life would have been like in the rapidly expanding metropolis of Xi’an. Its entrance is an unassuming gate on the side of Beiyuanmen Street in the city’s bustling Muslim Quarter and it offers a slice of tranquillity amongst the lively chaos of this popular dining area. This venerable mansion was originally established during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and served as the former residence of a scholar-official named Gao Yuesong. During his illustrious career, Gao Yuesong achieved the second highest mark in the imperial examination and was awarded with this mansion by the reigning Chongzhen Emperor for his loyal service as an imperial official. His story might be worth mentioning next time you talk to your boss about Christmas bonuses!

Gao Yuesong’s mansion was often a hive of activity, as he regularly hosted events with prominent writers, thinkers, scholars, and performers. Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to enjoy his luxurious home for long, as he tragically died at the age of 31. His family, however, continued to live in the mansion for seven generations and many of his descendants went on to have successful careers as officials within the imperial government.

The mansion itself sprawls over an area of over 2,500 square metres (26,910 sq. ft.) and is made up of 86 rooms, 56 of which are currently open to the public. The entire complex is separated into two courts, the north court and the south court, which in turn each contain four small courtyards. Wandering through this labyrinthine complex, visitors will be met with rooms lavishly decorated with period furnishings and walls beautifully bedecked with traditional Chinese paintings. Alongside being a popular tourist attraction, the Gao Family Mansion serves as the offices for four different organisations, including the Xi’an Chinese Painting Academy.

Nowadays, the Gao Family Mansion acts as a beacon of ancient culture in the city of Xi’an. Every day, performances of traditional Chinese opera and Shadow Puppetry take place on its main stage. Shadow Puppetry is a type of performance that uses simple colourful figures made from leather or paper to act out its stories and is believed to have originated in Shaanxi province during the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD). In-keeping with this local flavour, both the opera and shadow puppet shows at the mansion utilise the local dialect of Shaanxi province and the stories they tell revolve around popular folk legends. These lively performances are complemented by classes on the traditional Chinese art of papercutting and peaceful tea ceremonies at the courtyard teahouse.

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The 8 Immortals Temple

With their ability to bestow life and overcome the forces of evil, the 8 Immortals have captured the imagination and admiration of people throughout China for centuries. Think of them like the original Chinese superheroes! They have been a focal feature of Chinese mythology since the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD) and have been particularly influential when it comes to the indigenous Chinese religion of Taoism, although their identities weren’t strictly fixed until the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Each of them carries a special magical item, which are regarded as holy articles in Taoism.

The 8 Immortals are traditionally known as: Han Zhongli, who clasps a fan that can bring the dead back to life; Zhang Guolao, whose sacred item is an unusual drum made out of a bamboo tube; Han Xiangzi, who is often depicted playing his flute; Li Tieguai, who heals people using the special medicine in his magical gourd; Cao Guojiu, who is rarely seen without his imperial jade tablet; Lü Dongbin, who wields a powerful sword; Lan Caihe, who carries a basket of flowers; and He Xiangu, who delicately holds a single lotus flower. They are predominantly male, although He Xiangu is the only woman among them and Lan Caihe’s gender is often left ambiguous.

Outside of the 8 Immortals Temple in Xi’an, a stunning mural recounts a famous legend known as “The Eight Immortals Cross the Sea”. According to this fabulous legend, the 8 immortals were on their way to attend a conference that was being held by a goddess known as the Queen Mother of the West, who is renowned in Chinese mythology for her magical peaches that can bestow immortality. Their journey, however, was unexpectedly brought to a halt when they encountered an ocean in their path. The typical mode of transport for an immortal in this instance would be to ride on a cloud, but the 8 immortals couldn’t resist the chance to show off their powers!

Rather than simply conjure up their celestial clouds, Lü Dongbin suggested that they should each use their unique skills to get across. In some depictions, the immortals are shown literally skidding across the waves sat atop their sacred items, but the mural outside of the temple recounts the version of the story in which they transformed their sacred items into various different fantastical animals, which they then rode. This enthralling tale gave rise to the Chinese proverb: “The Eight Immortals cross the sea, each one reveals their divine powers”, which is used to describe when everyone uses their unique skills and expertise in order to achieve a common goal. In some instances, however, people use this proverb to refer to a situation where each person is striving to outshine their peers and assert their superiority. Even when it comes to divine deities, it’s still all a matter of perspective!

In-keeping with the grandeur that surrounds these mythical figures, the 8 Immortals Temple is the largest Taoist temple in Xi’an and has a particularly special historical pedigree. In 1900, an international military coalition known as the Eight-Nation Alliance was formed by Japan, Russia, Britain, France, the United States, Germany, Italy, and Austria-Hungary as a response to the ongoing Boxer Rebellion, which had been responsible for the deaths of numerous foreign missionaries.

In that same year, the alliance’s armed forces invaded and occupied Beijing, forcing the ruling Emperor Guangxu and his mother Empress Dowager Cixi to flee to Xi’an. They sought refuge within the 8 Immortals Temple, which is now occasionally referred to as the 8 Immortals Palace because it briefly served as the residence of royalty. After Emperor Guangxu and Empress Dowager Cixi were able to safely return to Beijing, they donated substantial amounts of silver to fund the renovation of the temple and a board inscribed by Empress Dowager Cixi herself still hangs within one of its halls. While it is believed that the temple was originally built during the Song Dynasty (960-1279), most of its existing structure dates back to these renovations made during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912).

Alongside the Drum Tower and the Bell Tower, the temple can roughly be divided into three sections. The first section is made up of five halls that are dedicated to a Taoist deity known as Wang Lingguan. The second section is formed of two halls, with the back hall featuring colourful painted statues of the 8 Immortals. The third and final section simply consists of the Main Hall, which is where the tablet inscribed by Empress Dowager Cixi is housed. Inside this hall, locals and visitors alike make offerings to Taoist deities, with particular emphasis on a high-ranking goddess known as Doumu or “the Mother of the Great Chariot”.  To the west of this hall lies a hall for the immortal Lü Dongbin and a hall for the deity Yaowang or the “King of Chinese Medicine”, while accommodation for the resident Taoist priests can be found to the east.

At the centre of the temple courtyard, visitors can cross over the Bridge of Meeting Immortals, which was built in memory of Wang Chongyang, the legendary founder of the Quanzhen sect of Taoism. This venerable master of Taoism is also intimately connected to the 8 immortals, as he was supposedly enlightened by none other than Lü Dongbin. It’s a small spiritual world after all!

While they are not represented by individual halls within the temple complex, the 8 Immortals Temple is also the place where locals in Xi’an come to pray to the hundreds of other Taoist immortals, who are each responsible for a different area of human life. In many ways, they have been said to resemble the patron saints of Catholicism. On the 14th day of the fourth month and the 9th day of the ninth month every year according to the Chinese lunar calendar, worshippers will converge on the temple for the 3-day-long temple fair and the Double Ninth Festival respectively. During both of these festivals, the temple will be fragrant with the sweet smell of incense as vibrant worshipping ceremonies take place throughout its many halls.

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Mount Hua

According to legend, the Queen Mother of the West was holding her Flat Peach Carnival when she accidentally spilled some of her jade wine down from paradise, which caused a colossal flood here on earth. The flood destroyed all of the villages in the Huashan area so the deity Shaohao informed the Jade Emperor of the disaster. The Jade Emperor promptly sent the deity Juling to earth to stem the flood. As Juling descended from the clouds he rested his left hand on one side of the peak and his right leg on the other, which ripped the mountain into two halves and allowed the floodwater to rush out. His handprint supposedly remains on the Immortal’s Palm Peak, which sits high up on Mount Hua.

Standing at an impressive 2,100 metres (7,070 ft.) at its highest peak, it is no wonder that Mount Hua is listed as one of the Five Great Mountains of China. It is located approximately 120 kilometres east of Xi’an, near a city called Huayin. It sits at the eastern end of the Qin Mountains and is made up of five peaks. Although the mountain is undoubtedly a phenomenal natural specimen, it is more well-known in China for its spiritual and religious significance. Each of its five peaks has an intricately woven folktale behind it, which is intertwined with the Chinese mythology that is now known to be part legend and part historical fact. To the locals and to the average visitor, Mount Hua has an unmistakably mystical feel about it. If you’re looking for somewhere where you can embrace your spirituality and discover more about the fascinating schools of thought behind Chinese philosophy, then a trip to Mount Hua is a must.

The five main peaks of the mountain are simply named East Peak, South Peak, West Peak, Central Peak, and North Peak, with South Peak being the highest and North Peak being the lowest.

Every peak has inherited a second name according to its features or the legendary stories behind it.

Central Peak is known as Jade Maiden Peak. The story behind its name is a perfect example of how Chinese legend has become inseparably intertwined with history. There is a Taoist Temple at the top of this peak called the Jade Maiden Temple. Legend has it that the daughter of Duke Mu of Qin[1] (569 – 621 BC) loved a man who was talented at playing the tung-hsiao[2]. In order to avoid this temptation and cultivate her spirituality, she gave up the royal life she had become accustomed to and became a hermit, secreting herself on the Central Peak of Mount Hua. From then on, the temple was established and the peak was named Jade Maiden Peak after the Duke’s daughter. Near to the Jade Maiden Temple you will also find the Rootless Tree and the Sacrificing Tree, which also have mystical stories behind them that add to the ethereal feel of Central Peak.

Unfortunately not every story behind each peak is quite so magical. The South Peak is called Landing Wild Geese Peak simply because, according to legend, geese returning from the south often landed on this peak. It is home to the beautiful Black Dragon Pool and the Baidi Temple or Jintian Palace, a Taoist Temple that is nationally considered the host temple of the deity Shaohao. South Peak is also the site of the infamous Plank Road, a plank path built along the side of a vertical cliff that is only about 0.3 metres (about 1 foot) wide and forces the intrepid hiker to look down at the almost bottomless gulf below them. Although there is a chain running along the cliff-face that hikers can clip themselves on to, the experience of creeping along the narrow path and having to constantly hook and unhook yourself from your only safety net, so to speak, is only for the bravest of travellers.

Like South Peak, North Peak is rather simply named Cloud Terrace Peak because the clouds that accumulate around the peak look like a flat terrace. It looks so uncanny that you might get the impression you could almost step out onto the clouds. On one side of the peak is the Ear-Touching Cliff, which is so narrow that you supposedly have to press your ear to the cliff-face to climb it. Although this may seem like a joke, it is important to note that some of the paths on Mount Hua, such as the infamous Plank Road, are notoriously treacherous. The government has tried to put in as many safety measures as it can to make them safer but it is advised that you take the risks into careful consideration before venturing out onto the more dangerous paths. Historically there have been fatalities on these paths when visitors have not been careful or not heeded the warnings.

The West Peak is called the Lotus Flower Peak because there is a Taoist Temple there called Cuiyun Palace which has a huge rock in front of it that looks like a lotus flower. There are seven other rocks by Cuiyun Palace that are supposedly the site where the legendary hero Chenxiang ripped the mountain apart to save his mother, the Heavenly Goddess San Sheng Mu, in the folktale “The Magic Lotus Lantern”.

The East Peak, also known as Facing Sun Peak, is the best place to watch the sunrise and takes approximately 4 to 6 hours to climb. It is home to the famous Immortal’s Palm Peak mentioned earlier. Immortal Palm’s Peak is ranked as one of the Eight Scenic Wonders of the Guanzhong Area and is so-called because of the natural rock veins on the cliff, which look like a giant handprint and were supposedly caused by the deity Juling when he fell from heaven.

As early as the 2nd century B.C., it was recorded that a Taoist temple named the Shrine of the Western Peak rested at the base of the mountain. Taoists believed that the god of the underworld lived inside the mountain and this temple was used primarily by spirit mediums to contact this god and his underlings. Unlike Mount Taishan, which attracted many pilgrims, Mount Hua only seemed to attract Imperial pilgrims or local pilgrims due to its relative inaccessibility. Historically this earned it the reputation of being a retreat only for the hardiest of hermits, regardless of what religion they followed, as only those who were particularly strong-willed or spiritually enlightened could master the treacherous climb. Nowadays there are a number of temples and religious structures littered throughout the mountain, including a Taoist temple atop the Southern Peak that has been converted into a teahouse. At the foot of the mountain you’ll also find Xinyue Temple and the Jade Spring Temple. The sheer number of temples and religious constructions on and around the mountain demonstrate just how spiritually significant it is.

With all of the myths, history and spirituality behind it, Mount Hua has truly lived up to its reputation as one of the Five Great Mountains of China. When climbing the mountain and visiting the many temples on its peaks, you’re guaranteed not only beautiful scenic views but also a sense of spiritual calmness.

Xinyue Temple

Xinyue Temple rests at the bottom of Mount Hua. It was built to honour the god that is believed to live inside the mountain and was constructed during the reign of Emperor Wudi of the Western Han Dynasty (206 B.C. – 24 A.D.). Its stunning appearance and monumental size have earned it the name “The Forbidden City of Shaanxi Province”. Important scenic spots in Xinyue Temple include Haoling Gate, Five-Phoenix Pavilion, Lingxing Gate, Golden City Gate, Haoling Palace, the Emperor’s Study, and Longevity Pavilion. In the Five-Phoenix Pavilion there is a place called the Small Steles Forest where there are many impressive steles[3], including one of the most famous steles in the world: the Huashan Monument.

The Jade Spring Temple (Yuquan Temple)

The Jade Spring Temple is a Taoist temple that rests at the foot of Mount Hua. Its main function is to hold Taoist activities and to allow its monks to practice Taoism. It was built by Jia Desheng during the Northern Song Dynasty (960 – 1127) to honour his teacher Chen Tuan[4] (871 – 989). Its name originates from a charming tale about a girl named the Golden Fairy Princess. Supposedly the Golden Fairy Princess was washing her hair beside the Jade Well on Mount Hua when she accidentally dropped her beautiful jade hair clasp into the well. She searched far and wide for her precious hair clasp but to no avail. Miraculously, as she was washing her hands with the spring water at the temple, she found her lost jade hair clasp. Since this spring was connected to the Jade Well, the princess decided to name the temple the Jade Spring Temple. Important scenic spots at this temple include the Long Corridor of Seventy-two Windows, which is a unique construction among Taoist temples across China.

[1] Duke Mu of Qin: He was the fourteenth ruler of the Zhou Dynasty State of Qin.

[2] Tsung-hsiao: A kind of Chinese flute that is held vertically rather than horizontally.

[3] Stele: An upright stone slab or pillar that bears an inscription and usually marks a burial site, like a tombstone.

[4] Chen Tuan: He was a famous scholar and hermit of the Quanzhen branch of Taoism. He helped to combine elements of Quietism, Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism, which greatly aided the development of neo-Confucianism.

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Muslim Quarter

The term “Muslim Quarter” may sound misleading, as it’s hard to believe that China has many local Muslims, and yet, nestled in the heart of Xi’an city, a bustling Muslim community has thrived for nearly a thousand years. Muslim Street, also known as Huimin Street, Muslim Snack Street or the Muslim Quarter, is a collective term used for a number of streets in Xi’an, including Beiyuanmen Street, Xiyangshi Street, and Huajue Lane. For the average tourist, it presents a fantastic opportunity to explore Chinese Muslim culture and get a real idea of what daily life is like for a Chinese Muslim. However, for the locals, this is the perfect place to whet their appetites on a balmy summers’ night and enjoy some of the fine delicacies that the Muslim district has to offer. In fact, the area has become famous for its undeniably delicious food, which includes both ethnically Muslim dishes and local Xi’an specialities. But before we get your mouth watering and your stomach rumbling, we’re sure you’d like to know more about how these Muslims came to live in a Chinese city.

It all began sometime between 209 B.C. and 9 A.D., during the Western Han Dynasty, when the Silk Road had just been established. The site of Xi’an city was, at the time, the ancient capital city known as Chang’an, which became the starting point for the Silk Road. Many diplomatic envoys, merchants and scholars from Persia or various Arabian countries were able to come to Chang’an thanks to the Silk Road and did so in order to follow various political, mercantile or scholarly pursuits. A number of these Persian and Arabian nationals decided to stay in Chang’an and settled on what is now the present-day Muslim Street. They came to be known by local people as the Hui (回) people. Over time, generation after generation of the Hui people thrived and multiplied, so that now approximately 60,000 Hui Muslims live in Xi’an city. In spite of their currently large population, they still form a very tight knit community thanks partly to their shared ethnicity and predominantly to their religion. Even to this day, there are 10 mosques on Muslim Street where Hui people can go to worship.

西安回民街02Nowadays, all of the shops and restaurants on Muslim Street are run by Hui people. Muslim Street itself is paved with blue flagstones and shaded on either side by trees, making it a beautiful place to go both day and night. Most of the ancient stores that line the main street of the Muslim Quarter were built during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912) Dynasties, so their architectural style is typical of that period. There are also a number of famous, ancient buildings in this district, including the Hanguang Gate of the Tang Dynasty, the Xicheng Gate Tower Cluster of the Ming Dynasty, the City God Temple (a Taoist Temple) and the Grand Mosque. Muslim Street is also very close to the Bell Tower and the Drum Tower, meaning it’s the perfect place to relax after a long day of sight-seeing.

Yet it isn’t just the streets’ architectural beauty that draws the crowds every night. When dusk falls and the street lamps hanging from the restaurant eaves slowly light up, the Muslim Quarter comes to life. Locals and tourists alike flock there to taste some of the delicacies that Muslim Street has to offer. The two most popular dishes are Roujiamo, a bun filled with marinated mutton or beef that is sometimes referred to as a “Chinese Hamburger”, and Yangrou Paomo, a sumptuous mutton stew with vermicelli served with crumbly, melt-in-your-mouth, handmade flatbreads. Some Chinese celebrities have even gone so far as to say that Roujiamo is the tastiest dish in China!

西安回民街03And, if that doesn’t whet your appetite, then we’re sure you’ll succumb to the flavourful Liangpi cold noodles, the meaty Qishan noodles, the delectable soup buns and that irresistible favourite: dumplings. Not to mention that all of these dishes, from the Sun Family’s patented Yangrou Paomo to Wang’s Family Dumplings, are all handmade from recipes belonging to established Hui families that have been passed down for generations. Day or night, the Muslim Quarter is the perfect place to unwind and experience local culture. During the day you can immerse yourself in Hui culture by visiting the many markets in the area, in the afternoon you can visit Gaojia Dayuan and partake in one of their traditional puppet shows or shadow plays, and at night you can wander the streets people-watching or sit down to enjoy some delectable local cuisine. With all these tantalizing treats on offer, we guarantee that you simply won’t be able to resist a trip to Muslim Street.

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The Small Wild Goose Pagoda

The Small Wild Goose Pagoda Scenic Area is made up of three main areas: Jianfu Temple, the Xi’an Museum and the Small Wild Goose Pagoda. The histories of these three buildings are tightly intertwined and this is why they have been grouped together rather than being kept as separate attractions. The Small Wild Goose Pagoda Scenic Area is one of the lesser known tourist attractions in Xi’an and, in spite of its elegance and natural beauty, it rarely attracts large crowds. This, coupled with its peaceful gardens and crystal clear lake, makes it one of the more relaxing sites to visit in the bustling city of Xi’an. Not to mention the fact that, in 2014, UNESCO listed the whole area as a World Heritage Site. Though the museum was only built in 2007, Jianfu Temple and the Small Wild Goose Pagoda both have histories that date back over 1,000 years ago. As a matter of fact, like Da Ci’en Temple, Jianfu Temple was constructed as a gesture of filial piety[1].

The buildings that make up Jianfu Temple were never intended to be a temple when they were first built. In 684 A.D., after his ascension to the throne, Emperor Zhongzong adapted his place of residence into a temple and donated it, subsequently maintaining it so that it could house 200 Buddhist monks. He founded this temple precisely 100 days after the death of his father, Emperor Gaozong, to honour his memory. It was originally named Xianfu Temple, or the Great Monastery of Offered Blessings, but was renamed Jianfu Temple by Empress Wu Zetian in 690 A.D. The Small Wild Goose Pagoda was built later on, sometime between 707 and 709 A.D., and was so-called simply because it was smaller than the Great Wild Goose Pagoda. The pagoda was originally 45 metres (147 ft.) tall and 15 storeys high but was damaged by the same earthquake as the Great Wild Goose Pagoda in 1556 and is now only 43 metres (141 ft.) tall and 13 storeys high. Unlike the Great Wild Goose Pagoda, each storey on the Small Wild Goose Pagoda diminishes in width as it rises, giving it its iconic curved appearance. However, like many pagodas from the Tang Dynasty (618-907), it is archetypally square shaped. During the Tang Dynasty, Buddhist monks would bring Buddhist scriptures and sutras[2] from India to the temple and the pagoda to be translated.

mhrf_dspd16852Astoundingly, even in ancient times, architects had the foresight to make the base of the Small Wild Goose Pagoda out of packed earth and built it into a hemispherical shape. This meant that during earthquakes the tremors were distributed evenly throughout the base of the temple and the pagoda subsequently survived 70 earthquakes virtually unharmed. Interestingly enough, in 1487 a colossal earthquake sent a crack all the way up the pagoda, from top to bottom, and this crack was supposedly a third of a metre wide. Yet remarkably, in 1521, a subsequent earthquake appeared to seal the crack entirely. Years later, however, it was discovered that the crack had not healed but had merely become less visible and so, in 1965, the pagoda underwent extensive repairs. Today you’ll find, when you enter the pagoda, that the second, fifth, seventh, ninth and eleventh storeys have been reinforced with steel girders, although these have been cleverly hidden, and facilities have been set up on the roof so that it now has a lightning rod and is better protected from rain.

So there’s more than meets the eye in this peaceful, tourist haven. The pagoda and temple are not only wonderful relics of history in of themselves; they also house several artefacts that have been dug up around the city. You’ll definitely want to stop off and visit the Ancient Bell, which is in the Bell Pavilion and has been preserved in its original condition since 1192. The bell weighs approximately 8,000 kilograms and has more than a thousand characters engraved on its surface. In 1993 it had to be repaired and welded, as it was damaged during the Cultural Revolution, but it has remained virtually unchanged since then. It was said that, back when the bell was first forged, its ring was so deafening that it echoed throughout the city. In 1998, in light of its popularity, another bell was forged that visitors are allowed to hit, in order to simulate the experience of hitting the original bell.

Nestled within Jianfu Temple, near the Small White Goose Pagoda, you’ll also find the 10 Ancient Pagoda Trees, which are all over 1,000 years old. They are surrounded by ancient stone carvings, which were once part of house gates, and ancient hitching posts for horses. These hitching posts are just upright pillars with various carvings on top, including carvings of mythological creatures, deities and auspicious symbols. In the temple, all of the hitching posts have been placed together to form what looks like a stunning stone forest. This is a fantastic place to take photographs as it is both beautiful and surreal.

On top of all of these wondrous historical artefacts, the Xi’an Museum boasts nearly 130,000 relics that all relate to the history of Ancient China and Xi’an specifically. Most of these relics have been unearthed from tombs in the surrounding area. There you’ll find stunning jade ornaments, Buddhist statues, stone carvings, porcelain figures, famous pieces of calligraphy, and paintings. There is also a small exhibition hall beside the museum that is dedicated to displaying paintings by Huxian County farmers. These paintings are particularly famous because they focus on portraying ordinary aspects of country life and are made using any artistic medium that was available to the farmer, including everyday objects such as newspapers.

If this isn’t enough to draw you in, the Small Wild Goose Pagoda regularly hosts a Chinese calligraphy class where visitors can learn the meanings behind various Chinese characters, and where you may even learn how to write a few characters yourself! What could be a better souvenir than a beautiful piece of calligraphy that was hand painted by you? In short, though the Small Wild Goose Pagoda Scenic Area may be one of the smaller attractions in Xi’an, this simply adds to its charm and makes it a wonderful distraction from the bustle of the city, a place where you can just unwind, relax and truly enjoy Chinese history.

[1] Filial Piety: the concept of being devoted to and respectful of ones parents and elders. It is particularly important in Chinese culture.

[2] Sutra: One of the sermons of the historical Buddha

Shaanxi Local Snacks

As you walk through the streets of Xi’an, you’ll be bombarded with the cries of vendors selling their unique variations on local snacks. In some cases, these local snacks are held in as high esteem as the signature dishes of the province. From the sweet to the savoury, from the large to the small, snacks play a very important role in Chinese culture. So if you want a real taste of China, you need to get stuck in and try a few of the local delicacies that you won’t find in any restaurant. Thanks to its Muslim community, Shaanxi boasts a wide variety of snacks that span a myriad of cooking styles. We’ve listed a few here to whet your appetite and showcase the grandeur of Shaanxi’s local nibbles.

Roujiamo or Shaanxi Hamburger (肉夹馍)

Roujiamo or Shaanxi Hamburger

 

The Shaanxi Hamburger earned its unusual name thanks to its suspicious similarity to its Western cousin. That being said, the two are entirely unrelated. The way roujiamo is made varies from vendor to vendor and region to region, with some vendors using mutton, some using beef, some using pork, and all of them using a different mixture of seasonings to make their roujiamo stand out from the crowd. The “mo” part of the name refers to a type of flatbread in China made from wheat flour that makes up the bun part of the hamburger. This type of bread dates all the way back to the Qin Dynasty (221-206 B.C.) and was originally baked in a clay or mud oven, although now it is often made in a frying pan or pressure cooker. The fluffiest, tastiest “mo” are made using the original method. The recipe for the meat used in roujiamo dates all the way back to the Zhou Dynasty (1045-256 B.C.) and usually consists of finely chopped meat, coriander and chillies, although recipes will vary from vendor to vendor. This tantalising snack is soft, moist and wonderfully flavoursome.

Liangpi or Cold Noodles (凉皮)

Liangpi or Cold NoodlesLiangpi are traditionally seen as one of the most popular snacks in Shaanxi. Liangpi are not actually noodles, but are often referred to as noodles due to the resemblance in shape and texture. Although liangpi are served cold, this dish is served throughout the year. Liangpi can either be made from rice flour (mianpi) or wheat flour (ganmianpi). The types of liangpi can be further subdivided into Hanzhong Liangpi, Majiang Liangpi and Shan Xin Gan Mianpi. Hanzhong Liangpi originated from the city of Hanzhong in southwest Shaanxi. These liangpi are steamed and seasoned with garlic and hot chilli oil. Majiang Liangpi are typically garnished with julienned cucumber and a sauce made from salt, vinegar, hot chilli oil and black sesame paste. Shan Xin Gan Mianpi are made from a different type of liangpi altogether, which looks darker in colour and has a firmer texture. These liangpi are always served with vinegar, chilli oil, salt, mashed garlic and bean sprouts. Whatever variety of liangpi you fancy, we’re sure that you’ll find this snack both delectable and refreshing!

Osmanthus Persimmon Cakes (黄桂柿子饼)

Osmanthus Persimmon Cakes These “cakes” are not cakes in the traditional sense of the word and actually resemble donuts in appearance, although they taste vastly different. Osmanthus Persimmon Cakes are made from the local persimmons grown in the Lintong District, which have earned the name “fire-crystal persimmons” due to their vibrant colour. A mixture of local persimmons and wheat flour is used to form a casing around the soft filling, which is made from osmanthus flowers, rose-petals, walnuts and sugar. The casing is moulded into a circular shape around the filling and is then fried in hot oil until the skin is slightly browned. The ingredients used to make the filling will vary from vendor to vendor. This snack was created by the Uyghur ethnic minority and is particularly popular in the Muslim quarter of Xi’an. These soft, crispy persimmon cakes are exotic to look at and comforting to eat.

 

Taste some Shaanxi Local Snacks on our travel Explore the Silk Road in China

 

An Army of Thousands

I was only 16 years old when I made my first trip to China. I was nervous, but alive with the anticipation of seeing a place that had been so alien to me for so many years. We were on a school trip, a 10 day tour that started in Beijing and ended in Xi’an. The first few days were a blur of fresh sounds, tempting smells, the cry of peddlers, and the magnificence of ancient buildings that were unlike anything I’d ever seen. I have vivid memories of being introduced to a man’s prize fighting cricket in one of Beijing’s many Hutongs and of running up the steps of the Great Wall, full of vigour and wonder.

By the time we boarded the overnight train to Xi’an, I thought the dream was over. In my naïve opinion, nowhere could be as gloriously enchanting as Beijing. So, as the train approached the station, I already had my reservations about the city of Xi’an. Stepping out of the train, I noticed immediately that the atmosphere of the city was vastly different. The pace of life was still as fast, though perhaps not as frantic as Beijing, but the city seemed to have a more rustic feel. People moved deliberately, rather than recklessly, and the population appeared to be older than that of Beijing’s.

Bizarrely enough, perhaps my most memorable meal of the trip happened in Xi’an. I’d tried the sumptuously crispy Peking duck, I’d sampled a platter of plump Beijing dumplings, yet it was the plate of biángbiáng noodles I had in Xi’an, in a restaurant barely the size of my living room, that I remember most vividly. The restaurant itself was above a bustling local market and the sound of bartering was almost deafening. The rooms had an unnerving smell to them and what little tableware we had was clearly still dirty. When the food finally arrived, the thick strips of noodles looked like belts slumped on the plate, soaked in a brownish sauce that smelled acidic and unappetizing. Yet rather than feeling deterred, I remember feeling somehow at ease. A wave of happiness washed over me as I realised that, lovely though Beijing was, this was the real China. This was the place I had longed to visit for so long, and I finally felt at home. I tucked into the noodles with hungry fervour and found them to be so delicious that words failed me. I just sat there, a thick white ribbon of noodle hanging from my mouth, in sheer ecstasy.

The following day, we were to visit the mausoleum of Qin Shi Huang, a man I had never heard of nor had any particular interest in, and I was still certain there would be nothing there for me. After all, no structure could inspire me with as much awe as the Marble Boat in the Summer Palace. In fact, to this day I still dream of Empress Dowager Cixi, stood still in time, languid on her immovable boat.

From a young age, I had been vaguely aware of the existence of the Terracotta Army, but had no real idea who they were or what they looked like. To me they were the stuff of legend, as mythical as the soldiers hidden inside the Trojan Horse. So, as I set foot in the first pit of the mausoleum complex, I had no idea what to expect. The air was still and, from where I was standing, the pit was hidden from view. Slowly I crept towards the ledge and, as I looked down, I felt as though the wind had been knocked out of me. I remember recoiling, both in horror and awe, at what I had seen. There, just a few feet below me, were perfectly formed lines of officers, foot soldiers, archers and horses, all holding position, all ready to attack. They went back as far as my eye could see, all of them staring out at me with unique faces, each one representing a life that had long since perished. Individually they looked calm, but together they created an atmosphere of tension, somehow intimidating in spite of their lifelessness. For one horrible moment, I had thought they were alive.

For the rest of the day, I was almost completely silent. I wandered through the other three pits, through the museum and the gift shop, in a catatonic state, unable to process what I had experienced. I knew that I had to grasp this opportunity, to try and capture these feelings in some meaningful way. In the gift shop, I found a tiny set of terracotta warriors that had been forged in the same way as the originals. They were a common souvenir, consisting of one officer, one foot soldier, one archer and a horse, but I had to have them. In a strange way, I had to know that what I had seen was real, I had to have proof. To this day, there are no words to describe precisely the impact those soldiers had on me. Yet as I look over at those four little figures still silently guarding my windowsill, I am overwhelmed with the desire to try.