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From the series Cities of China

It’s hard to know where to begin when writing about Xi’an, one of China’s most ancient cities. I suppose I can do what I’ve done in other posts in this series, and tell about my first visit to Xi’an—Christmas of 1984. It was my first Christmas in China and I have often commented that it was my most miserable Christmas ever. That may be a bit harsh, but it certainly ranks up there as one of the stranger Christmases I’ve experienced in my life.

I was teaching in Zhengzhou, Henan Province at the time, along with five other Americans. There were a couple dozen foreign teachers in the province and the Provincial Foreign Affairs Office decided to do something they thought would be special for the foreigners on their special holiday—haul them off to Xi’an for several days. In hindsight, I think it was mostly about them getting an all-expenses-paid junket but that’s neither here nor there.

What is now a three-hour train trip was back then a twelve-hour overnight ride. We arrived in the city the morning of December 24, and spend the next three days seeing all the sights of the city and surrounding area. I don’t remember a lot of details, but I do remember that we nearly froze to death, and that for Christmas dinner they took us to the city’s most famous jiaozi restaurant after a stroll along the ancient city walls. It certainly wasn’t the Christmas in China that any of us had imagined, but we tried to make the best of it.

Since that first cold trip, I have been back there numerous times, and it has become one of my favorite places to visit. 

This video shows what Xi’an looks like now.

Because Xi’an was the capital of numerous ancient dynasties, there is much to see and do on a visit to the city. It’s one of the few cities that did not destroy its ancient wall; strolling or biking its circumference are popular activities.

Another personal favorite is the Forest of Steles museum, which includes the famous Nestorian Stele commemorating the arrival of Christianity to China in the 8th century. But the city’s biggest claim to fame is being the home of the Terra Cotta Warriors, which is actually in the countryside to the east of town. It is home to one of the best museums in the country, the Shaanxi History Museum. Xi’an also marked the beginning point of the fabled Silk Road, a trade route that headed west across Central Asia to the Middle East and Europe.

As I mentioned, it is at Xi’an (then called Chang’An) that Christianity was first brought into China (Tang Dynasty at the time) by the Nestorians in 635. It flourished for a couple hundred years, then fell out of favor with the emperors and died out. Christianity would not return to China until the late 1600s with the arrival of the Jesuits in southern China.  

Muslim traders came to the city during the Tang Dynasty, and today the city still has a vibrant and interesting Muslim district with wonderful food, shopping, and an ancient mosque.

Today there are numerous Protestant churches, and the city is the home of the Catholic Diocese of Xi’an.

Because Xi’an is one of China’s major tourist destinations, travel to the city is quite easy. In addition to air/rail travel from around China, there are international flights to/from Europe, Asia, and the United States (pre-COVID).

The website Sapore di Cina has a great post with lots of information to help in planning a trip to Xi’an.

I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve been there since that first Christmas Eve Day in 1984 and I never cease to be amazed! If you’re planning a trip to China, be sure to include this fabulous city on your itinerary!

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All image credits: Joann Pittman, via Flickr.
Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman is Vice President of Partnership and China Engagement and editor of ZGBriefs. Prior to joining ChinaSource, Joann spent 28 years working in China, as an English teacher, language student, program director, and cross-cultural trainer for organizations and businesses engaged in China. She has also taught Chinese at the University …View Full Bio

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