Xi'an's 40-meter-high Bell Tower dates to 1384, during the early Ming Dynasty, and has survived earthquakes though the centuries to become  a symbol of the city. It marks the geographical center of the ancient capital and roads radiate from it east, south, west and north to the four main gates in the city wall.
Xi'an – Been There

Symbols and echoes of old China

Photo by Peter Adams

Xi'an – Been There Symbols and echoes of old China

All roads in Xi’an lead to the Bell Tower at its center, from which a huge bell once sounded at dawn as the city gates opened for business, as well as being used to alert the surrounding countryside of approaching invaders.

Lucas Vallecillos
Lucas Vallecillos Travel Photographer

Now stuck on a traffic island, around which vehicles circle non-stop like sharks to prey on pedestrians, it is best reached via a foot tunnel. The impressive tower dates to 1384 and is the largest and best preserved of its kind in China.

Its mate on the other side of a massive square is the 34-meter-high Drum Tower, which had a similar function, sounding out at night to warn that the city gates were closing. Like the bell, the sound must have carried for many kilometers across the flat countryside around. After enjoying the view from the top, I listen to one of the regular daily drum shows, given by red-costumed artists of great skill whose drumsticks fly in mesmerizing harmony. A Drum Museum gives more insight into the importance of the drum to Chinese history and culture.

Late in the afternoon, I follow the crowds towards the south of the city where local people and visitors converge every evening on the Big Wild Goose Pagoda. This symbol of the city stands in the Da Ci'en temple complex and was built in 652 to keep safe 657 volumes of Buddhist scriptures brought from India along the Silk Road by the monk Xuan Zang. The temple area is surrounded by gardens and fountains that come to life with a massive sound and light show as dusk falls.

On my last day, I say my farewells to Xi’an by cycling the 14-kilometer perimeter of the city walls from the South Gate. Although not as famous as some others, it is the best preserved of all the walls that defended Chinese cities. It was built between 1374 and 1378 to screen the Forbidden City of the Ming Dynasty and still stands complete today. The wall is 12 meters high and from 15 to 18 meters wide, with several smaller gates in addition to the four main ones at each cardinal point of the compass.

At dusk, lights twinkle around each gateway and red lanterns hang from key points on the wall, creating a mystical and romantic image for this great city that guards within its walls the history, majesty and essence of old China.

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Other stories about Xi'an

The Tang Dynasty Music and Dance Show pays tribute to the time when Xi'an was at its height during the Tang Dynasty from 618 to 907. The city, formerly known as Chang'an, was the imperial capital during 13 dynasties and once one of the largest and most populous cities in the world.

How my hotel concierge helped me discover Xi'an beyond the Terracotta army

My hotel concierge, Xi Dan, is a convincing advocate for the charms of his home town. “Many visitors expect Xi’an to be an old and underdeveloped city,” he says. “In fact, it is very modern with good transportation. Compared with some other big cities in China, it is inexpensive and is comfortable, civilized and prosperous. It has four distinct seasons, but is not too hot or too cold.”