Traveling Around

Traveling Around: Historical and Cultural Xi’an, China

April 18, 2020


If you are seeking places to visit in China, I highly recommend visiting Xi’an, particularly if you enjoy history. Currently the Upper Primary Art Teacher for Xi’an Liangjiatan International School, I have had the opportunity to visit many of this ancient city’s sights. While it is not one of the top cities in terms of population, it ranks near the top in terms of historical importance. For over 1,000 years it served as the capital of China under thirteen dynasties and 73 emperors. Some of its notable dynasties included the Qin, Tang, Han, and Zhang. Even today, construction efforts of this rapidly expanding city continue to be interrupted by archaeological discoveries.

Terracotta Warriors and Emperor Qin ShiHuang Mausoleum 

 Most people come to Xi’an to visit the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Terracotta Warriors, located about 20 km east of modern Xi’an. Despite the large crowds (over 1 million visitors annually), this site is a must. Don’t forget to visit the Exhibition Hall and the Qin ShiHuang Mausoleum, both of which are included in the entrance fee. Just as with any popular destination in China, avoid going during any Chinese national holiday. In winter, crowds are less, as is the entrance fee. Getting your own transportation there (such as a taxi or Didi – China’s version of Uber) will be more expensive, but it will enable you to arrive early and before the tour groups. After being one of the first people in line for tickets, I immediately headed to Pit 1 and had it to myself for over five minutes. Pit 1 and the Exhibition Hall were the most impressive ones for me. Cheap, local buses will take you back into Xi’an. Tour guides are available, but I opted to conduct my own research prior to visiting. You will find many people selling souvenirs; you can find similar ones in Xi’an at a much better price.

Xi’an City Wall

One of Xi’an’s most recognizable landmarks is its city wall. This massive well-preserved structure (much of which dates back to the 14th century) is surrounded by a moat. Rent a bike or walk on top of the wall, for all or part of the 14 km (8.7 miles) length. Around the time of Chinese New Year, a lantern festival is held here. To experience fewer crowds during this time, I recommend going while it is daylight and observe the changes to the lanterns and watchtowers as nightfall descends. For photography of the wall and surrounding city, you have a greater chance of clear skies outside of late fall/winter. Air quality in winter can be quite bad.

Drum and Bell Tower

Centrally located within the confines of the ancient City Wall are the Drum and Bell Towers. Built in 1384, Xi’an’s Bell Tower is the largest and the best-preserved in all of China. Nearby is the Drum Tower (1380), also one of the largest in China. Both structures are beautifully illuminated at night. For a small fee, you can ascend the structures and also see some artifacts. From the Drum Tower, you can also see the immensely popular Muslim Quarters.

Muslim Quarter

If you follow the crowds near the Drum Tower, you will find yourself in what is known as the Muslim Quarter. Foodies (particularly meat-eaters) will rejoice, with the plethora of tasty offerings in this crowded area. Snack your way along or rest your feet in one of its many restaurants that serve up signature dishes such as hand-pulled noodles (one of my favorites), steamed dumplings, or Yangrou Pao Mo (pita bread pieces soaked in lamb soup). The Xi’an hamburger also makes a tasty snack. The Muslim Quarter is also a fun place for photography–if you don’t mind the crowds. While in the Muslim Quarter, you can take in a short shadow puppet show in Gao’s Grand Courtyard. 

While in the Muslim Quarter, don’t miss the Grand Mosque. The largest and one of the most important mosques in China, the Grand Mosque dates back over a thousand years. Enjoy its beautiful traditional architecture while you get a respite from the bustle of the crowded food streets. Its minaret and the Phoenix Pavilion are particularly noteworthy.

Shuyuanmen Ancient Cultural Street

Located just to the east of the South Gate of the City Wall is the Shuyuanmen Ancient Cultural Street. Many of its well-restored buildings date back to the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties. It is pleasant to wander the street and peek into the small shops selling calligraphy supplies, papercuts, shadow puppets, jade, paintings, and other souvenirs. During the Chinese New Year, the street is even more lively. At the end of the street is the famous Stele Forest.

Big Wild Goose Pagoda

Also known as Dayanta, the Big Wild Goose Pagoda is one of the most famous pagodas in China. Originally built in 652AD, the present 7-story brick structure was built without any cement. It was constructed to house Buddhist relics brought from India via the Silk Road. Visitors can pay a small fee to climb up the UNESCO World Heritage site to see some statues, paintings, poems, and great city views. While there, visit some of the structures within the Da Ci’en Buddhist Temple (648 AD). At the spacious North Square is the largest fountain square in Asia. At night, the fountain shows (set to music) are illuminated, as is the pagoda. The fountain show is particularly enjoyable on a warm late spring/late summer evening.

Small Wild Goose Pagoda

Located five kilometers away from its bigger brother, the Small Wild Goose Pagoda was erected in 709AD. Like Dayanta, the Small Wild Goose Pagoda is architecturally significant and well-preserved. On the same park-like grounds is the Xi’an Museum (free admission with passport). It houses over 130,000 relics and historical artifacts. Elsewhere in the park is a visitor center. I enjoyed learning more about how shadow puppets are made.

Shaanxi History Museum

This world-class museum houses over 370,000 exhibits, of which many of the items were excavated within the province. Exhibits within the three main halls are dual-sign-posted in Mandarin and English. Some of the museum’s signature pieces include several TerraCotta Warriors, Tang Dynasty tri-colored pottery (my favorite), and Tang Dynasty mural paintings. Admission (with passport) is free, but the Tang Murals Hall requires a separate, paid ticket. Any lover of history/art should visit this museum.

Han Yang Ling Mausoleum of the Han Dynasty

Otherwise known as the Tomb of Emperor Jingdi, the joint tomb of Liu Qi and his empress Wang covers an area of 20 square kilometers. Built in 153AD, the emperor’s tomb is at the center. The Outside Pits Exhibition Hall is the first underground museum in China. Transparent walkways enable visitors to see excavations of his tomb in progress–a very cool effect.  It contains over 50,000 terracotta doll-size figures and life-like animals arranged as if it were an army formation. 

Tang Paradise

Located just north of the original Tang Dynasty Lotus Garden site, this theme park is built in the style of the Tang royal garden. While it is pleasant to wander the beautiful grounds and admire the beautiful Tang-style architecture, it is especially beautiful during the Chinese New Year. During this period, huge lanterns and illuminated sculptures are a sight to behold in the lake and throughout the park. Indoor and outdoor cultural performances entertain visitors, along with the world’s largest movie on water-screen. I enjoyed the dragon dance outside the Zihyun building and some mini-concerts inside. Tang Paradise is also a beautiful place for photography in the spring.

Qinglong Temple

If you happen to be in Xi’an during the cherry blossom season, be sure to visit Qinglong Temple (originally dating back to 582 AD). Opening hours are extended, so try to be there very early in order to avoid the hordes of people. Bring your passport and camera. The area around the main Buddhist temple buildings is full of cherry blossoms. The area around the bridge is also very picturesque.

Getting Around

Many of Xi’an’s other popular sites are located fairly close to each other. The subway, signposted in English, is continually expanding, making it easier to get around to some of these sights. Taxis are available, but be sure to have the address written in Mandarin, because few drivers understand English. For expats living in China, DiDi is convenient. iPhone users will be able to use Apple Maps VPN-free to navigate, including subway and public buses.

This article was submitted by guest author and ISC member, Melissa Enderle.

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Highlighted Articles

The International Education Dream

February 21, 2018


Every year, hundreds of leaders of international schools throughout India gather for professional development and share recent research in the field of international education.  It is an impressive gathering of teachers, who have an opportunity to proudly represent their school and share their exciting developments with their international colleagues. They have many reasons to be proud, as thousands of children from these schools go on to pursue prestigious university degrees all over the world, while a large percentage, have their sights set on America.

“So many of our young bright Indian students are aspiring to attend American colleges and living the dream of a college experience in America” explained a Board Chairman of a leading international school in India. However, rather than continue with glowing accolades for these students, there seemed to an air of concern in his voice. As the conversation continued it became apparent that he wasn’t concerned about the academic program but rather the location of the institutions. “What we really need here is American universities with satellite campuses in major Indian cities. We need our sons and daughters to stay here in India to study.” Upon further inquiry into his concerns, he went on to explain: “We are worried that our children who go abroad, will lose our strong cultural traditions and responsibility of family. Who will care for the grandparents?”

This pure honest expression of concern over cultural differences expressed through this conversation was one of many concerns that are starting to be voiced. Families are expressing apprehension when their children are exposed to, and influenced by, different cultural ideas regarding relationships, religion, traditions, core values and more. What happens when the culture of your home country and the cultural experience of your international education differ or even clash?

Could this potential clash already begin in your home country, before you embark on an education abroad?

One could argue that these cultural differences could start even before the student boards their flight to university. Perhaps it slowly begins the moment they enroll in an international school in their home country. The growth of international schools in India is accelerating at an exponential rate. Within the last five years, the number of international schools in India has grown by over 45%, while student enrollment has increased by over 70%. There are currently 469 international schools located throughout the country attended by 268,500 students aged between 3 and 18. (ISC Research)

international education

There is a decline in enrollment at India’s private schools as some students migrate to international schools, and several of India’s schools are moving from state examination boards (such as the Indian Certificate of Secondary Education) to international boards (such as the IGCSE, the Cambridge International Examination, and the International Baccalaureate Diploma Program) to respond to the increasing demand for more globally-recognized education and qualifications. (ISC Research)

The local kids attending the international schools are crossing cultures on daily basis. Their home environment is likely culturally different from the school’s, but it is also the dominant culture of that land. So, outside of school, the cultural values of home are being reinforced. The question we are starting to hear more and more is: “How are these children being shaped and changed by the international culture?”

In one of our presentations in an international school in India we were asked by one of the locally hired Indian teachers: “So how many of these kids still feel Indian? And how do they get along with their parents and their expectations?

Where can we look to, for help to better understand these potential cultural differences in international education? How can we try to start to understand the feelings, emotions, and cultural challenges of the students embarking on this education journey along with the parents and families of these individuals? We can start by looking at Ruth E. Van Reken and her descriptions of CCKs.

A Cross- Cultural kid (CCK) is a person who is living in-or meaningful interacting with two or more cultural environments for a significant period of time during developmental years.

Educational CCKs are: Children who attend a school with a different cultural base from the one they return to at home each night.

international education

(Ruth E. Van Reken, co-author, Third Culture Kids:Growing Up Among Worlds, 3rd edition, 2017)

These kids usually grow to be capable in areas like:

  • Cross-cultural skills
  • Observational skills
  • Social skills
  • Linguistic skills
  • Adaptability
  • Expanded Worldview, thinking “outside of the box“.
  • The potential of being less judgmental, less prejudice

All of these benefits will serve them in the future planned by the parents who enrolled them to this kind of international schools. But at the same time these kids also face some challenges that this lifestyle brings:

  • Might have complex identity or less strong typical feelings of national affiliation
  • Confused loyalties
  • Painful awareness of reality
  • Unsureness or ignorance of the home country culture,
  • Different sense of nationalism
  • Different integrated cultural identity
  • The potential to be rootless and restless

These challenges do not only impact the student themselves but their family around them. Parents, along with extended families in India can also experience challenges as their children exhibit culture norms very different from their own.

This generation, attending international schools in their home country, aiming for university in a different culture, and being technologically connected worldwide, are a “growing cultural complexity”; they are being shaped in ways previous generations never knew. But as long as they remain in India, the dominant culture likely keeps them more in tune with traditional values and a sense of identity so parents may not notice these early shifts.

When you made the decision of enrolling your children in an international education, you also make the decision that they will be influenced by other cultures; it is unavoidable. So how do parents build the base of values and all they want their kids to maintain anywhere?

Upon sharing our ideas with Ruth Van Reken, she expressed her enthusiasm for this area of CCK development, expressing, “You have just hit a brand new place in this whole discussion!”

In times of growth and change we should anticipate that this is only the beginning. There are dozens more questions that beg to be answered as hundreds of thousands of children and families in India and all over the world look towards international education and international universities as the way forward for their children and their future. The benefits of this road and journey are enormous. But, it is always better to embark on the journey with a clear idea of the obstacles and challenges that may arise.

International schools have the responsibility to be aware and educate their communities on the potential benefits along with the challenges. Parents of these children could benefit from being more aware of these challenges as their child’s journey begins and be better equipped to help their child and themselves navigate these challenges.

So let the conversation begin. We at Global Nomad’s World (GNW) will be happy to lead you through this exploration. We offer workshops for families and schools (including counselors and administrators) to help support this growing population that are dealing with this significant cross-cultural questions. The students and the families will benefit from being understood and we will offer tools to help them succeed on their journey.

How can your Cross-Cultural experiences be shared?

If you are a parent interested in these cross-cultural educational questions, please help us gather information by filling in this anonymous short survey

international education

Lisa and Daniela are the co- founders of Global Nomads World (GNW)

Lisa Murawsky is an International Educator, teaching in India and at Endicott College in America.

Daniela Tomer is an Israeli licensed Clinical Psychologist. She is a Mediator, Coach and Trainer and serves as FIGT- Families in Global Transition Program Chair, leading their global annual conference

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