Shaanxi province (map) in north-central China may be famous all the world over for its Terracotta Soldiers, but within China, it’s just as well-known for its local speciality, the biang biang mian (油泼扯面) – a form of hand pulled noodles – as for the First Emperor’s army. Its capital Xi’an was once an active centre of trade and commerce, being the start of the Silk Road that stretched as far as the Middle East. Today –just like hundreds of years ago – everything from exotic snacks from far-flung countries to Muslim-cuisine can still be found in the centre of town.
The Terracotta Army. Imperial Tombs, mausoleums. Noodles, Muslim snacks.
So we’ve explained the difference between Shanxi (山西) and Shaanxi (陕西); the latter is the province we are concerned with here, the one with the elongated ‘aan’. However, both regions have great noodle-based fare and the two provinces are neighbours – just to make things more confusing.
The character for biang is not officially found in the Chinese dictionary, partly because it is immensely complicated to write. While the simplified version of the biang character (油) is complicated enough, the traditional form of the character – pre-simplification (and still used in Hong Kong and southern regions of China) – tries to pack even more strokes in.
As for the actual dish, the biang biang mian is made by pouring hot chilli oil over fresh, thick and wide hand-pulled noodles, with some veg and condiments to complement (see video below).
Xi’an and its surrounding regions are Shaanxi province’s capital in every sense of the word: cultural, historical and social. As the capital of 13 dynasties, Xi’an is a treasure trove of history and archaeology, both in its ancient city centre and rural surroundings.
One of the ‘Four Great Ancient Capitals of China’, along with Beijing, Nanjing and Luoyang, Xi’an is the oldest of the bunch, and its dense accumulation of relics is problematic each time the city’s underground expansions hits something hard: archaeological finds constantly disrupt the process.
Importantly, the pride of the city lies in its still intact city wall (unlike Beijing’s, which has been torn down). Today you can walk and cycle on the Xi’an wall, and look down on the city beneath.
Discover the mausoleums
Given the region was the capital of so many dynasties, it makes sense there are countless tombs and mausoleums scattered around the region, many of which are found on mountains and even in crop fields.
Many of the imperial tombs cover vast distances, such as that of China’s only empress Wu Zetian‘s (her tomb resembles two breasts, supposedly) the formidable ruler of the Tang dynasty, which has not been excavated at all.
Aside from the Terracotta Army, a visit to the excavated pits of the Tomb of Emperor Jingdi, known as Hanyangling Mausoleum, is arguably more interesting, as glass flooring means you can get right on top of the terracotta figurines. Similarities to the First Emperor’s army are evident from the rows of smaller but distinctively warrior-like sculptures.
One of five ‘Great Mountains of China’ Hua Shan is home to over 20 temples dedicated to Taoism. With its narrow walkways made of wooden planks lining the vertical cliff, it is considered one of the world’s most dangerous hikes, and is a hot destination for thrill-seekers. Whether you choose to hike up the mountain or take the cable car, the peak offers spectacular cloud-frosted views.
The ancient centre of Xi’an was the starting point of the Silk Road, a nexus of trade where merchants, hawkers and customers gathered. The journey to the West stretched as far as the Middle East, and contrary to what most people think, consisted of a few different routes that branched out. It’s no wonder that Xi’an became a melting pot of cuisines of the local people and the Muslim regions of Xinjiang.
Given that pork is the main meat staple of traditional Chinese cuisine, the abundance of lamb and beef dishes in Xi’an’s cooking points to the importance of Islamic influences in the region. Although Xi’an’s traditional snack, roujiamou, features pulled pork sandwiched between thick Chinese flatbread, there are many alternative fillings available, including beef and lamb. A list of the best restaurants in Xi’an can be found here.
Another signature dish this region is yangrou paomo, a hot soup of lamb stew with vermicelli noodles into which pieces of ripped pitta bread are added. The proper way of eating it is to diligently rip up the flatbread into small pieces and leave it soaking in the soup so that it isn’t immediately soggy. Nowadays, for convenience and speed, many joints now cut the bread up by machine beforehand and add it for the customer.
Today, exotic nuts and fruits from regions to the north-west still line the stalls in the Muslim quarter, known as the “Muslim snack street”, where produce from afar are sold and traditional Muslim snacks are made, even if they no longer travel the Silk Roads. For those with a sweet tooth, there are deep fried persimmon cakes (persimmon is a famous local produce) and rose petal as well as cakes made with jujube dates.
Yan’an is a major pilgrim site for those who revere Mao and want to see for themselves the area considered the ‘cradle of China’s communist revolution’. It was base camp and headquarters for the Communist Party from the mid-1930s to 1949 as they built up power and eventually defeated the invading Japanese. Today, you can have the ‘red’ experience, dressing up in Mao suits and reliving the early days of struggle for Mao and his men. There is not much in the area apart from the 100 or so relics left over from the Communist party’s wartime stay, but it remains a popular tourist destination for many Chinese people, as well as a ‘red education‘ centre for party cadres and civil servants.