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Ancient Xi’an was once a key starting point for Silk Road journeys. It also hosts one of China’s most stunning lantern shows

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Located in north-central China, the ancient city of Xi’an has long been famous for its 2,000-year-old Terracotta Army, an attraction that draws travelers from all over the globe.

But this month, all eyes are on another one of its historic sites – the Xi’an City Wall, said to be one of the world’s most impressive remaining traditional defense systems and one of the only complete ancient city walls left in China.

The 13-kilometer-long fortification, which measures 12 meters high and 5 meters wide, is now hosting its annual light show as part of Lunar New Year/Spring Festival celebrations.

Thousands of dazzling lights and lanterns have transformed the massive wall, which curls around the ancient heart of Xi’an. Inside the fortification are traces of what was once the imperial capital of several Chinese dynasties.

This being the Year of the Dragon, the mythical beast has an even greater presence at the 2024 festival and is featured among the 20 lantern sets on display at the wall.

Among the most stunning installations is an 18-meter-tall dragon lantern that appears to roar, its piercing blue eyes and discreetly painted red scales hovering over illuminated makeshift clouds.

“This is so pretty. I want to fly there to see it for myself,” one Chinese netizen wrote on Weibo, an X-like social media network popular in China.

Other themed displays highlight the city’s history, landscapes and children’s folklore tales. Cultural performances and other activities will also take place at the wall as part of the festival.

A 52-day celebration of light

Visitors attend the Xi'an's Spring Festival light show, which opened on February 2. - VCG/Getty Images
Visitors attend the Xi'an's Spring Festival light show, which opened on February 2. - VCG/Getty Images

Lanterns are an important part of Lunar New Year celebrations, even getting their own day – the Lantern Festival. China officially marks the Lantern Festival as the 15th day of the first lunar month (February 24 in 2024).

Referred to as Yuanxiao – Yuan means beginning, Xiao means night – it’s held in honor of the first full moon of the year, marking the departure of winter and the beginning of the spring season as Lunar New Year celebrations come to a close.

Though the Lantern Festival is officially set for a single day, the dramatic displays erected all over China that people visit to celebrate it are often kept up for several weeks to give locals and tourists a chance to enjoy them over the entire Lunar New Year period.

Xi’an’s light show, which opened on February 2, will stay up for 52 days, according to officials.

The Lantern Festival is a time for friends and family to get together to view paper lanterns, have a laugh by solving witty riddles attached to the lights and hang out - sometimes in the hope of finding love.

In historic times, the Lantern Festival was one of the rare days of the year when unmarried girls and boys would be allowed to meet each other, everyone gathering under rows of lanterns. That’s why some have even dubbed it Chinese Valentine’s Day.

The tradition is said to have gained popularity during China’s Han Dynasty some 2,000 years ago.

A year-round attraction

The top of Xi'an's City Wall is a popular place for locals and tourists to get some exercise. - chuyu/iStockphoto/Getty Images
The top of Xi'an's City Wall is a popular place for locals and tourists to get some exercise. - chuyu/iStockphoto/Getty Images

When not glowing with lanterns, Xi’an’s City Wall provides locals and tourists a relaxing space for cycling, or a breezy stroll, while offering panoramic views.

Built in the Ming Dynasty, with intricate drawbridges, towers and a moat, the wall was once one of the most impressive military defense systems in the world.

It safeguarded a city where many travelers’ Silk Road journeys began, one 13 Chinese dynasties chose as their capital.

Now, the wall stands between modern Xi’an and the old city center.

And it’s had its fair share of famous Americans visit, too. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg reportedly enjoyed a morning jog atop the wall during a trip to the city in 2015.

A year earlier, in 2014, then-US First Lady Michelle Obama jumped rope and danced on the Xi’an City Wall.

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