Xi’an is an excellent place to pick up souvenirs and antiques, which are generally cheaper and more varied than in Beijing, though prices have to be bartered down and the standard of goods, especially from tourist shops, is sometimes shoddy. Shopping is also an enjoyable evening activity, since the markets and department stores are open until 10pm – the Muslim Quarter and Beilin make for an entertaining stroll under the stars, where the nocturnal hawkers sell everything from dinner to souvenir silk paintings.
Xi’an has a strong artistic pedigree, and the paintings available here are much more varied in style than those you see elsewhere in China. As well as the widespread line-and-wash paintings of legendary figures, flowers and animals, look for bright, simple folk paintings, usually of country scenes. A traditional Shaanxi art form, appealing for their decorative, flat design and lush colours, these images were popular in China in the 1970s for their idealistic, upbeat portrayal of peasant life. A good selection is sold in a shop just behind the Small Goose Pagoda and in the temple compound, as well as outside the Banpo Museum. For rubbings from steles, much cheaper than paintings and quite striking, try the Big Goose Pagoda and Shuyuanmen, especially around the Beilin Museum, which is also a great area to find calligraphy and paintings. The underground pedestrian route at the South Gate includes an interesting diversion down an old bomb shelter tunnel to Nan Shang Jie, where papercuts are for sale.
Strong competition means you can pick up a painting quite cheaply if you’re prepared to bargain. Beware the bright young things who introduce themselves as art students whose class happens to be having an exhibition. They’re essentially touts who will lead you to a room full of mediocre work at inflated prices.
Beiyuanmen and Huajue Xiang, the alley that runs off to the Great Mosque, are the places to go for small souvenirs, engraved chopsticks, teapots, chiming balls and the like. Clusters of stalls and vendors swarm around all the tourist sights, and are often a nuisance, though the stalls around the Great Mosque are worth checking out – you’ll see curved Islamic shabaria knives among the Mao watches and other tourist knick-knacks.
For a personalized souvenir, try the seal engravers along Shuyuanmen, where you’ll also find a variety of calligraphy sets and other artists’ materials.
Antiques abound in Xi’an, but be aware that many – however dusty and worn – are reproductions. The best place to go is the City Antiques Market, about a block south of the Small Goose Pagoda, on Zhuque Dajie; this has some genuine antiques and oddities (such as old military gear) at reasonable prices, and Mao-era artwork with price tags that show the dealers here know how much these things sell for overseas. Another good place is the market outside Baxian Gong, which is biggest on Wednesdays and Sundays; many vendors are villagers from the outlying regions who look as if they are clearing out their attics. You can find some unusual items here, such as books and magazines dating from the Cultural Revolution containing rabid anti-Western propaganda, Qing vases, opium pipes and even rusty guns.