This is the best-known temple in Xi'an, and worth a visit if, like many in the U.K. and Australia, you were entranced by the TV version of "Monkey" as a child. The scripture-collecting journey of Xuanzang (596-664) to India, on which the show was based, lasted 15 years, and was immortalized and lampooned in Wu Cheng'en's novel Journey to the West (Xi You Ji). But the journey was not the end of Xuanzang's travails. Upon his return, he requested the construction of a pagoda to house the scriptures; his request was accommodated inside a temple built from 647 to 652 by Prince Li Zhi in honor of his mother, Empress Wen De. Construction of the pagoda commenced in 652, in a style similar to those seen by Xuanzang in India -- hence the simple, tapering structure. Xuanzang is credited with translating 75 texts into over 1,000 volumes, an amazing feat since the originals contained a host of specialized terms with no Chinese equivalents.

Halls at the back of the temple contain murals depicting Xuanzang's journey -- in many pictures, he is shown holding a fly whisk, intended to send evil spirits into flight. To the left and right of the pagoda's south entrance are prefaces to the texts written by Taizong and Gaozong. Above the east and west doors are barely visible Tang carvings of the Buddha. The temple's perimeter has recently undergone redevelopment and the result is as good as Chinese urban planning gets. To the north of the pagoda is the north plaza (bei guangcang), which boasts a large pool of fountains, benches, and retail shops lining the mall. A water fountain and light show kicks off nightly at 8pm.