We got into Xi’An early but it still took us almost two hours to get into the city, as we’d come in to the North train station (where the 9 hour fast train from Chengdu comes into), rather than the train station close to the city (where the 16 hour slow train goes). We were staying right in the center of the Old Town and had planned to do all of our Xi’An sightseeing around there. On the bus on our way into the city, we’d noticed that the area outside the Old City walls looked very cute as well and we wondered why our book made no mention of it, but we wouldn’t really have any time to explore “the outside” anyway. We needed a few hours right when we got in to catch up on some things, so we grabbed a quick (but delicious) lunch on our street and then spent a few hours hanging out at our very nice guesthouse. We finally got out for the day at around 3 and were ready to explore the Old Town. The three main sights, the Bell Tower, the Drum Tower, and the Muslim Quarter were all about a ten minute walk from us. First we went to check out the Bell and Drum Towers but decided not to go in when we realized that they weren’t very high and didn’t look like they’d award us a great view of the city (plus we’d already been to the Bell Tower in Beijing and were underwhelmed). From there, we headed to the Muslim Quarter, one very long main pedestrian street with several streets branching off of it full of souvenir shops, snack shops, and food stalls all selling the most popular dish in town, lamb kebabs with huge pieces of baked/grilled bread with tons of spices on them. Our plan was to just take a quick peak at the Muslim Quarter and then come back later for dinner after doing another very popular activity in the city, walking/biking the 14km around the whole Old City Walls. As we were walking through the Muslim Quarter (of course planning our dinner for later that night), a big gray cloud rolled over the city and it started to pour. We’d just done our laundry, which was hanging out to dry on the roof of our guesthouse and it was probably the first time in three months that we didn’t have our ponchos and umbrellas with us. Luckily, we were on a covered street when the worst of it was coming down, but it wasn’t too long before the rain started flooding in and we realized we wouldn’t be able to wait it out.
Dave decided that since it was raining and we couldn’t go to the wall at the moment, we should just eat an early dinner since we were already at the Muslim Street. I wasn’t too keen about this idea as it wasn’t even 5pm yet and I really wasn’t very hungry. But, after throwing a bit of a temper tantrum about it, I realized that if I wanted to eat in the Muslim Quarter and try the lamb and bread, this was likely my only time to do it. So, I gave in and we ended up having a great meal. The lamb skewers were delicious, but even better was the bread. It reminded me of a very crispy pizza crust though Dave said it reminded him more of a pita chip. They slater on chili oil all over the bread and grill it. It was delicious.
By the time we were finished, it had stopped raining and the sun was shining again. This seemed like a miracle considering every other time it had rained in China so far, it had pretty much been an all-day event. We ran home to change and check on our laundry (which the amazing woman working at our guest house had saved by bringing it in when the rain started) and then headed over to the South Gate of the wall. By this time, we didn’t have time to walk around the wall, so we rented bikes to make the trip. We went at the perfect time, right before sunset, as we got views when it was light out, as the sun was going down, and then when it was dark and everything was lit up. Once it got dark, the whole wall was lit by the lanterns that went all around it. It was beautiful and was probably the highlight of our whole time in Xi’An for me, which was so far, turning out to be such a cute city.
We had another trip planned for the next day to another famous Chinese mountain, Hua Shan. It’s about a 2.5 hour bus ride from the city and is famous for its chairlift to the West Peak (which sours hundreds of meters above and over several other mountains) and also its 4-hour hike around the top of the mountain to each of the peaks. We were dropped off in the town and had to take a bus to the ticket station. From there, we had to pay another exorbitant fee for 1) entrance to the mountain, 2) the chairlift, and 3) most unsettling, the bus to the chairlift (couldn’t they include that in the price of the chairlift itself?). Without any discounts, it costs a single person about $100 to visit this mountain for the day.
We took the chairlift up to the West Peak, which was admittedly very cool (though not $25 for a single ride cool; an astonishing $50 round trip if you didn’t hike down like us). Once we got up, we walked around the top of the mountain from peak to peak, West, South, East and North (in that order). The route was a mix of uphill and downhill, with chain-link rails all along the way to hold onto, which over the years tons of people have put inscribed locks and red ribbons all around. The scenery is beautiful, but the whole hike was jam packed with Chinese tourists (I can’t imagine what it would have been like on a weekend!) pushing, shoving, and yelling all along the way. The crowds definitely tainted the experience but the scenery was still stunning. Once we were near the North Peak, we decided that we didn’t want to spend any more money on chairlifts and we also wanted to escape the crowds for a bit, so we walked down what they call the “Soldier’s Path,” a very steep and long set of stairs going under the chairlift to the parking lot at the bottom. The walk was hard on our already very sore legs, but it was nice to have some of the mountain to ourselves. Overall, Hua Shan was nice, but again, probably not $100pp nice.
We got back to Xi’An in time for dinner. We showered and changed before heading out to a place right on our street that had caught our eye the night before. Our street was filled with Chinese restaurants and vendors selling skewers. The place we decided on was the most popular of the skewer places and was packed with mostly shirtless men drinking beers at the little tables and plastic chairs that lined the sidewalk. This is the type of place we eat at in Thailand all the time, but had only found once or twice during our time in China. We loved the atmosphere, and of course, the food was great too. We got about 20 beef skewers (they each had a little piece of beef on the end of them), some chicken wings, sausages, and a plate of edemame and peanuts… and a couple beers, of course, all for $10. It was one of our favorite meals that we’d had in China.
Our last day in Xi’An (and in China!) we headed to the famous Terracotta Warriors, about an hour outside of Xi’An by bus. We arrived to the same crazy crowds as we’d been seeing at all of the touristy sights, paid the same exorbitant entry fees ($30 pp), picked up our audio guide, and walked the 15 minutes from the ticket office to where the pits are located. Our book instructed us to go through the pits in backwards order, starting with #3 (the smallest) and ending with #1 (the biggest). We didn’t go in knowing much about the Terracotta Warriors, but we figured that between our audio guide and the movie they showed, we’d get the info we needed. Unfortunately though, we were wrong. We had several questions about the history behind the warriors that were never answered. We wanted the back story and we felt like the one we got was definitely lacking. The Terracotta Warriors must be one of the oldest artifacts/pieces of history ever found, and though that aspect was very cool and impressive (as was the sheer size of Pit 1 and also the level of detail of each warrior and accompanying horse/chariot), overall, I left without having felt that “wow factor” or “OMG moment” that I had really been expecting. We’d made the trip to Xi’An mostly for the warriors, but in the end I was more impressed with how cute the city itself was, rather than this particular attraction.
When we got back to Xi’An at around 2, we spent the rest of the afternoon back at the Muslim Quarter exploring one last time and using the rest of our yuan to stock up on snacks and souvenirs. We had one last early dinner of lamb kebabs and that amazing bread before heading to the airport for our long layover in Kuala Lumpur, before heading back to the Thai Islands.
After five weeks in China, the longest I’ve ever traveled to any country, I can definitely say that while all of my expectations were surpassed, I’m very ready to get back to some sun, sand, and SANUK (fun) in Thailand! Stay tuned for more details about my overall thoughts about China in my next post.