How to see the best of Xi’an in two days
This past weekend was our last CET organized excursion, the Xi’an Historical Trip. In Chinese, the characters “西安” in Xi’an literally mean “Western Peace”. I’ll admit I was a bad traveler, and neglected to do any research beforehand. I associate any place in Western China with the desert, comparatively spicy food, Islam, and rock cut cave dwellings. Needless to say I was a little surprised when we arrived in a place that had a pretty strong resemblance to Beijing (bad traffic, polluted air, high rises built next to ancient architecture, family run butcher shops next to McDonald’s, all of which can be called the best attempt at preserving culture while promoting modernity).
Referred to in ancient times as Chang’an, Xi’an has a recorded history of over 3,100 years. It served as one of the Four Great Ancient Capitals of China for 12 dynasties including the Western Zhou, Qin, Han, Sui, and Tang. To add to its cultural/historical resume, Xi’an was once the end of the Silk Road and therefore is a melting pot for both culture and religion. You’ll probably be disappointed if you plan to see the Xi’an of 1,000 years ago, but you can at least take some comfort in knowing that a lot of elements of modern Xi’an are still reminiscent of its ancient past.
The Train Ride
This was one of the coolest parts for me. If you look at a map, you’ll see that Xi’an is actually more towards the middle of China as opposed to its Western edge. That being said, it’s still a hike to get out there – 13 hours if you go by train like we did. I have only ridden a legit train once before, while making my way between Germany, Austria, and the Czech Republic, and that was for a few hours at most. Taking the train in China is a completely different experience.
We rode on what’s called a T-class hard sleeper. Although on the older and more basic side of Chinese trains, it’s an express train that’s equipped to handle longer journeys. Hard sleeper carriages have door-less compartments with 6 bunk beds in 3 tiers – sheets, a blanket, and a pillow included. This probably isn’t the most optimal setup if you’re an old couple looking for privacy, but if you’re a group of 20 something’s on your way to Xi’an, it works out pretty well. Without question, I would rather sleep on a train than sit in a plane for 13 hours – and I’ve done both so I would know.
Friday’s Scavenger Hunt
We got in on Friday morning at 7:00 am and the days schedule was organized around a scavenger hunt through the city, the first objective being to find our hotel on our own. If you think the idea of a scavenger hunt is lame, just consider it a list of places to visit, put together by someone who knows more about the city than you do. That’s how I looked at it anyway. Here’s how the day went:
Great Mosque and Surrounding Area 大清真寺和周遍地区
|The Muslim Quarter has been home to the city’s Hui (Chinese Muslim) community for centuries. The backstreets are full of butcher shops, hidden mosques, small family run restaurants, candy vendors, and souvenir stores. Part one of our mission was to eat authentic Xi’an dishes – we ate mutton soup with bread; Part two was to find the Great Mosque – one of the largest Mosques in China, and a fusion of both Islamic and Chinese architecture.|
Xi’an Folk Art 西安民俗艺术
|The alleyways inhabited by artists and vendors around the Great Mosque area are some of the most colorful I’ve ever seen. It’s definitely worth checking out my Xi’an photo album to see what I mean. The shops and stalls are filled with everything from terracotta soldiers and Mao phrase books to Northface backpacks and Gucci purses – all of which are fake. Our objective was to find a local folk artist called Ding Laoshi. While his resume is a little long for this post, it’s safe to say the old man with the coke bottle glasses and beyond heavy accent is a stud in the folk artist world.|
Beilin “Forest of Stelae” Museum 碑林博物馆
|Housed in Xi’an’s Confucius Temple, Beilin holds over 1000 stone stelae (inscribed tablets). These aren’t little saplings either, I’m talking about full on 7 – 9 foot rock towers inscribed with Confucian classics, including the first monograph of the meaning of words. They’re obviously interesting because of the role they play in Chinese history, but what I couldn’t stop thinking about was how long it must have taken and how hard it must have been to write traditional characters in stone. It takes me hours to write simplified and I use a paper and pen.|
Xi’an City Walls 西安城墙
|No, the Great Wall isn’t the only famous Wall in China. Xi’an is one of the few cities in China where the old city walls are still standing. They’re rebuilt or restored, but what else would you expect from walls that have been around since 1370? The walls are 12m high and encompass a rectangle with a perimeter of 14km. You can walk the whole thing in 4 hours, bike it in under 2, or pay about $35 US to be driven around in a golf cart. While we did hang out on the walls for a few minutes, we unfortunately weren’t able to partake in the aforementioned modes of transportation as we were running out of time to make it to our last objective.|
Big Goose Pagoda Park 大雁塔
|Our last mission of the day: Big Goose Pagoda. It’s outside the city walls so you either have to bus it or snag a cab. We were struggling hard at this point but luckily we found another group of CET’ers and their Chinese roommates and let them lead us to the Goose. Big Goose Pagoda is one of China’s best examples of a Tang-style pagoda, completed in AD 652 to house the Buddhist sutras brought back from India by the Monk Xuan Zang. Big Goose Pagoda is Xi’an’s most famous landmark, and if you can make it to the top, you have a view of one of the largest fountains in all of Asia (and it is large) which has a light show between 7-8 every night.|
Saturday “Togetherness” Touring
Saturday was designated solely for The Terracotta Army and Hang Yangling Mausoleum. Because they’re about an hour outside of Xi’an, we took group buses to both. Once there though, it was self-guided tour time. It was comfortable travel – had a pretty decent all you can eat lunch – and we got to see a lot of the countryside outside of Xi’an.
Army of Terracotta Warriors 兵马俑
|It’s pretty amazing that one of the 20th Century’s greatest discoveries and one of China’s most famous tourist sites was found by peasants digging a well. The collection of 6,000 soldiers and horses, constructed to protect the tomb of the Emperor Qin Shi Huang, is over 2,000 years old and so big that it’s actually housed in an over sized airplane hangar. If that’s not impressive enough, no two soldiers are exactly alike and it’s thought that they were all originally painted. There are a total of 3 viewing pits, and just like every guidebook or website will tell you, I say start with 3 and end at 1 which is easily the most impressive.|
Han Yang Ling Mausoleum 汉阳陵博物馆
|Han Yangling is the tomb of Emperor Jingdi (188-141 BC), and one of Xi’an’s more underrated sights (not as impressive as the Terracotta warriors though). If Jingdi were ruling today, he’d probably be called either the ultimate democrat or robin hood – not necessarily stealing from the rich, but definitely easing the burden of the poor. It’s believed that there are about 81 burial pits (containing some 50,000 terracotta figurines), 21 of which are below a glass floor for public viewing. It’s China’s most intact royal mausoleum, and one of the most important resources for understanding ancient culture and civilization. Was it my favorite? No, but if you’re in Xi’an, I wouldn’t say not to go.|
And of course, we rode the train back to Beijing through Saturday night, arriving bright and early Sunday morning so we could do the homework that wasn’t postponed. Xi’an wasn’t what I expected, but still a great place. Most people say you can see it in 1 or 2 days…I say tack on a third for the Terracotta Army and Mausoleum. If nothing else, the trip was genuinely a lot of fun and it gave us some good bonding time.
If you want to see my entire Xi’an album, just head over to the photos page.