China: Top Things To Do In Xi’an

temple in xi'an on the city walls
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Once the end destination of the Silk Road, Xi’an was a land-mark Chinese city rich in history, culture and trade.  Today it stands as a busy modern city, with many tourists still flocking to see the world famous delights of the Terracotta Army and The Tomb of Emperor Jingdi.  If you look a little closer then it’s possible to get a glimpse of the old Xi’an, in the ancient Ming dynasty city walls that still surround the centre, or in the bustling Muslim quarter where street sellers offer exotic tasting foods that contrast greatly to the Asian cuisine.  Spend some time wondering the streets to get the best experience of this contrasting city.

 

Visit the Terracotta Army Of Warriors

A trip to Xi’an just isn’t complete without a visit to China’s most famous attraction, the Terracotta Army.  Discovered in the 1970's by local peasants digging for a well, the ancient army lay buried for thousands of years after the Emperor, Qin Shi Huang, had the warriors constructed to guard him from evil in the afterlife.  Thousands of life-sized figures of men and horses have been unearthed standing in battle formation in ginormous dug-out pits, that are now on show to the public in huge exhibition halls. 

It is advisable to start at the smaller of the 3 pits (pit 3) first and work your way up to the largest pit (pit 1) for the most impressive of the archeological findings. Several of the terracotta men are on show in glass cases, and it is possible to see the workmanship up close.  The detail on them is next-level extraordinary, the hair, the tread on the soles of the shoes, the hint of coloured paintwork that once brought them to life.  Each face is unique and no two are the same.  This is mastery and skill at its best, and the scale of the creation is at times overwhelming. 

As with all popular Chinese tourist attractions, the groups of crowds can be quite distracting and a lot of tat is being sold on route to the display halls.  It is probably better to visit earlier in the day for a slightly quieter experience, or to head into the halls at lunch time when most of the Chinese are eating.  Putting the annoyances aside, this is one of the rarest discoveries of its kind in the world, and is worth the effort of visiting.  Make sure you take a trip to the internal museum for a quieter view of one of the warriors up close. 

Entry is 150 yuan for access to the 3 pits, museum and cinema showing of how the figures would have been casted (this was closed when we visited). The 306 bus will take you there from outside Xi’an main train station and costs 7 yuan for a 1 hour journey.  Plan for a half day to visit the site.

The terracotta warriors guarding the Emperor

The terracotta warriors guarding the Emperor

 

Cycle The City Walls

Standing strong since 1370 are the old city walls of Xi’an.  Built during the Ming dynasty, the rectangular shaped wall stretches for a lengthy 14km around the oldest part of the city and can be enjoyed all year round by tourists alike.  The elevated walkway on the wall makes a welcome break from the hustle and bustle from the city below, and is surprisingly peaceful with lots of space to stretch your legs and view the contrasting skyline; old vs new sitting side by side.  It is possible to walk the entire circuit in a leisurely 4 hours, or for a funner experience opt for bike hire, either choosing from single bikes or a tandem.  We went for the tandem and had a great time cycling along the cobbled walkway, whizzing past temple-style buildings and up and down speed ramps! For a more magical experience, time your visit just before dusk to see the city by day and night.  Entry to the walls is 55 yuan and opening hours are 8am-10pm.  Tandem hire is a steep 90 yuan and single bikes are 45 yuan, both for 2 hours of rental.  Closest tube stop is YongNing Man station.

A fun couple of hours on a tamdem

A fun couple of hours on a tamdem

 

Soak Up The Muslim Quarter

One of the most exhilarating things to do in Xi’an is to visit the bustling Muslim quarter.  Once the end destination of the Silk Road, Xi’an became a multi-cultural hotpot and a strong Muslim community settled here many centuries ago, sharing their food, culture and religion with the people of China.  The area today is a network of busy market lanes and a hub for some of the best food we have ever tasted, a unique mix of Islamic and Chinese cuisines, creating a taste sensation for even the amateur food-lover. 

The streets are lined with women in decorative head scarfs selling their bites, rawly contrasted by the hanging carcasses of sheep which make the popular meat skewers.  There are hundreds of other interesting street foods to try including a sticky rice cake dipped in syrup, nut and seed brittle (which is being hammered into form right in front of you), slow cooked meat in a bap (which is a bit like the Jewish salt beef bagel), battered squid on a stick, fresh Islamic-style breads, fresh pomegranate juice and even battered banana!

Looking past the market stalls on the main strip, there are numerous restaurants where you can sit in and order a full meal.  If you find somewhere that offers milk soup then order a couple of bowls of the stuff because it’s honestly the most delicious thing you have ever tasted! Around the Muslim quarter is also a famous Mosque, one of the largest of its kind in China.  A trip into the mosque is 40 yuan and is one of the more peaceful places to visit in the city with Chinese style gardens out the front.  We would recommend visiting the Muslim quarter a couple of times during your stay to try a selection of foods, and we found it to be the most interesting place to visit in Xi'an.  Closest tube stop is 

The busy streets of the Muslim quarter

The busy streets of the Muslim quarter

 

Eat Zingy Noodles

Walk into this popular local Chinese noodle shop and you get asked one very important question, “large or small?”. That’s it, no extensive menu to choose from, no frills, no fuss.  Just one stand-out dish that they run all day long for hundreds of noodle-loving diners, for the bargain price of 15 yuan, and it’s even less for a small.  It’s a hearty hug in a bowl with a tiny punch in the mouth from the tongue-zinging Sichuan pepper sauce.  The noodles are home-made and come out varying in width, chunky to slightly less chunky, and are heavy fellas to pick up with chop sticks. Stir in the contents and you will find a secret stash of slow cooked meat, along with fried tofu and a number of tasty vegetables, with a sprinkling of peanuts for some crunchy texture.  On the table sits extra chilli sauce for those wanting an additional kick, and raw garlic cloves which locals munch down by the dozen.  This is a great place to come for a spot of lunch, local style, and this busy joint can be found on Jiqing Lane about half way down.

Those zingy noodles!

Those zingy noodles!

 

Climb One Of The 5 Sacred Taoist Mountains

A trip to the Huashan mountain was a love/hate relationship for us.  On one hand the jaggedly granite peaks covered in fauna are clearly spectacular but on the other there are few clear spots to view them from.  The mountain is known for being a religious Taoist one, but as far as we could tell there is no peace and quiet to be found.  The entrance fee for the day is nearly as steep as the climb up and you frequently get stuck in queues of hundreds of selfie-loving tourists, wondering up and down the steep staircases that run across the site.  When you stop to think about where you are, there’s no denying that the scenery is incredibly impressive and that the steep walking routes demand a sense of achievement after a few hours of struggling in the sun.  However, the authenticity that once was on Huashan mountain doesn’t exist any more, the world famous dangerous trekking routes have long since crumbled and have been concreted over with a network of safe and uninspiring stairs, and the subtle Taoist chants have been drowned out by the sound of sellers flogging tat. 

Perhaps a better way to enjoy the busy Huashan mountain would be to stay over in one of the lodges and to spend time trekking from peak to peak rather than climbing up and down.  Visiting on a weekday would be much more advisable than a weekend.  We will leave this one up to you to decide if you want to take up the challenge!  Entry is an expensive 180 yuan and a one way cable car to the North peak costs 80 yuan.  To get to Huashan, catch a bus from outside Xi’an train station which takes 2 hours and costs 36 yuan. You can get a bus back from the location it dropped you off at on the other side of the road.  A quicker route is to catch the train from Xi’an railway station which takes 35 minutes and costs only slightly more. It is advisable to book trains in advance otherwise you will be bussing it!

The view at the top of Huashan mountain

The view at the top of Huashan mountain

 

Need More Ideas?

There are many other recommended things to do in Xi’an which you will find in most guide books: The Bell and Drum Towers, a trip to the History Museum, The Big Goose Pagoda and Small Wild Goose Pagoda.  If you are looking for more options then why not try one of these first, or grab yourself a bike and explore the city.  There is also an interesting looking Antiques market just inside the East entrance to the wall which might be worth a visit.

 

Where To Stay

We would thoroughly recommend staying at Han Tang House Youth Hostel on Nanchang Xiang.  The rooms are well presented, the hostel has a great atmosphere where many travellers chat to one another and the staff are really helpful and friendly.  They offer a number of affordable day trip tours to attractions in the area and give a wealth of information on transport links and local eateries.  There is a beautiful leafy roof terrace on site where you can sit and relax, and downstairs is a cool woody hang-out bar that offers beer, cocktails, western food and coffee.  After 4 months of being on the road, this was our favourite hostel by far!

On the beautiful roof terrace at Han Tang Youth Hostel

On the beautiful roof terrace at Han Tang Youth Hostel

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China - Top Things To Do In Xi'an, by Studio Mali
 

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