36. Xi’an, China

Before we get to Xi’an, I’m going to try out a new format for these posts. I’m hoping this will make following along–and replicating these journeys, should one choose to do so–a little bit easier.

Now, without further ado…

I really, really liked Xi’an. I know most people probably don’t go for it as their second stop in China, but I’d advise anyone to make the trek. I loved the variety of things to do there–in one day, we got history, nature, physical activity and plenty of culture.

How I got there:
From Beijing, we took a high-speed train; China has a large network of them, with multiple trains per day travelling the Xi’an route. It was easy and efficient, though the train we initially wanted sold out; what we should have done was book tickets well in advance using Ctrip, which would have delivered the tickets to our hotel. While trains may travel the same routes, differing numbers of stops can lead to differing trip durations, and we got stuck on one that was longer than we wanted.

(Note: Initially, I didn’t mind, as I thought the landscape would be fascinating. WRONG. It was flat and smoggy, and all we really saw was collections of skyscrapers every time we stopped. Seriously, this is what the average stop–in what I have to guess is the middle of nowhere–looked like. So in comparing Beijing-Xi’an to, say, the Northeast Corridor Amtrak route, this would be the equivalent of their Wilmington, DE or New Haven, CT. It was mind-blowing and kind of terrifying. Look at all those buildings!)


(Second note: There seemed to be a lot of options for different seat classes at different price points. We just chose the standard, cheapest option, and it was completely fine. Check it out below.)


Where I stayed:
The Westin Xi’an, which was surprisingly affordable considering how nice it was. Great value, great location, beautiful rooms and friendly service. Some of the concierges spoke questionable English, but they were all easier to understand than anyone we interacted with in Beijing.

What I did:
We knew we wanted to see the Terracotta Warriors (actually, I did–I dragged us all the way there for them), so we hired a taxi through the hotel (very affordable, considering what that would cost in the U.S.). We also worked in Mt. Li and the hot springs there, which were on the way home.

The warriors themselves were incredible and easily worth the trip to Xi’an. Like a lot of things in China, their sheer magnitude blew me away.


We hired a guide when we got there (there were several outside who approached us when we arrived), and he was really informative.

This was the viewing situation at the main site:


The other two sites are smaller, and one is used for preservation (imagine a lot of headless warriors). Afterward, we entered a museum-like area where some of the most unique warriors are preserved–like this guy, who used to be an archer but is missing his long-eroded bow.


All in all, we spent about 2 hours there–and I know I’m a fast traveler, but it felt like more than enough time to see everything.

Next stop: Mt. Li, which my friend Verča had recommended. We didn’t have the time to do it justice–our driver dropped us for an hour–so we mostly walked around the surrounding gardens. They had  bit of an Epcot Center feel–kitschy and sort of false–and due to the language barrier, we had no idea where the actual hot springs were. But there were some pretty areas:


With time to kill, we took the overpriced funicular up the mountain to what would have been the beginning of our hike if we’d had time to do one. This seemed like it would have been the draw. It was super foggy and we couldn’t see much, but that made for a really cool effect.



The highlight in Xi’an itself, for me, was probably biking the city’s walls, which we did later that day. They once served as a military fortification, and they’re in surprisingly good shape these days. Before leaving us for the day, our driver directed us to where to rent bikes, though there seemed to be several locations along the route where you could do so.


Jake with our bikes


We also hit up the Muslim Quarter, which was so cool to see. We walked from the walls past the Drum Tower and Bell Tower to get there, but we got decently lost trying to find our way in (and out). Once we finally stumbled upon the Muslim market, though, there was no question we were in the right place; it’s teeming with people, food and neon lights.


A man making a noodle and his spectators

Also in the Muslim Quarter: The Great Mosque, one of the oldest and largest in China. We got there right at the end of the day, so it was relatively empty and very peaceful. The architecture is a really interesting fusion between Chinese and Islamic, and the gardens there were beautiful, too.



Where I ate:
There was plenty of food at the market to try, though it was hard to figure out whether it was vegetarian, so I had to hold back. I did later try to recreate this potato dish at home, though:



In Xi’an, we finally tried hot pot for the first time, and I was sad it was the only time we did it. We walked from our hotel to a chain restaurant called HaiDiLao (which I’m now discovering has a location IN THE U.S. as I write this). We had no idea what we were doing, and it was our first night without a Chinese speaker to help navigate us through the dinner-ordering process. But luckily, in the world’s most adorable show of hospitality, our waitress took pity on us; she basically sat with us through the entire duration of our dinner showing us what to do (which is cook vegetables in boiling broth, fill up a bowl with other stuff you like, and dunk them when they’re ready).


I was worried the noodles were never going to come, but I needn’t have been concerned. They just had to make them first.


Finally, here’s a pic of our lunch the next day and the surrounding area, though God only knows where the driver dropped us off.



What I missed:
The only view we got of the Big Wild Goose Pagoda was a glimpse out our hotel window.



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