This month’s guest author is Graham Woodring, writer of the beautifully-crafted blog, An American in the Far East. Although Graham is a relative newbie to China – he just moved to Asia in February 2009 – he writes as though he’s an old-hand at teaching, traveling, and keeping the rest of us informed on life as an expat in China. Graham is one of a few bloggers writing about his couchsurfing experiences in China, which makes his blog very unique. Today, Graham takes us on a tour of his favorite city in China. This is 48 hours in Xi’an, China.
The train slowly pulls into the station. Amid the river of disembarking people and the muffled grunts of exertion and unintelligible cries, you step out into the afternoon light in a new city. Where you came from doesn’t matter any more; you’re moving on. Where you are going next doesn’t matter either; you are living in the moment. The sun beats down on your neck and shoulders as you huddle over your guidebook, searching for clues to the next step in the chase: the chase of adventure, something new and exciting, of living the life outside the cubicle and free from the shackles of your daily life.
You read each word of your book deliberately, carefully pouring over each entry in an attempt to divine the optimal route on your journey. But there’s no time for that; you have to keep moving. As you break away from the throng of people jostling for a way into or out of the station and hail a taxi, only one thing echoes in your mind: You are in Xi’an, and you have 48 hours.
The Great Mosque of Xi’an: Nestled deep in the Muslim Quarter, the Great Mosque is one of the oldest and most well known mosques in all of China. Within the walls of the mosque it is eerily quiet, providing a great retreat from the hustle and bustle of the surrounding area. The construction is completely Chinese in style and architecture, but there are some Muslim influences scattered about if you look; there is even one stele with both Chinese and Arabic characters on it. The massive prayer hall is still in use today (mostly by the Hui people) so it is barred from the public, but even from the outside it is an impressive sight.
Sha’anxi History Museum: Construction began in 1983 on this Tang style museum that opened to the public in 1991. With an area of 55,600 square meters and a collection of 370,000 objects, there is something for anyone interested in the long and culturally rich history of China. The museum is actually free to the public, but tickets are limited to prevent over-crowding. Make sure you show up early or you will miss out on what is generally considered the second-best history museum in all of China (after the Shanghai history museum, of course). The museum is closed on Mondays. Address: 91 Dong Xiao Zhai Road
Food: Yangrou Paomo The most famous dish in Xi’an can be found almost anywhere. Yangrou Paomo is a mutton soup with vegetables, noodles, and the distinctive flat bread that is so common in the city. As Xi’an is situated at the beginning of the Silk Road, obvious Arab influences abound in this culinary delight. The flat bread is broken up into pieces and dropped into soup, and is then eaten with pickled cloves of garlic. This dish is a hearty, filling meal that is usually not very expensive.
Big Wild Goose Pagoda: Originally built in 652 during the Tang dynasty, the pagoda has suffered much damage and has been rebuilt and renovated many times over the years. The last time being in 1964 so that it now stands at 210 ft (64 m) tall and is one of the most recognizable symbols of Xi’an. Regular visitors pay 25 RMB to enter the Temple of Great Maternal Grace, which surrounds the pagoda, and another 25 RMB to enter the tower itself. Some consider the double tickets a cheap scam to get your money and the views from the top are less than spectacular. The novelty factor of climbing to the top is what gets most people inside.
Dinner at Delhi Darbar – Cuisine of India: This little restaurant can be found just across the street west of the Big Wild Goose Pagoda. Though I have never been to India, this place has the best Indian food I have ever eaten. But the icing on the cake here is that the beer is guaranteed to be the coldest in Xi’an. Anyone living or traveling in China knows how hard it can be to find ice-cold beer. The food is excellent, the beer is cold, and the owners are friendly and more than capable of helping people of all nationalities. What more can you ask for? Address: Huan Ta Xi Road and Da Tan Tong, Yi Fang
Park Qin Bar: Unless you are looking for a nightclub to spend your evening, then this bar is the perfect place to take a load off from your long day and have a cold beer. Park Qin offers many different beers (imported and domestic) on tap and from the bottle, as well as a wide variety of liquors and mixed drinks. The beer tower is a favorite, which is a long tube that holds about 7 liters of beer and has a spout at the bottom. It’s not really cheaper than buying individual beers, but it is ostentatious enough to have a good time with. As far as patrons, Park Qin mostly hosts foreigners and occasionally some Chinese. The number of people from all different walks of life with all different stories of travel and adventure can make for a long, long night. If you’re up to it, of course.
Accommodations: Shuyuan International Youth Hostel If you went to Park Qin Bar for drinks, you won’t have to worry about a long journey back to your hotel. The Shuyuan IYH is right upstairs and definitely on my top list of best hostels. Sitting right inside South Gate and next to a major bus stop, it is in a perfect location to allow you to explore south of the city-the museum and the pagoda-as well as take a short walk up to the Bell Tower and the city center. This hostel boasts the quality, standards, and amenities one can expect from Hostelling International-accredited lodging. All of the staff speak English and they can help you find a guided tour, book a trip or arrange for a hostel in another city. They even provide free pickups from the train station!
Breakfast at the South Gate: Just to the East across the street from Shuyuan hostel is an area packed with art shops, trinket sellers and travel souvenirs. The area is lined with small food carts. Popular breakfast foods in Xi’an include Baozi (steamed dumplings) or Bing Guo (flat pancake-like wraps with food stuffed inside). The Bing Guo is particularly good because you can pick and choose which ingredients you want. The base stuff is normally a fried bread or cracker topped with scallions and shredded potato and some kind of peanut sauce. From simple scallions and potato to pickled cabbage, seaweed, or sausage, there will always be a great selection to choose from. The Terracotta Warriors can be a long trip and you might miss lunch, so I suggest that you stock up on some extra food and snacks here (the flat bread and baozi are great for this).
The Terracotta Warriors: A trip to Xi’an is not complete without a visit to the world famous Terracotta army. Commonly billed as the eighth wonder of the world, the sheer size of the army and the unique detail of each soldier are simply mind-boggling. To stand in front of the hundreds of warriors and breathe in the cool, dry air permeated with thousands of years of history is an experience one does not soon forget. There are three hangars where you can view the warriors. Though you can go in any order you want, the best path is to go in reverse; that is, first to #3, then #2, and then #1. #1 is the biggest and most impressive of the bunch, so saving the best for last makes the experience more enjoyable. There is also a small museum adjacent to the hangars, which gives you some history of the warriors and a short film on Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China and for whom the army was constructed. From the train station, you can take local bus #306 or 307 for a mere 7 RMB and the ride is about 45 minutes to an hour.
A Bike Ride on the City Wall: The city walls of Xi’an are some of the oldest and most well preserved specimens in all of China. What better way to explore this massive structure than to ride a bike around it? To get onto the wall you enter at the South Gate and it costs 40 RMB, and to rent a single bike for 100 minutes is 20 RMB (40 RMB for a double). The people renting the bikes speak English so there is no problem there. But before you leave, make sure you check out the bike: the tires, the breaks, the seat, etc. Also, bring some extra water because the people selling cold drinks and snacks will try to charge you exorbitant prices (5 RMB for a bottle of water in my case!). The walls are about 14 kilometers around so you will get plenty of different views of the city.
Food: Hot Pot is one of the most popular dishes here in Xi’an. There are a seemingly endless number of hot pot restaurants in all parts of the city. Anywhere you go in Xi’an, you will find one of these eateries. The best place for hot pot is in the Muslim quarter. The Muslim quarter offers all sorts of restaurants and many styles of food, hot pot being the most prominent. A hot pot meal involves picking your meats and vegetables to go into the soup. At some restaurants, you can choose from a few different varieties of broth as well as a couple different dipping sauces for your cooked meats and vegetables. Or, you can just get a mix of everything! Sitting at an outside table around a bubbling pot of hot pot, sipping ice-cold beers or hot tea, all the while watching the chaos of the Muslim quarter at night pass you by is an experience you won’t soon forget.
The Muslim Quarter: After eating dinner in the Muslim quarter, you will have the perfect opportunity to explore this fantastic area. This nighttime experience is a highlight of any trip to Xi’an and comes highly recommended. Even if you can only squeeze this into a daytime visit, it should not be left off your list. There are an endless variety of goods to look through to keep you interested: fruit, candy, snacks, toys, chopsticks, art, clothing, and much more. The seemingly infinite number of lights strung up from building to building and across the streets really adds a magical effect to the night.