I must be honest that I wasn’t particularly bothered about going to Xi’an, however Simon really wanted to visit the Terracotta Army so it went into our route. We arrived late at night after getting the bullet train from Beijing. Our first impression was one of surprise: my expectation of Xi’an was for it to be a low-rise, small city outside of the city walls with a few historical buildings within the city walls. It was pretty much the opposite of this! I shouldn’t have been surprised really, Chinese cities are another level – even ones that are known to be historical such as Xi’an, which was once the final stop on the Silk Road.
Our original plan for the next day was to go to the Terracotta Army, but as we’d got in so late we both wanted a lie in so we decided to stay within the city walls and move the Terracotta Army to the next day. The next morning, it wasn’t particularly good weather but we grabbed an umbrella and set off to explore Xi’an on foot. Our first stops were the Bell Tower and Drum Towers, which provided the same function as their counterparts in Beijing i.e. bells to mark dawn, drums to mark dusk, but are not located together and are not quite as impressive.
We then made our way to the Muslim Quarter, which for me was the saving grace in Xi’an. The area has been home to the city’s Hui community (Chinese Muslims) for a long time and it is filled with narrow lanes selling a whole host of interesting food such as donkey burgers, sweet treats like those made from sesame (so yummy), and other random goods. The main street is filled with neon-signs and had a great atmosphere with people milling around, talking, eating, and shopping. It was strange to see men and women in Muslim dress, as you instinctively don’t think of Chinese people as Muslim – or any religion to be fair as it’s a Communist state. Although as it’s such a huge country, it’s shouldn’t be surprising that there are people from all religions. We had lunch in a restaurant off the main street and then carried on wandering around the area, taking it all in.
We then meandered to the Great Mosque, one of the largest mosques in China (although tiny in comparison to the ones I’ve visited in Abu Dhabi and Dubai!). It’s an interesting mix of Chinese architecture and Islamic influences, which has led to some quite beautiful buildings. We made it to the main part of the mosque just as all the men were exiting after prayer, so was great to see everyone in their white skullcaps spilling out into the courtyard. We exited the mosque and walked through a souvenier/ fake goods market back to the main section of the Muslim Quarter.
That afternoon, we decided to go up on top of Xi’an’s city walls, which form a 14km rectangle around the old part of the city. It was built in the Ming dynasty (14th century), and as most sections have been restored or rebuilt, we’d read it was easy to get around. As it’s flat we decided to rent out a tandem bike – what a great decision! It was really fun and something we’d both wanted to do for ages. It was a little bit rainy up on the walls but was great to cycle around, stopping to take in different buildings and temples both inside and outside of the city walls. The juxtaposition between the modern sky-high towers on the outside and the older, but densely packed buildings on the inside made it a very enjoyable three-hour cycle.
We then hung out at the hostel for a while talking to a Canadian woman who was travelling by herself for three weeks around China – super brave! For dinner, we went out for dumplings and afterwards went to the ‘main bar strip’ in Xi’an called Defu Xiang, where there was pretty much no-one around! To be fair we were there pretty early – 8:30ish – but as we were both so tired from all the walking and cycling we weren’t too bothered about waiting around for it to get busy. We thought we’d have an early night but unfortunately the bar downstairs from our hostel had an awful singer start at about 11pm who didn’t shut up for hours. Safe to say they didn’t get a good review from me.
The next day was Terracotta Army day so we got public transport for the hour trip there and back. The complex is huge and it is quite impressive to see the three pits containing an estimated 8,000 life-size soldiers. As one of the most famous archaeological discoveries in history – by Chinese peasants drilling a well in the 1970s – it is interesting to see and hear about. It was ordered by the founder of the Qin dynasty, Qin Shi Huang before his death and there are a number of theories as to why, the most widely accepted of which is that he believed he would continue to be a ruler once he’s died. The most famous aspect of the Terracotta Army is that each soldier is unique, from their facial expressions to the soles on their shoes. We spent a few hours wandering around the pits, but it was packed with tourists, which took away from any authenticity.
On the way back to Xi-an proper to get our sleeper train, we spoke to two Chinese students – a girlfriend and boyfriend – who wanted to practice their English. They understood most of what we were saying and were really happy to be speaking with us. At the end they asked for a photo with us and got out a selfie stick to take it. They then gave us the selfie stick as a gift, which we reluctantly accepted as we didn’t really want or expect anything from these two students! After a late lunch, we went to a nearby park and sat in one of the squares where there were couples and people dancing. This was one of my favourite things about China, I loved seeing everyone dancing in the parks and ended up with a whole phone full of random people dancing!
Our sleeper train left Xi’an at around 5pm to take us to Shanghai and was such a great experience. It was really clean and comfy and we shared with an older Chinese couple who seemed very sweet and spent most of the time watching what I can only describe as Chinese soaps. Simon and I loved the sleeper train and would definitely do it in the future if we have the option.