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krisek Xi'an - A travel report by Krys
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Xi'an,  China - flag China -  Shaanxi
8547 readers

krisek's travel reports

China's ancient capital, Xi'an, still dazzles.

  8 votes
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Much of Xi'an did not survive the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution and other aspects of China's history. Yet, what remains, including the massive old city walls, is a clear evidence of the incredible grandeur of the city and importance it had enjoyed.


The Bell Tower
The Bell Tower
I went to Xi'an with one purpose only. I wanted to see the Terracotta Army ordered by the First Emperor of China, who united the country and initiated the construction of the Great Wall of China, and gave the start to the Quin Dynasty. So, I did not expect much from Xi'an as a city, despite its status of a former ancient capital. In fact, little if anything remained from the times of China unification, and the city offered few impressive sights. And yet what remained was very impressive indeed, at least at first sight.

The sheer size of the wall surrounding the core of the city was overwhelming. It took me 45 minutes to briskly walk the length of one of its four sides. It would probably take about 3.5 hours to circumnavigate the Xi'an's core, without stopping for visits at the massive gates.

Weather was not great when I arrived. In the evening, it actually started to rain, making the sightseeing a bit less pleasant. Xi'an was really busy. It did not have flamboyant skyscrapers like Shanghai or even Hangzhou (not in sight, anyway - there were a few in the more remote southern part of the city), but its shopping malls rivaled many I had seen before, and not only in China. It seriously looked like the citizens of Xi'an could afford a lot. But only on the surface. Many of the side streets, some of which ran close to the northern part of the wall, were lined by extremely poor households with people relieving themselves on the pavement, and living in, what looked like, garages without windows, iron boxes, very sad, depressing and disturbing.

Anyway, I spent some time around the Bell Tower, the Drum Tower, and the Great Mosque. I wandered about until it got completely dark and the prominent buildings and shopping malls were illuminated by night lighting, creating a new atmosphere. Some of the buildings, which had not impressed me before, suddenly received a striking face-lift.

Favourite spots:
Shops and the Drum Tower in the background at night
Shops and the Drum Tower in the background at night
The night market at the Drum Tower was my favourite place. When I visited, a light rain was falling, so I could not enjoy it as much as I wanted. However, it was still very interesting to observe the action and animation of the stands selling mainly umbrellas at that time, but also curious items, such as sim cards, kites, pottery, medalions, powder boxes, and small models of the Terracotta Army warriors. The market was definitely geared towards the local Chinese travellers rather than foreigners, and many merchants did not speak any other language - only Chinese. I tried to find out what some of the pottery was used for, but it was hard to communicate. I thought some of them looking like pots might have been for tea, but I was wrong. And I never found out!

The lights were shimmering a little, and the wet pavements reflected the silhouettes of the bent roofs, and red paper lanterns scattered on facades of long buildings lining city's main arteries.

What's really great:
One of the tower/gates on the city wall
One of the tower/gates on the city wall
The city seemed well organised and logical. The core centre surrounded by the giant grey brick wall had streets modelled on a grid with four main streets, all meeting at the large Bell Tower, had names corresponding to the geographical directions, North, East, South, West. I was not sure if I found Xi'an's approach to modernity and new developments disturbing or positive. At least some of the giant shopping malls had elements of traditional architecture, usually the roof. The destruction of the old town, as a result of various developments throughout the generations, could have been dealt with in at least two ways, though. One - rebuilding it entirely, creating a magnificent historical centre, however impractical. Two - just going ahead with the new forms of architecture currently available and making the centre hype and modern. The authorities chose the later. It was a shame, I thought, that the construction of the metro system left the city dug up and dusty, and harder to enjoy.

Sights:
The Terracotta Army
The Terracotta Army
Main sights of Xi'an, dating a few centuries back, included: The Bell Tower; The Drum Tower; The Ancient City Walls with four main gates - North, South, East and West; Big Wild Goose Pagoda; Tang Paradise; and the Great Mosque. The Bell Tower, The Drum Tower and the Great Mosque were close to one another. The other sights could be visited by foot but they were a good hike away, one from another. It would take a good part of the entire day to see them all.

The Terracotta Army of the First Emperor was however why I and millions of other tourists, local or foreign, would come to Xi'an in the first place. The Army was located 40km from the ancient capital connected by frequent coaches #306 (¥7 ow) and Higer minibuses #915, #914 (¥7 ow), leaving from the front of the train station. The ride was taking about 1h depending on traffic. There were three pits available for viewing, Pit 1 having the most interesting collection of warriors. One hour was enough to see everything. There was not much.

Accommodations:
Bell Tower International Youth Hostel, common area
Bell Tower International Youth Hostel, common area
Bell Tower Youth Hostel (No.1 North Main Street 北大街1号) had en-suite singles for ¥180 (€18), some with superb view over the Bell Tower. It was clean with bathrooms scrubbed quite well, and the air-con was efficient. There was hot water, and towels and toiletries, including toothbrush and toothpaste, were all provided free of charge.

The hostel offered a range of services for a typical backpacker, incl. trips, flight and train booking, car and bike hire, Internet (¥6/h), free wifi in the common area, library, CD & DVD burning, laundry facilities, and a restaurant with good value meals. Staff spoke English and was rather helpful, although a bit over their heads about more challenging routes and travel requests. But the location of the hostel was the best - right at the Bell Tower in the heart of the ancient city.

Contrary to a number of reports, the hostel did not accept payment by credit cards. A ¥200 refundable key deposit was payable upon check-in.

Nightlife:
Xi'an city centre at night
Xi'an city centre at night
Surprisingly, or not, the bar at the Bell Tower Hostel was one of Xi'an's best places to go out. The locals kept coming to socialise, listen to the music, chat with the travellers, shoot pool, play fussball, throw darts, and drink good value beer (¥8). As if it was just a bar on the town, and not a 'common room' at a backpackers place. Overall, it had a great atmosphere and everyone was approachable and nice to one another. It was hard to imagine a better place for chatting to travellers from around the world, picking their brain about places to visit. Some of them had been travelling in China for months and had stories to tell!

There were at least two other youth hostels nearby, and I would expect them to have equally good bars as the Bell Tower Hostel, however not sure if accessible to non-residents.

Hangouts:
The Bell Tower
The Bell Tower
If the sun was not too oppressive, then the ancient city walls, which are huge, would have been a great place to kill time. There was absolutely no shade on the fortifications!

The park, or semi-park, running between the Bell and the Drum Towers was not too bad for just wandering and admiring the structures nearby, particularly in the evening and at night. However, a park, still within the old walls, called Revolutionary Park, was great for people watching. The best time was in the morning when the old people did their excercise. Some of them did it for fun or socialising, I guess, but some, mainly the younger men, treated it very seriously. It was somwhat a feast for your eyes, how they managed to achieve such a great harmony together. Only the younger men trained individually, moving much faster and bending their bodies differently.

Restaurants:
DeFa Chang dumplings restaurant
DeFa Chang dumplings restaurant
Xi'an surprised me with its large number of Western restaurants and semi-restaurants. The likes of McDonald's, KFC, Starbucks or Haagen Dazs, dominated on the streets, with often two venues of the same franchise just few yards away from each other. Fortunately, I also found the DeFa Chang, 'the legendary dumplings restaurant'. They served a range of boiled and steamed dumplings stuffed with vegetables, mushrooms, and mainly pork and shrimp costing ¥15-¥22 for 15 pieces, shrimp minced with pork ones being the most expensive. A pint of their draft was ¥14. No English menu was available but some of the sitting hostesses who spoke some English tried to be slightly helpful. The dumplings were good and filling. Soya sauce, hot chili paste were available for free at the tables. But most of all, it was an authentic, frequented by the locals, restaurant that was very busy! Sharing a table with a Chinese couple who didn't speak a word in any other language was guaranteed, as if part of the menu.

Other recommendations:
The Terracotta Warriors
The Terracotta Warriors
Xi'an was connected by rail with the rest of the country. Frequent services ran to Beijing (12h-14h), Shanghai (14h-22h), Chengdu (15h-17h) and also to Pingyao (10h), Guilin (27h), Lhasa (34h), and Kunming (36h).

The airport was 50km north of town. It was the hub of Hainan Airlines. But several other airlines served Xi'an connecting it with Shanghai, Chengdu, Beijing, Guangzhou, Hefei, Yinchuan, Lanzhou, Taiyuan, Shenzhen, Xiamen, Nanning, including China Eastern, Air China, China Southern. Flying was about 50%-65% more expensive than a sleeper train. A taxi ride for the airport was ¥120.

The coaches were leaving from the front of the arrivals terminal and stopped at the Drum Tower, taking approximately 1h depending on traffic. Tickets (¥25) towards the city had to be bought from a desk in front of the coaches. There were 3 coaches leaving in 3 directions. The one for Xi'an was leaving from stand #1. Tickets towards the airport had to be bought on the coach.

Published on Saturday August 15th, 2009


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Sat, Aug 22 2009 - 06:06 AM rating by magsalex

Excellent report brimming with useful information and insights.

Tue, Aug 18 2009 - 05:38 PM rating by bootlegga

Darn you Krys! #@$%#^^$^@# Now I have to edit my own report on Xi'an (which I had planned on uploading soon) J/K, I guess that' s what happens when I don't finish what I start! ;)

Seriously though, an excellent report on Xi'an.

Sat, Aug 15 2009 - 07:27 PM rating by jacko1

The detail and info in this report was first class, a must for any European visiting here.

Sat, Aug 15 2009 - 01:59 PM rating by pesu

Superb report with lots of information, nice pics and individual thoughts about the place.

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