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bootlegga Xian - A travel report by James
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Xian,  China - flag China -  Shaanxi
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bootlegga's travel reports

More than just the Terracotta warriors

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Xi’an is a wonderful city to visit. From the Magnificent Terra Cotta Warriors, to the Chin and Han Dynasty temples and tombs, to a vibrant multi-cultural experience, Xi’an offers a lot to any traveller. report of the month contest
Oct 2010

Terra Cotta Warriors
Terra Cotta Warriors
As one of the oldest cities in China, Xi’an is one of the so-called Four Great Ancient Capitals (the others being Beijing, Nanjing and Luoyang). Located in central western China, Xi’an was the capital city for some of China’s most important dynasties, including the Chin, Han, and Tang. For much of its history, it was part of the Silk Road to Europe and known as Changan.

Xi’an has a population of just over 8 million, so expect lots of traffic. The climate is temperate; with hot, humid summers and cold, dry winters. An ongoing problem in the spring are severe dust storms, while severe thunderstorms can occur in the summer. Right now, Xi’an has an extensive bus system (200+ routes), but no subway system, although one is currently under construction.

As Krys noted, many buildings, which seemed unassuming during the daytime, suddenly receive a striking face-lift after the sunset when they light up. This is common all over China (and something I wish Western cities would do as well).

Most tourists visit to see the 'Terra Cotta Warriors' and they are well worth the trip. Estimates are that 10,600 reside in the three pits that have been discovered, however, only about 600 have been restored. In fact, only one intact soldier has ever been found (a kneeling archer). All of the rest have required some sort of painstakingly fine repair, much like Humpty Dumpty.

The rest were damaged by thieves and/or roof collapses in the past 2000 years. There is also a folktale about a general from the succeeding dynasty (Han) that found part of the crypt and looted/destroyed everything he could because of his incredible hatred of the Xin dynasty.

Xian also has complete city walls (dating back 500 years) as well as a variety of excellent museums and temples. The centre of town near the Drum Tower also houses the Muslim Quarter, another must see.

Famen Temple is one of Buddism’s most famous temples in China, believed to possess several finger bones of the founder of the faith.

Favourite spots:
Kneeling Archer
Kneeling Archer
The whole reason for my trip to Xi’an in the first place was to see the Terra Cotta Warriors. And I wasn’t disappointed in the least. Three huge covered indoor pits, filled with statues of soldiers and horses, adorned with weapons, armour and all manner of accessories, it was a stunning thing to see.

Pit Three is the largest (at least as large as a football field) and has by far the most soldiers (almost 6,500). Pit One is full of generals and the regimental band. They have barely begun excavating Pit Two (almost as large as Pit Three) and it is still largely intact.

Also located at the site is a museum on the first Qin Emperor (the founder of China). It had reconstructions of his chariot, which had a primitive form of air conditioning, as well as other toys he had built to amuse himself.

What's really great:
Shaanxi Opera
Shaanxi Opera
Xi’an’s history traces back thousands of years, to before the first Emperor of the China (roughly 3,100 years if you’re curious). From his warriors, to temples and tombs, the incredibly stout city walls, and all of the history that happened in between, Xi’an offers a stunning history lesson.

One thing that many people forget is that Xian was for much of its history, the eastern terminus (or western depending on your point of view) of the Silk Road, so the city is fairly multi-cultural, at one time having strong Muslim and even Christian influences. After the Ming Dynasty choose to go into isolationism, much of it was destroyed, but the Muslim influence survived somehow and the city today has a large Muslim Quarter, which is the location of the Great Mosque of Xian.

City Wall at Night
City Wall at Night
The best sites are found in the centre of the city. The Drum tower is a beautiful tower built hundreds of years ago to warn the city guard of impending attacks. It also currently serves as the entrance to Muslim Quarter. Across a traffic circle is the Bell tower, used long ago to mark the passing of time. Surrounding both these fine towers is a market and plenty of shops and restaurants. It is worth coming back in the evening for the night market and the buildings, all of which are lit up in an amazing palette of colours.

The City Wall is a must see. It is fully complete and runs almost 33 km long. While it is not the longest ever built (Nanjing’s was at 42 km), it is the most complete in all of China today. The city’s annual marathon in October actually runs the length of it. A very popular activity (at least among foreigners) is to rent a bike and ride the wall.

Terra Cotta Cavalry soldier
Terra Cotta Cavalry soldier
There are plenty of good hotels, and I would suggest staying in a Western hotel if you can, mainly due to the language barrier. A good, clean room in one of the hotels in the city centre can be had for between $50 - $100 a night, depending on location, amenities, etc. Once you venture farther out, language skills and the hotel facilities really drop off.

Shaanxi Opera
Shaanxi Opera
While it’s not a pub, a visit to the Shaanxi Opera & Dance Troupe is a must. It’s pricey (400 RMB), but for that price, you will be treated to a meal with all 18 kinds of dumplings that make Xian famous, rice, salad and other local fare. Beer and dessert are extra. If you’re not full, they will bring you as many dumplings as you want until you are! That is followed by about 2 hours of singing and dancing, choreographed to traditional Chinese music. The night I went, roughly 90% of the audience was foreigners. Don’t let that deter you. The shows are worth it!

The most popular nightclub (especially with expats) in town when I visited was Clubs 1+1 (pronounced yi-jia-yi). Xian Longdu Disc Club on Xi Yi Road, is a bit more popular with the locals.

Xian travelogue picture
My favourite place was Dayan Ta Square, which is a fun mix of old and new. Big Goose Pagoda is located at one end, while a musical water fountain (similar to the one in front of Las Vega’s Bellagio Hotel) stands in front of it. The music is a mixture of both Chinese and Classical music. I went during the day (noon), but it’s supposed to be spectacular in the evening (9pm). Shows occur on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

Arguably the best place in town to hang out is the city centre at night. The buildings are lit up, a night market appears at the base of the Drum Tower, and the Muslim Quarter takes on a life all its own. All manner of restaurants, shops, and pubs can also be found around the city centre.

Xian travelogue picture
One of Xian’s best known restaurants is the Fortune & Prosperity Restaurant, which had been in business for over 130 years, and is popular with celebrities, old and new (check out the photos on the wall to see if you recognize anyone). It serves a variety of local specialties, including rou jia mo, as well as po jian mou (a soup with lamb and bits of the same bread mixed together). The rou jia mo was really spicy, and the soup was okay, except we had made the bread pieces (we had to tear them up ourselves by hand) too big, so they didn’t soak up enough broth and it tasted kind of gross. My wife, however, loved it. We also had some noodles covered in a peanut/sesame sauce (kind of like satay sauce). Now that was good.

Located around the square are a number of shops that sell ro jia mou (Xi’an’s local specialty, basically a Hamburger, Chinese-style) and a variety of other Muslim cuisine inspired delicacies, like lamb kabobs and rice. Lunch in the Muslim Quarter was great!

Other recommendations:
The view from Mt. Huashan
The view from Mt. Huashan
If you are very lucky, you will visit the Wall on one of the 70 days (per year) that the Feng Shui museum is open. If it is, the tour and explanation of the ancient Chinese art of esthetics is free and fascinating. Of course, it ends with a sales pitch, but it gives you an opportunity to buy the only authentic Peejou jade statues in China. Legend has it that Peejou was the only dragon that was born without a bum, allowing it to eat and eat and never gain weight. It is tradition to rub the statue’s bum to confer wealth on yourself.

A nice side trip while in Xi’an is to head to Huashan (Mt. Hua), one of China's most famous mountains. It’s about a two hour drive to the mountain, so it takes all day to do.

Generally, the West Peak is the place most people want to visit, and it will take at least an hour of uninterrupted walking to get there. Expect to spend at least three hours on the mountain, and in some cases, be scared to go on. Bite the bullet and keep going, for the amazing view

Published on Thursday November 25th, 2010

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Mon, Dec 13 2010 - 09:28 PM rating by eirekay

Great Report! Especially appreciate the comment about viewing buildings and monuments at night - so true in so many places! Great observations! A deserving choice for ROM!

Sat, Dec 04 2010 - 11:29 AM rating by mistybleu

Excellent report and very entertaining. I found this city really interesting with is mix of religions.

Sun, Nov 28 2010 - 07:53 AM rating by krisek

Excellent job, indeed. Well written with lots of personal views. What a great insight into the Shaanxi Opera experience! Thank you for this!

Thu, Nov 25 2010 - 05:58 PM rating by horourke

Great report. Lots of new insights on this very famous destination. Very well done

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