We arrived in Xi’an in the morning after our sleeper train from Beijing, (see Part 1 of the blog for the full three week trip itinerary). The sleeper train was actually fairly comfortable – the soft sleeper carriages have four bunk beds with mattresses and bedding (although not guaranteed to have not been used before), a door, a small table and individual lights. It’s by no means five star luxury, but having been told about sleeper trains in other countries I was pleasantly surprised and grateful for a mattress on my bunk! Each train carriage has a western style toilet and a squat style toilet, a separate sink room and hot water for drinks. The food cart on the train was actually pretty good too! Despite all of this, it was a little gutting to learn that there is a bullet train which takes a mere three hours rather than the twelve hours we took!
Xi’an was one of my favourite cities in China. It is one of the oldest cities in China and is also the start of the Silk Road, so not only does it have an impressive historical past, but a fascinating Muslim influence. Although it is a huge city, the main attractions are within the compact city walls so it is really easy to navigate. We hired bicycles and explored the city from above, cycling on the restored city walls in a circuit. Distance wise it really isn’t very far and took us less than an hour, but it really is a great activity and there are some cafes along the way for ice cream pit stops!
A trip to Xi’an has to include experiencing the Muslim culture. The Great Mosque in Xi’an combines Oriental with Islamic architecture and has some really peaceful gardens to relax in and escape the craziness of the city! Once outside the mosque you are straight into the hustle and bustle of the Muslim quarter, with narrow alleys of market stalls, streets filled with restaurants and street food vendors, spices, hand made combs and all sorts of other souvenirs. I loved this area and it is well worth a trip. Make sure to try the local speciality of Yangrou Paomo (you are served two pieces of flatbread that you must tear into small pieces into an empty bowl before returning to the vendor for them to fill the bowl with a lamb stew containing rice vermicelli). All the temples are lit up at night so even just a night time stroll is incredible!
We also took a trip to the Big Wild Goose Pagoda where a local Chinese guide took us around. It was very interesting and we were taught about how Buddhism came to China from India and how the religion developed. Unfortunately however, the end of the tour was a little bit of a sales pitch in a huge gift shop, but the people were respectful so it was easy to escape!
The main reason people visit Xi’an is to see the Terracotta Warriors. The site is about an hours bus ride away from the city and like most of China, there are people everywhere, so be prepared to be pushed and elbowed! The Terracotta Army was built in 210BC by Emperor Qin to protect him into the afterlife. The soldiers were discovered accidentally by a farmer in 1974 and they are now one of the most popular tourist attractions in China. There are three main undercover pits housing the warriors. It is estimated that there are around 8000 soldiers, 130 chariots with over 500 horses and 150 Cavalry horses and there are even more figures buried near to Emperor Qin’s Mausoleum! The museum itself is actually fairly disappointing, but the figures are incredible! They are life size and insanely life like. Save pit one until last as this is easily the most impressive, housing more than 6000 figures. They would once have been painted in vibrant colours and held weapons (the colours are thought to have faded over time and many of the bronze weapons were looted). The whole site is thought to be 56 square kilometres and the tomb of Qin Shi Huang is said to be booby trapped like something from an Indiana Jones film, with pools of poisonous mercury and loaded crossbows! You can’t visit Xi’an without seeing the army, but be prepared for the insane crowds and take a book to learn about the history of the place as the museum is lacking.
We left Xi’an and boarded another sleeper train – (this time 16hours – make sure to take the bullet train instead) and continued our adventure through China.