From the minute I landed at Xi’an station I breathed a huge sigh of relief. Now this is what I thought and hoped China would be like. We’d left Beijing’s oppressive grey skies, buildings and smog. In comparison Xi’an has a smaller population too with ‘only’ 6 million inhabitants and we arrived to blue skies, even a little sun poking through. There’s music playing from shop doorways, the people are fashionable in a quirky way and there’s colour and life to this city.
A good way to get an overview of Xi’an is to cycle its city wall. You pay to get on the wall and then pay again to hire a basic bike (total cost under 100y – around a tenner). I haven’t ridden a bike since I was about 10, perhaps 12 at a push – luckily it’s true, you never forget. The wall is around 12 metres wide, with edges so even if you try really hard there’s no chance of losing control and sending a poor unsuspecting pedestrian over the edge. We cycled the whole wall which is around 13k. Be prepared for bumps and ramps and very few water shops en route but the experience and the views were incredible. You have to be back at your starting point within 100 minutes, not a problem if you don’t stop for too many water and photo breaks. If cycling isn’t your thing, you can hop in a golf buggy (sadly you can’t drive them). In August the heat is nearly unbearable, so be prepared!
In the evening we headed to the Muslim Quarter, with streets and streets of market stalls filled with unusual foods, trinkets, fans, umbrellas/parasols, lamps and traditional clothes. The stall holders are happy for you to take photos of the chicken feet, fermented eggs, squids on sticks, honey cake and slabs of nutty dough. The smells are almost overwhelmingly good and the stalls the most fascinating I have ever seen. It’s a beautiful setting too with lights filling the trees, the stalls along side the ancient buildings.
Xi’an is definitely a city to see at night as everything is lit up making the impressive daytime versions seem tame in comparison. The City Wall, The Drum Tower and The Bell Tower all glow with red lights at night, red being the colour that symbolises good luck in China.
Traditional foods in Xi’an are breads (often made from rice), dumplings and noodles. The prices are so cheap you can easily order a variety of dishes and try lots. The culture is to over order anyway so if you can’t manage it all it’s only your head you have to wrestle with when wasting food. If you can try the Pork Buns, ‘Chinese Burgers’, so simple but mouth-wateringly succulent pork on in a rice-bread bun – delicious.
Expect to see lots of Tai Chi in parks, especially early in the morning when the heat isn’t at full whack. You can get involved if you’re feeling confident!
Last but not least, Xi’an is home to the Terracotta Warriors. Constructed by Qin Shi Huang, the emperor to protect him as he entered the afterworld, there are around 2,000 life-size warriors rebuilt and standing strong. The plan is to get 8,000 warriors restored with their perfect unique faces and horses and carriages too. It’s an impressive sight and if you don’t mind battling your way round having your photo taken more than the warriors you’ll love it. Again, probably don’t head here in August! Just down the road is a factory which sells replica warriors, life size if you want (shipped back to the UK for £140). You can also haggle for beautiful furniture, globes (with a slightly distorted view of the world as we know it), buddhas and I fell in love with a large jade crocodile – if I’d had somewhere to send it, it would be on the ship right now.