Finally, the long awaited Xi’an travel post! We posted our Xi’an street food post a few weeks ago, but it’s taken us a while to get to this one. Priorities, I guess. Xi’an was a great place to visit. From Terra Cotta Warriors to awesome eats on Muslim Street, it’s perfect for a weekend trip. On the way back to Beijing, we made a stop to see Hua Shan, one of China’s “5 great mountains.” Our main mode of transportation was the bullet train, which got us there from Beijing in just shy of 5 hours.
With more than 7000 years of history, and having served as China’s capital under thirteen dynasties, Xi’An is an origin city–the birthplace of Chinese civilization and the starting point of the Silk Road. For example, The “Big Wild Goose Pagoda” (With the more normal sounding name in Chinese of “Dayan Ta”), is a Buddhist pagoda built in 652 AD during the Tang Dynasty, which is just beautiful at night.
The tower was built to store buddhist relics after monk Xuanzang came back from a 17-year journey to India to learn the true teachings of Buddhism. Xuanzang was a real person, but he was also the main character in the Chinese epic, Journey to the West.
We visited Huaqing Springs and saw the ancient baths. This area served as a bathing spot for emperors and royals for thousands of years; you can still see a lot of the remnants of the original jade stones used to line the pools. Talk about excessive. Most of the hot spring baths were dry, but there were some hot spring fountains, where you could feel the natural temperature of the water.
There was a lot to see there, and we splurged for a guided tour that cost 100 RMB, or about 16 bucks. This was money well spent; the guide was knowledgeable, spoke decent English and really customized our tour according to our interests. Just be sure that your guide has an official ID badge since anywhere in China, there are usually a lot of unofficial enterprising locals out to make a buck.
The terra cotta warriors were pretty cool; though you’ve probably seen replicas and pictures, it’s really awesome to see them in person. They were built in the Qing Dynasty around 200 B.C., when China was first united under one ruler. Apparently, they’ve also found the burial site of the Qin Dynasty’s first emperor, but because of insufficient technology/expertise, they have yet to excavate it.
We saw an almost perfectly preserved warrior behind glass, warriors in the pits, and the smashed, broken up pieces of warriors and horses in pits that had yet to be fully excavated. The sheer scale of the site was awe-inspiring, and we learned some new things. Originally, for instance, these soldiers had been painted in vibrant colors. However, they lost all of that pigment with prolonged exposure to the air. Apparently, this was a tragic blow for the archeological community, prompting a halt in the continued digging of sites yet to be excavated.
Here, you can see parts of the site that haven’t yet been fully excavated.
In the city of Xi’an itself, we rented bikes and rode along the top of the ancient city walls. There were four rental stations, one on each side of the square perimeter of the wall so you could stop at any point and return your bikes – quite convenient and well thought out for tourists. The ride was about 13 kilometers long, and at a leisurely pace with stops to see the views of the city, plus a water and snack break, it took just 90 minutes to finish. It was a perfect way to spend the morning.
The Great Mosque in Xi’an was also a great place to visit. It is one of the oldest, largest and best-preserved mosques in China, located northwest of the Gu Lou Drum tower. It was built in 742 during the Tang Dynasty. The admission fee was 25 RMB (about $4)–well worth it. It is a perfect place to take a long break from the bustling and crowded Muslim street market, since it was literally a couple of streets away. That adventure was featured in our recent Xi’an street food post.
Xi’an is also a cool place at night; it seemed like the entire city was always lit up. Families were flying impossibly long kites late into the night, which could be purchased for less than $1.
Soon, though, it was time to say good by to Xi’an and head to Huashan. Huashan is about 120km east of Xi’an. If you like the outdoors, national parks, and beautiful scenery, it is a must visit place. One aspect of seeing natural wonders in China is that there always seems to be an alternative to walking or hiking. This was true in HuangShan, Yunan, EmeiShan and even the Great Wall. HuaShan was no different. There was a long line of cable cars taking tourists up the mountain, and you could get to the top in less than fifteen minutes. There are two cable car lines leaving from two different locations. There’s one that requires some initial hiking, carrying 6 people in each car. There’s also a new one with an 8 person capacity, requiring no hiking at all. Guess which one we took?
The views were excellent and at times it was frightening – more for some then others! If you have only one day to visit HuaShan, it is definitely advisable to take the cable car since HuaShan is famous for being beautiful, but also for being one of the steepest mountains in China. The ticket for the ride is definitely worth the money but… I’ll get to that in a minute.
There were a whole lot of cool walking paths, but many of these included steep inclines and uneven stairs. Generally, when it comes to hiking up steep mountains, I always seem to end up going solo, whether it is in Yosemite, the North Rim of the Grand Canyon or Cadillac mountain in Maine. That day was no different. After the walking the main path and seeing the most famous views, Judy and Sarah decided to descend the mountain early and take a rest – more on this later… Dining options at the top of the mountain seemed pretty varied. Ranging from fresh, hot soup with vermicelli noodles…
To the ever popular instant noodles.
What drew me to this mountain was the Huashan plank path I’d heard about. I did not feel adventurous enough to try it myself. My view was only the entrance to the path, and it looked pretty scary just from this distance!
It cost an extra 30RMB to risk your life on this cliff face, but you can see for yourself in this great video by Mike Spencer.
Aside from this adventurous path, the sights were spectacular even with the hazy day.
I got some beautiful pictures that were totally worth the solo 2-hour hike, even though it was rushed and quite physically challenging to cover so much ground is a short time. I wanted to get back to the cable car before 3pm in order to bypass the mad rush to get off the mountain and get back to the hotel in time to catch our next train. But what are they talking about now? High winds? The cable car line is closed until further notice? Ohhh Nooo Mr. Bill! (name that show). To make a long story short, I was caught waiting in line for FOUR hours. So was the cable car ride really worth it, or should I have just taken the three hour hike down the mountain? Water under the bridge, as they say.
As it got later, it got colder on the top of the mountain. Snowflakes began to fall and temperatures dropped. Everyone, including me, was caught off guard by this sudden shift in temperature. It was spring! No one was dressed for snow.
The only saving grace was actually the insanely packed line in front of the cable cars. I now know what an emperor penguin feels like. It’s definitely warmer when you are huddled tightly together in a crowd. I mean really – there is negative personal space in China. We ended up missing our train because of this long delay, and had to buy the only tickets they had left–first class tickets–to get out of there. It was an expensive, but relaxing end to the trip!