In a nutshell: Xi’an, China
The first time I travelled to China, I decided to mix it up a little by heading to Beijing, Shanghai and Xi’an. I’ve been back to Beijing a few times for work ever since, and Shanghai is a major gateway city with easy access, so the big question is. What was there in Xi’an?
Xi’an is a beautiful old city located to the Southwest of Beijing and Northwest of Shanghai. Wonderfully preserved, an old city wall still stands today, built from the 14th century. The morning was a blur to me as I had arrived early in the a.m. by overnight train from Beijing. The only thought keeping me moving was the plan to hunt down breakfast in the old Muslim quarters.
The Old Muslim Quarter
Head down to the Beiyuanmen Muslim Street. Even that early in the morning there were already rows of meat all ready for cooking. I was spoilt for choice between sticks of satay, eggs scrambled with onions and large flat bread bigger than my face. Finally I sat down for a meal of dumplings. 40 to be exact. But I had a friend along for the ride and 20 dumplings went down really quickly.
The old Muslim quarter is like a relic from an old movie. The streets and buildings are so well preserved. You will find old men sitting around playing Chinese chess, a prayer hat on their head. It was jarring to me to see Chinese women standing around selling wearing headscarves. A far cry from the Muslims I typically see and grew up with in Malaysia.
Amble along the neighborhood, and soak in the mix of Arabic and Chinese calligraphy, browse the markets for souvenir and don’t forget to check out the mosques. The small ones humble me with prayer mats laid out in the open. The Grand Mosque with its beautiful garden area, a minaret infusing Chinese architecture and calligraphy, but spelling ‘One God’. A man guards the main prayer hall, but if you are Muslim and walk in, you will see etched on the walls of the mosque, beautiful Arabic calligraphy of the Quran, and below its Chinese translation. (And remember to cover up out of respect)
Just watch out when you are in the market right behind the Grand Mosque. My friend and I were walking by when a few boys passed by closely. I watched as one slowly pulled out his hand and gently whisked pass my friends pocket, which had his camera strap sticking out. I yelled out at the boys, and they walked away, quickly disappearing into the labyrinth of streets.
If you’ve maxed out on religion and old school feel for the city, head on out to Defu Lane. It’s a small road lined with over 20 bars/ restaurant/ night clubs that have nice outdoor seating as well. Hows that for a serious change from the architectures of old Xian.
The City Walls
One amazing thing about Xian is the fact that you can actually walk along the city walls. Heck, you could even jog along the city wall in the morning, which forms a nice little square (~14 km). You could rent a bicycle and go around as well and pause on the side to look down on the people. The beautiful South Gate is also located close to the Bell Tower, so you could knock two birds with one stone if you’re aiming to walk along the wall.
The Terracotta Army
I’m not going to beat around the bush here. This is what you know Xian for (if you recognize the name). From the city, you can catch the local bus no 306 from the bus terminal. Watch out for all the touts standing around holding out pictures and offering you a private tour. To be safe, you could bring a picture of the Terracotta warriors and ask the bus driver if it is indeed the right bus. The whole journey takes about an hour. Keep in mind this is a public bus, so there will be a lot of stopping to pick up and let off passengers. But the place you would want to go to is the very last stop of the bus. (You will pass one other ‘Terracotta” stop before; I think it’s the palace stop). You will also pay for the ticket only once you’re on the bus and a ticket conductor stops by each seat.
Once there, you would need to walk up a bit (pass a mini market/ Disneyland feel – I’m not kidding). Pay the entrance fee RMB 150 / USD 25 which will give you access to all of the pits. I also recommend getting the audio guide. Walk into Pit 1 and prepare to be amazed.
I could give you facts about the army, but in all honesty, it is something you have to experience. Imagine, in Pit 1 alone, 6,000 army warriors will greet you, in what looks and feels like an airport hangar. This is by far the most impressive Pit just given its sheer size, and open layout (vs. the more closed off battalion formations in Pit 3 for example).
No two warriors ever look alike. Imagine, unlike the love that bore the building of the Taj Mahal, this amazing army was created to accompany and protect Emperor Qin in the afterlife. It is said that each warrior was built to replicate a real life soldier that was protecting the Emperor.
Be prepared to spend up to three hours to check out the entire complex before heading back… and maybe pick up another 40 dumplings or so =)