Beyond the Terracotta Warriors: 3 Days in Xi’an China

Xi’an is located in central east-ish China in the Shaanxi province. An interesting mixture of old and new, the not-as-bustling-as-you-might-expect city offers historical sights and expected Chinese charm, as well as modern cleanliness and luxury. First impressions of our Xi’an arrival were how clean the streets were – and how relatively empty. It was raining every day (of course) so that may have deterred some pedestrians. Also probably we were so accustomed to the bustle and dirt of South America we’d come from it seemed a huge contrast. For my first post from Asia, I present things to do – Xi’an China edition. [more photos coming soon when internet is better]

Things To Do Xi’an China: Within the City Wall

We grabbed an accommodation right outside the South Gate of Old City, an area still contained within the ancient stone wall. A sign said this was one of the only such cities left, and hey, historical signs don’t lie (at least not usually). We spent most of our down time in this area, hitting the expected sights.

We saw the Bell Tower, a beautiful building with brightly painted ceilings and…bells (obviously) from the Tang dynasty. An underground walkway connects it to the more impressive drum tower, where we made the most of our combo tickets – purchased with outdated student IDs, of course (budget alert). You can climb to the top of both towers, circle round on a red deck overlooking the massive city and gridded street in 4 directions. At the drum tower we enjoyed a complimentary traditional music show with angry-looking performers but not-so-angry sounding music.

A highlight was the bustling Beiyuanmen Street, which offers excellent photo opps and street food alike. An alley lined with trees and neon lights, it appeared inviting and warm in our rainy-day weather. People swept water around with stick brooms. The blinking lights reflected on the streets as we walked past innumerable stalls of local foods – fried squids, gooey green cakes of glutinous rice, dates and other [unknown] assorted dried fruits the region is known for, local candies being pounded out on metal tables, and the light pink pomegranates we saw growing roadside covered in plastic bags. The weirdest item is what looks like giant balls of captain crunch cooking in some steamy dry-ice type liquid.

The street is even more alive at night, when vendors with deep purple grapes appear, the alley fills with the smells of fried food, and trash bins overflow with sharp wooden stick skewers of meat discarded. We stopped into the Gao Family House/Courtyard, improperly called the Folk House by Lonely Planet, for a tour of the traditional house. But it was pretty lame.

What isn’t lame is the Muslim Quarter, where people mill about, more street foods are cooked up and narrow alleys have lights and bustling shops. This area includes the Grand Mosque, which offers a unique juxtaposition of Chinese architecture (pagodas and the like) inscribed with Arabic writing. The prayer room is at back, and you can peer in and see the beautiful intricate building.

Walking the Wall

You can actually walk atop the massive wall that lines the city. The full circuit takes 4 hours (we didn’t do it) and the bike circuit takes 1.5 hours (we also didn’t do it) if you care to navigate the meandering hoards. Red flags hang from the walls and you can feel like you’re back in time. Or you can feel trapped as you cannot get down until the next gate. It was actually pretty cool, albeit a steep price and our student IDs were denied this time. Below the wall is a beautiful walkway along a slightly-green river with very green trees, an even a beautiful white bridge or two arching over it. Also down here are some blue ping pong tables with avid players, and some people playing badminton in open areas.

Streets and More Streets

West Street | One of the main roads cutting from west to east gate, lined with modern shops, banks traffic and an unexpected hidden temple!

Dongmutou Shi Street | We ate lunch here because, well, it is the food street. After scoping out a few places we settled on Three Sisters Dumplings, and it did not disappoint. They were beyond fresh (amazing) and we shared the largest bowl of soup literally I have ever seen. It tasted of sweet corn. Which makes sense as it was labeled on the English menu as “sweet corn soup.”

De Fu Bar Street | Although we didn’t drink here (a look through our SA expenses revealed our biggest “mistake” was buying too much craft beer and we couldn’t start the trend in stop 1), we still walked through a few times to get a feel for the atmosphere. Lined with icicle lights on trees, hanging music notes, and lit-up bar after lit-up bar with intense live music, it felt as expected for a drinking area. Bar people stood outside beckoning us in (or trying to as we didn’t want a drink) in limited English. Later, we enjoyed cocktails in the Terracotta themed Park Qin — which was very dark, well-decorated and smoky.

Big Wild Goose Pagoda
Girls making weird faces outside Big Wild Goose Pagoda in Xi'an.
Pretending to be wild geese, obviously.

One of Xi’an’s top highlights, this giant pagoda is the largest of its kind in the area (I think). Flanked out front by a famous buddha statue (I zoned out while the guide was talking and forget the importance), the pagda includes many impressive buildings with golden buddhas of varying sorts, and some ivory elephants illustrating far east influence. We got some info, but I was having an emergency in the squatty potty so I missed it.

We saw another temple in the Old City which I thought was cooler, unexpectedly as it was located down an alley adorned with colorful triangular flags and counterfeit goods including holographic propoganda posters. The telltale smell of incense led us there, where we saw a sign: Wenchang Pavilion: Hall of the Gods of Wealth.

Terracotta Warriors

Of course, no visit to Xi’an is complete without a visit to the Terracotta Warriors. I will go ahead and be upfront; they were not as expected. Another famous highlight that’s a disappointment (and overrun with tourists). But again, I nearly never prefer famous landmarks to obscure or strange rural items. We took a tour this time, nearly mistaking a stranger lady in the lobby for our tour guide. En route a quick history lesson, about the 8,000+ soldiers found underground, (only 1,000 about visible to us!), the way to tell rank based upon shoe style, clothing and hair style (intricate braids are high up). Inside, we trudged through the rain with the masses. Many people had small plastic covers on their shoes, metallic pink and blue in the puddles. I wanted them.

Tourists stand outside in the rain with plastic shoe covers at the terracotta warriors museum.

We rented headsets (compulsory) from some lady selling them outside so we could hear our guide through the hoards. We viewed three pits, pits aptly named pits 1-3. A main surprise was some warriors were all broken apart, put back together like a puzzle, held with ropes in places during the restoration. Pit 1 is huge, Pit 2 was smaller with some horse sculptures and higher ranking officers, and Pit 3 is midsize with more mangled warrior bodies. Many statues were headless, which we learned was to let air out and prevent from breaking. Pit 3 had a few pristine statues found and preserved in cases (one even with the original paint – all warriors were painted originally but since paint was made of organics – animal blood and plants – most of it wore off over the years).

Clay souvenirs of the terracotta warriors in Xi'an China.

Han Yangling Mausoleum

The highlight of Xi’an for me was our trip to Han Yangling Mausoleum which has like 5 names. The mausoleum sits about 40 minutes out in the countryside and is MUCH less visited than the terracotta warriors (but what isn’t). This underground museum houses the tomb of Emperor Jingdi, and contains numerous burial pits and excavation sites. The rooms are dark, with glass walls and floors, to offer unreal (but they are real!) views into the pictures, the excavation and relics found there – among them thousands of clay dolls and animal replicas. Dim red lights line the passage and plastic shoe covers are obligatory, adding to the magic and atmosphere. It really was amazing, unlike anything I have seen and noone was there so it was like we had the place to ourselves.

At end a small museum portion with relics of 206 BC (so old). You can also walk the grounds which are beautiful in fall and must be incredible come spring blooms. Inside another massive red and white building are more areas of dirt for excavations with aerial walkways above. Signs show information about who was buried where and why- based on social rank, of course (around the world, throughout time, things are so different but very much the same).

Things To Do Xi’an China: Eating in Xi’an

Bowl of spicy dan dan noodles in Xi'an with chopsticks.I will say, the thing I missed most (and forgot I missed most) about China is how good the food is! We enjoyed a variety of items from amazing noodles, at which time Sarah believed her lip was inflamed from the spices (it was not). We enjoyed a do-it-yourself hotpot where you select your skewers from a refrigerated area at back. Here we had the not spicy broth, with small prawns floating for flavor, constantly resurfacing in the bubbles their small black eyes scarily looking at us. We also enjoyed the dumplings I mentioned. And some beer and pear juice that we were supposed to drink from small bowls (we had no idea about this; debated for 10 minutes before glancing at some locals to see what they were doing with the bowls). We also had an insane lunch in the area nearby to the Big Goose Pagoda. With a huge menu and no English, we had our guide help us pick. About 12 plates of food arrived (no exaggeration) which were delicious and we felt compelled to eat and wash down with a local warm plum juice.

Location Xi’an China | Dates September 14-18 | Accommodation Grand Park Xi’an

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