Everything Tourists Need to Know about Xi’An, China! (Part 2/3)
Alright, most recently, I made a trip over to Xi’An in China because I’ve always wanted to see the Terracotta Warriors and that’s where you go to see them. Most people will tell you that the recommended length of stay should be about 3 days, but I actually think that’s on the short end because there are so many cool things to do in Xi’An. I would recommend up to 5 days depending on how many day trips you’re looking to do.
I LOVED XIAN! I would recommend you to go there as soon as possible (kinda like Myanmar) because tourism has not exploded there yet – besides The Terracotta Warriors and Muslim Quarters, a lot of other cool tourist attractions were very empty and seriously, I’ve never been so alone in China and it was AWESOME.
Top things to do, eat, and tips coming right atcha!
XIAN – TOP THINGS TO DO!
I was only there for 3 days with the 1st and 3rd day being very short; therefore, I will in addition recommend some things that I didn’t do that I would have had I had more time.
ONE. TERRACOTTA ARMY (兵马俑).
This one is a no brainer and THE major attraction at Xi’An. Farmers were digging for a water well on March 29, 1974 when they discovered the Terracotta Army, which was buried there since 246 BC. The creation of the Terracotta Army started in 210 BC when Emperor Qin was just 13 years old and the Terracotta Army was to be buried with him when he died. This is because it was believed that statues would come to life in afterlife and Emperor Qin needed an after life army. Experts have estimated that 700, 000 workers worked almost 3 decades on the mausoleum and there are a total of 4 pits, which only 3 of them are filled, suggesting that the Terracotta Army was not finished when Emperor Qin died. Estimates show that are there over 8, 000 Terracotta Warriors and the astonishing fact is that they’re all different like actual people – in height, facial expression, weight, etc. It is said that these life-sized warriors were based on real people and while the warriors that you see will have no colour, they were actually painted. Excavation work is still going on and there are still warriors that have not been dug up as the lacquer and paint on the Terracotta warriors will chip and peel off within 3 minutes of being exposed; therefore China is waiting on the advancement of archeology technology before continuing.
NAVIGATION: When you first arrive, there are going to be lots of people asking you if you want a tour guide. You have a choice of getting one here or at any point in your trip. Follow the signs or people to the ticket office which is about 300 meters away. Once you’ve purchased your tickets, you can either pay 5RMB per person to sit on a golf cart/trolley to get to the mausoleum or you can walk for about 15 minutes.
When you walk into the “square/area”, the building on your right is The Exhibition of Bronze Chariots, the building in the middle is Pit 2 and the building on the left is Pit 1. Pit 3 is behind Pit 2 and you can’t see it from the “open area”. They were not numbered, and there are few English signs.
A couple of English sites recommend you to do the pits in reverse: 3, 2, 1. That’s hard because the pits aren’t numbered and Pit 3 is actually behind Pit 2 and not visible when you first enter the area. The reasoning of this is because Pit 1 has the most Terracotta Warriors and it’s the most breathtaking; however, it’s also the Pit that has the English info and description of how they did the excavation. We ended up going to the Exhibition Hall, then Pit #2, #3 and then #1, which I thought was fine. All the pits will have around the same amount of people because everybody arrives to the Terracotta Army at different times (private cars, group tours, public buses, etc), so don’t think you’ll be bypassing the crowds by starting in reverse.
TIME NEEDED: Around 2-3 hours on average but obviously can be significantly longer if you are a major fan.
GETTING THERE: Between getting a private car and taking the public bus… it’s around the same time and it was really easy getting the bus. The bus is the #5 Tourist bus and you can catch it at the Xi’An Railway Station and they will have instructions at the Customer Service – broadly speaking, the bus was in the bus terminus/parking lot. It’s 7RMB and takes about 70 mins. The 914 or 915, which I feel like isn’t a public bus, will also get you there & it costs 8RMB.
PLEASE NOTE: Consider combo-ing the Terracotta Warriors with a trip to Huaqing Palace (to look around) and then to watch “The Song of Everlasting Sorrow” (See Five).
TWO. MUSLIM QUARTERS (回民街).
I love this place! This is basically the local snack street and the surrounding area is where the Drum Tower and Bell Tower is. This is the place to go to try out all the local foods and the atmosphere was so cool – it is noise deafening though. It’s as if the rule of the street is to see who makes the most noise – some vendors are hammering out candy, others are belting out songs, and others are just making noise for the goal of being noticed. So much fun and deliciousness!
NAVIGATION: There is a main street; walk from the front of the main street downwards, exploring the side streets after if you wish, but most of the action happens on the main street.
TIME NEEDED: 1 hour or so to mill around and eat.
GETTING THERE: If you take the subway, you can get off at Line 2 钟楼 Zhongluo (Bell Tower) and it’s a 5 minute walk over. Walk towards the Bell Tower (the closer one to the MTR, and you can’t miss it) and the Drum Tower is about 500 meters ahead. From there, you should also pass by De Fa Chang, which is a restaurant famous for their dumpling banquets. If you’re within the city wall area, it should be very cheap to get a taxi, an electric bike, or a golf cart lookalike… the 2 latter items are per person, and the times we took it, it cost about 5 RMB per person only.
PLEASE NOTE: I think you should come here in the evening – it’s livelier then. Also sit down on the steps near Starbucks at the big square in front of De Fa Chang to listen to some indie singers. Also, make sure you check out the Folk House – Gao Grand Courtyard as well (See Three).
THREE. FOLK HOUSE NO. 144 OF BEI YUAN MEN – GAO GRAND COURTYARD (高家大院).
This place reminds me of Qiao’s Family Compound in Pingyao. There is a critically acclaimed Chinese movie made in 90’s, starring Gong Li, called Raise the Red Lanterns (大红灯笼高高挂) and it was filmed in Qiao’s Family Compound. (I remember watching this movie in my high school Mandarin class, anybody else?). Long story short, Gong Li marries into a wealthy family, but she’s actually the fourth wife or 4th mistress is what they called her and the red lanterns in front of the wives’ rooms are lit only when the Master (husband) decides to spend the night there. Which means, there’s a lot of concubine politics and drama that unfolds during the movie. It’s actually a really great movie and the cinematography is excellent.
I digress. Gao Grand Courtyard is located in/near the Muslim Quarters and used to be the former residence of Gao Yue Song, who was very wealthy and part of a prominent family in China. It’s really neat to look around to see how the wealthy lived back in the days and if you’re lucky, you’ll be able to catch a puppet show for free. If not, you’ll be able to purchase a cup of tea and enjoy it in the courtyard.
NAVIGATION: It’s on the main street at the Muslim Quarters so you can’t miss it. No 144 of Bei Yuan Men. 西安北院门144号高家大院.
TIME NEEDED: 30 mins.
GETTING THERE: Combo this with your trip to the Muslim Quarters (See Two).
FOUR. CYCLE AROUND THE CITY WALLS.
Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang, at the beginning of the Ming Dynasty, began to enlarge the wall built initially during the old Tang Dynasty (618 – 907), creating the modern Xi’An City Wall. It’s the most complete city wall that has survived in China and the perimeter of the City Wall is 14km. It’s basically in a shape of a rectangle and it’s awesome to walk around there. You know what’s even more awesome? We literally had the whole wall to ourselves – Xi’An is not packed with tourists and that’s a big reason why I loved Xi’An so much. You can either ride around the entire perimeter of the City Wall, or you can do a combo of walking and riding because you can return the bikes at any of the gates (North, South, East and West). If you cycled around the wall, I think it would take around 2 hours… I would recommend you to walk maybe the duration of one gate, and then cycle 1-3 gates depending on where you want to go for your next destination. Make sure you get off your bike to take a look at the view.
NAVIGATION: The South Gate is the most famous because it’s the most beautifully decorated one; therefore, if you only want to check out one gate, make it the South Gate.
TIME NEEDED: Around 2 hours if you cycle around the full 14km.
GETTING THERE: This depends which gate you want to start with…
PLEASE NOTE: There is an entrance fee of around 50RMB per person to get to the City Walls and the cycling is an additional charge.
FIVE. HUAQING PALACE (华清池) AND THE SONG OF NEVER ENDING SORROW (長恨歌).
We didn’t have a chance to see this and I’m so bummed out about that. This is on the same route on the Tourist #5 bus as the Terracotta Army and you get off at the Huaqing Chi (华清池) stop . The Huaqing Palace is famed for the love story between Emperor Xuanzong and his concubine Yang Guifei. The Huaqing Palace is also called Huaqing Hot Springs and the area the Emperor’s concubines would come to have a bath and it is glorious! They now have a musical dancing show here called The Song of Never Ending Sorrow and from the looks of it on YouTube, it’s a performance not to be missed.
SIX. REVOLUTION (GEMING) PARK (革命公园).
This park was created in 1929 to commemorate those in the city who fought and defeated the Northern Warlords during the Northern Expansion of 1927. During the course of the Northern Warlords besiege of Xi’An for 8 months, almost 50, 000 lives were lost protecting Xi’An. The park contains Taihu Stones that are relics from the Tang Dynasty, amongst other things such as a marry go round and amusement park, a temple and a manmade lake with traditional Chinese style pavilion.
The reason to go to this park is for the people. Go in the morning, around 9am, and you will see a lot of action in this park with each person belonging to a certain group, be it, a dancing group, a taichi group, an opera singing group or a Chinese yo-yo group. If you want to see what the locals are doing in the morning – this is the park to wander through for 30 mins and it’s such a hidden gem. If you like things off the beaten path, this park is it.
NAVIGATION: Just wander around and soak in the experience.
TIME NEEDED: 30 mins.
GETTING THERE: We took bus 603 and got off at stop 五路口; however, there are no English signs on the bus, so it may be easier to hail a taxi or go on a golf cart trolley car.
SEVEN. TRIP TO HUA SHAN (华山).
If you’re into hair-raising thrill rides, Instagram envy inducing photos, and crazy experiences – this could be for you! Hua Shan is a mountain and you would need a full day if you’re going from Xi’An. The thing to do at Hua Shan is a hike, also called one of the deadliest hikes in the world. After one look at the photo below, you’ll either immediately put Hua Shan on your bucket list (you crazy daredevil!) or cross it off forever (normal human).
EIGHT. DRUM (鼓楼) AND BELL (钟楼) TOWER.
Located within a very short walking distance from each other, these 2 towers are also 5 minutes from the Muslim Quarters. We took the subway Line 2 and got off at 钟楼 Zhongluo (Bell Tower). You have the option of paying to go up both these temples, but we just took photos from afar. The Drum and Bell Towers are called sisters to one another and there are musical performances inside the towers; however, I am unable to find out specifically the times of these performance – you may have to ask your hotel front desk for more up-to-date information.
The Drum Tower was used in ancient China, especially during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), as the drums were used to signal the running of time and on occasion were used as an alarm in emergency situations. The Bell Tower marks the geographical centre of Xi’An and it was Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang in 1384 who built the tower as a way to provide early warning of attack by rival rulers. They’re also magnificent to look at and they’re prettiest at night when they’re all lit up.
TIME NEEDED: Depending if you’re going to go up into the towers, anywhere between 30 mins to 1.5 hours.
GETTING THERE: Subway Line 2 and got off at 钟楼 Zhongluo (Bell Tower). We were checking out bus signs and a lot of them stopped at the Bell Tower (钟楼). If you can’t read Chinese, it might be difficult for you to take the bus because the stops are written in Chinese and there is no English announcing the bus stops.
NINE. BIG WILD GOOSE PAGODA (大雁塔).
I’m going to be honest, and say that this is probably lower priority. We managed to see the Musical Fountain show but it wasn’t that spectacular to us or to rephrase, nothing we couldn’t have seen elsewhere in the world. Unfortunately, because we went at 9pm, the pagoda wasn’t opened and if anything, I would have preferred to go there in the daytime to take a look in the pagoda.
It was originally built in 652 and it functioned to collect Buddhist materials that were taken from India by the hierarch Xuanzang and there is an explanation reason to why it is called the Big Wild Goose Pagoda. So as explained on Travel China Guide, in ancient times, there was one stream of Buddhists whereby they were allowed to consume meat; however, one day, they couldn’t find any meat to eat. At that moment, a flock of big wild geese flew by and one of the monks thought to himself, “I hope the merciful Bodhisattva will give us some.” Right after that, one of the leading big wild goose broke its wings and fell to the ground and it was then that the monks believed that it was Bodhisattva that showed his spirit to them. The monks become more pious, stopped eating meat and then established the pagoda right where the goose fell.
There is a Small Wild Goose Pagoda because it looks like a smaller version of the Big Wild Goose Pagoda and they are not in the same area as one another.
NAVIGATION: You can just wander around, and the pagoda is behind the square where the musical fountain is.
TIME NEEDED: 30 minutes? Probably more if you are able to go into the pagoda.
GETTING THERE: Take Subway Line 2 to Xiaozhai Station (Exit C) and walk eastward for 10 minutes. Truthfully, if you don’t have data or a map, it’s a bit hard to find because you can’t see the pagoda until you’re really close to it.
TEN. TOMB OF EMPEROR JINGDI (汉阳陵).
This is a joint tomb of Liu Qi, the 4th emperor of the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-24AD), and his empress, Empress Wang. It was built in the year 153 and the museum opened in 2006, making it China’s first underground museum.
I loved this place and it was completely empty. I think there were maybe only 10 other people and that’s 10 people. The mausoleum is about 4.9 hectres but the underground museum is 2 acres. In the underground museum, the simplest explanation is that you walk on top of strengthened glass on top of the excavation site so you can look into each of the pits. This is what makes this museum in my opinion cooler than the Terracotta Army. It’s the fact there are more signs to explain what each pit contains, and you’re able to have a closer look into each of the pits. The figures and relics; however, are not life-size like the Terracotta warriors.
NAVIGATION: We were running low on time and so we really only explored the underground museum; however, you can visit other burial sites, the actual tombs and it’s said that you can experience a stimulation of an archeological dig. I would say to start with the underground museum first and then go from there to see what you want do see more of.
TIME NEEDED: We only allotted 1.5 hours for this and that was a mistake. I say plan to stay here 2-3 hours if you want to see and do everything this place has to offer.
GETTING THERE: The Tourist bus #4 will get you here; however, I’ve heard that it is infrequent. The better option would be to combo this with your trip to the airport as this is 20 mins away from the airport. I’m sure if we’ve tried, we could have went lower, but we paid 250RMB for him to go from our hotel, to the museum, wait for us, and then drop us off at the airport. This place is basically in the middle of nowhere, so don’t think you can catch a cab when you leave.
BONUS ITEM. LIVE IN A CAVE.
My travelling partner thought this was too try-hard touristy, but if you’re into these things, you can experience living in a cave. This is in the rural countryside of Xi’An and you live in an authentic 300 year old cave. Here’s the Air bnb listing if you’re interested.
If you’re really pressed for time – my must-dos of the must-dos are 1) The Terracotta Army 2) Muslim Quarters 3) Tomb of Emperor Jingdi and 4) City Walls. If you’re interested in more Xi’An photos, check out our Instagram hashtag #smoogoesxian.
Also, make sure you keep your tummy warm at Xi’An by consuming copious amounts of yummy food! Have you seen our next post on the Xi’An series about the Top 10 Must Eats of Xi’An?