Xi'an 西安 is no kind of place to fall in love. Any hardcore Xi'aner will no doubt disagree—surely, it's happened, and more than a few times. But it's not insignificant that the greatest romance this richly historical region can lay claim to is The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, which is in fact about the most violent, life-consuming period in Chinese history. No sweet love story there.
And no surprise: There is little attraction in the pain of the daily journey of 10,000 steps on an empty stomach (why bother if there's nothing worth eating?) and a full bladder (this is no toilet-happy Beijing, mind you). There is little illusion in the hawkers desperately waving one-time-use umbrellas at passersby, the traffic warden carrying out his orders with dogged determination, the repeated exchange with hardened cab drivers.
The glory of this ancient capital, once (hundreds of years ago) the world's largest and most influential economic and cultural center, has been reduced to one, single, tourists' complaint: It's so dirty.
Of course, if all you're looking for in life is to stumble about in a light but unrelenting drizzle and dish out a red note any time you want to walk through a doorway, Xi'an might contain all the romance you need. And there's a bonus: With a noticeable foreign presence in the city, Xi'aners are becoming savvy to the ways of the Western tourist and pushing forth a palpable vibe of skepticism with non-stop "Hello"s.
Sites to See, or Not
Entrance fees to most places of interest are steep, but those with student and senior IDs pay only 50 percent of the full admission fare.
Dating back to 652, as a city emblem, the pagoda is worth a look while passing by, but the RMB50 entrance fee just to enter the square (plus an additional 40 to enter the actual pagoda) makes it a tourist trap. Inside the area are several statues of Buddhist translator and scholar Xuanzang, who wrote the travel records that inspired Journey to the West.
The pagoda was constructed to store the scrolls of sutras he collected during his travels to India.
The 14-kilometer wall that surrounds the old city (replete with moat) is an essential part of Xi'an's topography, but also functions as a money-making tourist attraction (RMB40 to enter). From the wall you can look over the city, or as far as the haze permits. The wall itself features surprisingly little in the way of points of interest, apart from a few gates and towers. There is, however, a small café and cheesy performances by men dressed as ancient guards, all set to extremely annoying music blasting out of loudspeakers near the south gate entrance.
Single-rider and tandem bikes are available for rent (no external bikes are permitted on the wall) for RMB20 each (plus a returnable RMB100 deposit). They're not maintained whatsoever, so check for rusty chains, non-functioning brakes, and flat tires before zooming off on one. Biking the wall, which is paved with large, jagged bricks, on these bikes is a somewhat athletic activity requiring endurance to make it all the way around before the 100-minute bike-rental time limit expires. As an alternative to doing the Tour de Wall, simply turn your bike in at one of the other drop-off points on the wall and walk the rest of the way—or pay the overtime fee.
The much-touted "Muslim Quarter" is these days little more than a night market where tourists buy absurdly overpriced trinkets, most of which can be found in any Chinese city.
Apart from the dried-fruit vendors and some noodle shops, there's little in the way of Hui culture to take in. The Grand Mosque is located here.
Museum of the Terra cotta Warriors and horses of Qin Shihuang
The Terra Cotta Warriors inside Emperor Qinshihuang's Mausoleum Site Museum are reputed to be the must-see of Xi'an, but after viewing detail photos of the unique faces of thousands of clay soldiers, seeing them in person is underwhelming. Without a zoom lens, you see only what the naked eye can see from dozens of meters away. In total there are three pits where the warriors and their horses have been excavated that are open to the public as well as an exhibition and show room explaining the history of the mausoleum as well as the excavation process.
Most hostels offer tour packages at around RMB220, including entrance and transport, but you can get there independently via taxi (RMB400 by meter; RMB300 by black taxi) or on the 306 (游5) bus departing from the east side of the train station square (RMB7; 75 minutes). There are also lots of other buses with similar numbers that will claim to take you there, but there might be detours along the way. Entrance is RMB110 during peak season. Guides and audio guides are available in a selection of languages. Funny souvenirs sold onsite include photos of your face superimposed onto a photo of a terra cotta warrior, terra cotta uniforms you can dress up in to have your photo taken, and 3D images etched into glass cubes—not necessarily warrior-related.
Terra Cotta Warriors Trivia: In 2006, German art student Pablo Wendel donned a warrior suit and jumped into the pit, standing among the statues as if he were one. His disguise and pose were so accurate that it took the police several minutes to locate the flesh-and-blood warrior among the terra cotta warriors. After he refused to give up the pose, six police officers lifted him up and carried him out of the pit. Wendel, then 26, was let off with a warning and sent back to Hangzhou where he was studying at the time.
Shaanxi Provincial (History) Museum
This museum is a refreshing break from the high entrance fees coupled with the "what-are-we-looking-at" syndrome induced by many of Xi'an's sites. With free entrance and a logical, organized display of artifacts representing some of the most core elements of Chinese history, touring the museum is like reading the Cliff's Notes for Xi'an. Objects from the numerous mausoleums in the region are on display as well as pieces from the Banpo ruins and Maps, video presentations, and diagrams help contextualize the pieces. Unfortunately, as with many museums in China, not all placards are translated into English, and those that are sometimes leave much to the imagination, so pre-reading on the region's history is recommended, particularly for those who don't read Chinese. Nonetheless, the explanatory notes shed much more light on many important finds, historical events, and advances in technology than do other sites—i.e., you'll learn much more about the Terra Cotta Army here than you will at the Terra Cotta site itself. You might have to queue to get your free ticket, but if you don't want to wait, you can purchase a ticket for RMB20 that is also valid for entrance to the nearby Small Pagoda 小雁塔. Audio tours are available. The museum is closed during lunch and on Mondays excepting holidays.
China's first underground museum is just by the site of a sign that marks the geographical center of China.
You can walk above the dig of the tomb on the museum's glass floors and explore the vast surrounding grounds. Entrance is RMB80 (additional RMB10 for the film screening).
RMB27 each or 40 to enter the two. A look from the outside is probably all that's needed.
Taxis are impossibly difficult to hail, if you even spot an empty one. Shift-changing time is between 3 and 5 p.m. (and most other hours of the day as well, it seems), and flagging down the rare cab is usually followed by an abrupt discussion with the driver. On the upside, if you do manage to get one, and persuade the driver to take you directly to your destination, and use the meter, it'll be cheap—usually not over RMB10 within the city proper. If you're planning to rely on taxis, you'll likely end up doing quite a bit of walking in the meantime. Much of the pedestrian traffic in Xi'an occurs under or over street level, and, with the maze of pedestrian barriers, crossing the street might not be as simple as it looks. The first line of the subway opened in September of this year, and provides a welcome alternative mode of transportation, though, like Chengdu's, the first line will only take you along one narrow north-south path, and only until 9:30 p.m.
For now, buses are the most used form of transportation in Xi'an, and with over 200 lines, it's not uncommon to see lines of buses a dozen deep at bus stops. However, stops are not very clearly marked with line routes, so trying to figure out which bus to take can be a daunting task. A bike just might be the best way to get around, if you dare. Bike lanes are fairly narrow and not segregated from the bus lanes. E-bikes are quite popular as well, so if you're not blindsided by a bus, pay attention for any silent speedsters approaching from behind on your other side. Bikes can be rented from many hostels for RMB10 to 20 per day. Forever Bicycles has also launched one of its bicycle-rental schemes in Xi'an, but as usual, trying to obtain a card and then make use of it seems complicated. Finally, a city tour bus runs every hour (RMB68 for a 24-hour pass) along major tourist-attraction routes, such as the blue line (Drum Tower to Exhibition Center) and the red line (east, west and south gates of the city wall and then south to the history museum and pagodas). Tel. 400-686-1833
A taxi to or from the city center costs around RMB120; the shuttle bus picks up and drops off at the Bell Tower and costs RMB27. The ride is approximately 1 hour.
Eating & Entertainment
KFC has a stronghold on the city and has built not only KFCs, but also Pizza Huts, King Coffees, Dunkin Donuts, and Baskin Robbins ice-cream shops all over. Even Starbucks seems to be having a hard time nudging the competition. Apart from these chains, there's little in the way of international cuisine, and not much even in the way of local cuisine—every other eatery is a Sichuan restaurant. The wide bian bian noodles are one of the few local specialties. Your best bet for finding something special to eat or drink is in the old town amusement quarter, China's first and largest integrated dining, entertainment, and shopping area, near the Wild Goose Pagoda.
With tourism a major industry, three-star hotels and youth hostels are scattered all over the city, concentrated within the city walls and around the south gate. Standard rooms in such accommodations start at around RMB150 and go up to RMB250 per night. As a bargain alternative, there is a capsule hostel charging RMB38 per night for a body-sized cubbyhole (Yoyo, located 50 meters south of the Xi'an Jiaotong University south gate in the Pailin District—碑林区 西安交通大学南门南五十米 Tel. 18049011069).