Xi’an was on my “to see” list for a couple of years. Finally I decided to fuck work and see it, before it’s too late. Being a busy man, I couldn’t allow myself for a longer trip, so decided to spend there two and a half full days (arriving at Xi’an around midnight on Thursday and leaving on Sunday in the evening), so that I can see as many things as possible, without affecting my work. Worked.
Where to stay?
It’s a tourist city, so there’s plenty of hotels around, but my choice was the “7 Sages (Qixian) Hostel” and it was a great choice (http://www.hostelxian.cn/en/about.asp). Stylized as an old, Chinese mansion, it has modern and NEW facilities, with a variety of rooms to stay in. For 240RMB/night I got a “loft” room, with two big double beds, new, nice and clean bathroom, TV and extension cords accepting HK plugs – if you’re traveling as two couples, it’s a perfect choice (just 60RMB per head). People in the hostel can help you arrange some trips, they have a very nice board in Chinese and English about what to see depending on how long you’ll be staying, marking down all the most important landmarks. They can also arrange hostels for you in other cities, plane, train and bus tickets and even a trip to Lhasa (they are also helping with Tibet permits for foreigners). I’m sure all of it has its price, but the local trips they offered were actually similar to those quoted to me by travel agencies. The place has got some cool facilities, including ping-pong tables (outside), pool, Wi-Fi and PCs with internet (watch out for them, they’ve no USB ports), a small library and a bar/restaurant. A word of warning – while the beer is good and comes in a variety of brands, I seriously recommend you to SKIP THE FOOD. It’s bad. If you’re hungry in the morning and you have no food with you, it’s better to just go around the corner, and find this guy with “Government approved” (read: clean, tasty and SAFE) hot buns of all different sorts (baozi). The hostel is located in the north-western part of the inner city, just 5 minutes’ walk from the city walls, maybe 15-20 minutes’ walk from the North Gate.
Forget taxis. While they are relatively cheap (6RMB initial fee +1RMB fuel surcharge), there’s simply not enough of them. You’ll be lucky to catch one, especially in the afternoon or at night. What’s worse, if you thought SZ drivers don’t know the city, just wait until you get on a taxi in Xi’an – those guys (women, surprisingly, didn’t have any problems) REALLY don’t know the city. Even the inner city. They might know some of the main landmarks (Drum Tower, Bell Tower, one of the citywall gates) but other than that – horror. None of the taxis I took KNEW how to get to the hostel, for example. Only in one case it turned out to be a blessing, when I wanted to get to the Small Goose Tower, but the guy actually took me to the Big Goose Tower (much further south than I planned; while I was able to put one more CHECK! mark on my list, I paid it off with over 50min-long walk – until I managed to catch a taxi back).
I didn’t use the bus (as a rule, I don’t use buses in China) nor the metro (no point for me), nor any of the tricycles which they have plenty. I kinda regret the last one, but I feel much better walking. If you can find a place to rent a bicycle – do it. For sightseeing the city it’s perfect (people are driving bad as always, but not nearly as bad as in SZ).
Loved it. Just like that. Tried many different things, some of them were better, some of them were not so good. But it’s really worth it to forget about western food for those few days. My personal best: Shaanxi noodles (thick, wide, looooong noodles, best served with spicy oil) that I had in this small eatery next to the Terracotta Army (in what they call the “Terracotta Village”), spicy lamb with cumin (same place), the steamed buns (baozi) I mentioned above (maybe 100m from the hostel, due south) and steamed buns (again baozi) at the Muslim Street. Local hong shao rou is prepared in a completely different way than in other places I had it (no cinnamon, no ginger, no sauce – it ain’t red at all, actually, and it’s a bit dry) so it was a little bit disappointing, but an even bigger disappointment was the dumplings I had in Xi’an, in a restaurant that is supposed to be very famous for its dumplings – just 50-60m north-west from the Bell Tower; the city is supposed to be renowned for the dumplings, but man, did that place suck… Half of the dumplings were simply tasteless, the other half was too salty and the service there was simply fucking bad – I had to remind them twice that they didn’t bring me all my food yet, they were giving me black faces all the time (probably because I don’t look rich and my Chinese is very bad), they were slow, and actually kind of stupid. Skip it. In terms of food itself, however, the worst things were served in the hostel. “Pizza” was awful (tasteless cheese on hard bread that you couldn’t call dough even if you wanted to be really nice, canned ham cut into huge, awful dice and broccoli, for Christ…), coffee was lukewarm, “cheese sandwiches” had literally NO CHEESE in them and the fries that came along were half-cooked. Nice service saves this place a little, but… general rule: stick to the beer.
Each to his own, of course, but after my Vietnam trip last year I concluded that if you don’t need to save money and don’t want to waste time, it’s best to hire yourself a car with a driver and a tour guide/translator (the latter you can actually skip, if you’re going with a smart Chinese person or if you speak Chinese – the places you’ll see are so well described on the Internet, that there’s fairly few things the guides will tell you, that you couldn’t find out for yourself). Different travel agencies offer different packages and prices (some cars will be more expensive, if you don’t want to ride a BYD or a Jetta), but most likely you will either end up paying similar price, if you took a group tour on a coach, or you will see less in the same time. You have to be careful, though, and I have no idea how to prepare for that, unfortunately: I had a splendid couple driving me around on my first day, and a “lying-cheating-and-stealing” couple on the second day. On the first day, it turned out that my driver was also a licensed tour guide – and a very good one; too bad he didn’t speak any English. But he was very well organized, his stories were “decorated” with a lot of funny, personal remarks and he was very hospitable, in this very Chinese way, that always wins my heart – he could actually advise on the food, he fended-off all the local people trying to sell me some bullshit, offered cigarettes and so on. Very, very friendly dude. The girl that was the „actual” tour guide, on the other hand, was an English-major graduate, spent over 10 years in the area, and did her very best to talk about the things we’ve seen at exactly the level of detail that I wanted – not giving boring lectures, but at the same time knowing all the numbers, dates, people, etc. The second-day couple… oh, man, were they bad or what! The driver was just a driver, and a pretty boorish at that (spitting, grunting, etc.). The tour guide, on the other hand, was much more interested in my home country and my job, than she was in describing the surrounding areas. She couldn’t tell me anything I couldn’t google within five minutes on my phone (and I was using an old NOKIA), and her descriptions of artifacts in museums were reduced to reading the plaques next to them. They pissed me off the most with the last site I asked them to take me to – since it “wasn’t on the schedule” for that day, they asked me to pay extra to the driver for additional way, which I didn’t mind doing (after all, it was supposed to be extra work, extra distance, additional 50km as they said), but then it turned out that the site was actually almost exactly on our way back – when I took the taxi to the airport on the next day, we used exactly the same way. Add to it the fact, that the tickets they “bought for me” had 0元 printed on them (most likely extra tickets their travel agency gets every time they buy group tickets) and… you know what I mean; I don’t mind giving them money for those tickets, as if they didn’t have them, I would still need to pay; but why not just fucking say so?
For sightseeing the city (within the city walls), as said before I think a bicycle would be the best choice. Although the distances don’t look long on maps and plans, there is a lot of walking to do, and with the scarcity of taxis, this should really be the best choice. One drawback only – Xi’an is best visited… in March. Winter (December – February) is simply too cold, July and August are too hot (with temperatures reaching 38-40 degrees), and other months – being that the weather is perfect – are literally LOADED with people. Which shouldn’t be surprising in China, but per my (real) tour guides, it is really, really, really bad in those months. Due to long lines of people waiting everywhere, local “helpers” literally pushing you through sites, and roads packed with cars and buses (adding greatly to the local traffic, full of small, slow vehicles and huge heavy trucks) you will see much, much less in the end.
So what did I see?
I won’t post any detailed descriptions, as they are easily found on the internet, but here is what you can see, if you take a trip similar to mine:
Day 1 (East Line)
– Mingsheng Palace (the biggest Taoist temple in Northern China)
– Bingjian Pavillion and Chiang Kai-shek’s hideout
– Huaqing Pool (favorite hot spring of the Tang Dynasty emperors, most significantly of the Emperor Xuanzong)
Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor (the Terracotta Army)
Day 2 (West Line)
Qianling Mausoleum (tomb of Emperor Gaozong and his wife, China’s one and only ruling Empress Wu Zetian)
Famen Temple (Buddhist temple with Sakyamuni Buddha’s relic)
Yangling Mausoleum (the Museum itself made a better impression on me, than the Terracotta Army)
Giant Wild Goose Pagoda (seen it at night, after returning to Xi’an – worth seeing at night, also because of the lights&fountains show just outside of it)
Day 3 (Xi’an inner city and City Walls)
Muslim Street (lots of freshly made, Chinese Muslim food)
Bicycle ride all along Xi’an City Walls (almost 14km long)
The Drum Tower
The Bell Tower
…and what did it cost me?
As it is with most trips, the largest chunk of the cost was the plane ticket. I chose to fly from GZ, because:
– I got a good deal for their tickets from GZ
– due to my late arrival (around 0:15 on Friday in Xi’an) I was afraid of flying from SZ, where the planes are always late
The ticket cost me a little over 1k RMB, regular tickets from GZ are about 1600RMB (so actually, if you add the cost of traveling to and from GZ, it might have been the same as flying from SZ).
One night at the hostel was 280RMB/night, but you can get a smaller room (no loft) for 140-160RMB per night, or stay in a bigger room with strangers for even less.
Car rental for the first day was 300RMB (locations are closer, around 50-60km from Xi’an) and 450 for the second day (locations about 120km away) plus the extra 100RMB for the last location.
English speaking tour guide for each day around 300RMB.
And the entry tickets – now, this was a surprise. The tombs and museums I’ve visited, are probably some of the most expensive museums I’ve ever been to. The prices were increased greatly within the last 1-2 years (in some cases, per my guides, even more than 50%) mostly due to steadily increasing number of visitors (better roads bring more tourists). The Terracotta Army entry ticket is 150RMB, others ranged from 90RMB to 110RMB, if memory serves me. I think in total I spent about 600-800RMB for all of them.
Other costs: renting a bicycle to ride on the city walls – 40RMB per 100min (but you need to pay 140RMB deposit for the bicycle); taxis maybe 150RMB total for inside-city rides and 150RMB fixed price for taxi from the hostel to the airport; coach from the airport to the city 28RMB. Can’t remember if I paid anything else.
Food: oh, that all depends. I like to try many new things, so for lunches I would order 4-5 different dishes, even if I couldn’t finish half the food. So lunch in the Terracotta village cost me 176RMB, but I left the change as tip – the food was just so awesome. Lunch at the Famen Temple was 150RMB, and I left no tip there (it wasn’t bad, but…). Baozi from that guy on the corner was just 4.5RMB for three of them (more than enough breakfast for a guy as big as me), and I got a Chinese burger for free from the first driver. Muslim bread (one like you can get in SZ) was 3.5RMB and it could stuff a normal person for 2-3 hours easily, and the baozi on the Muslim street were just 2.8RMB for three (spicy sauce free of charge). The “Disappointment Dumplings” were a little over 90RMB for three sets plus 40RMB for a plate of cold-cut roasted beef (surprisingly good). Pizza in the hostel (remember to stay away from it – I did it, so that you don’t have to) was 42RMB, sandwiches I think 28RMB. Money bad-spent.
So the total cost for me was about 5,500RMB, I think. Oh, yeah, one more thing – at the Terracotta Army I decided to be a total tourist, and so I bought a book about the tombs, signed by one of the local farmers who actually discovered the place – 200RMB for a SIGNED (!) copy, with additional postcards.
Did I like it? Yes. Would I do it again? Hell, yeah. Would I try to do it in a more economical way? No point. When would I like to go there again? Now, that’s a tough one. On one hand, I’ve seen all the major sites already, but on the other hand, there’s plenty more of smaller ones to be seen. I think I just touched the city tour slightly, so that would be a reason to go back there soon. But then again, a lot of work on the discovered sites is still in progress, and perhaps it is worth waiting a few more years, before returning (some of the museums I have seen have been only opened to public as late as 2006 – and more coming).