Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Travel Advice in China: Xi'an (and Hua Shan)

Xi’an is a city of about 8 million, and there’s quite a bit to do there.  The most popular thing is the Terra Cotta Warriors, which are a short distance by bus from Xi’an.  It’s really easy to get out to the Terra Cotta Warriors:  if you standing in the door of the train station facing out, go left.  There are several parking lots in front of the train station; the one furthest to the left is where you can get the bus.  You won’t miss it; they are well-marked in English, and many of the buses are even have big decals of the warriors on the side.  If you have extra time (I didn’t), the bus also stops at a couple of other tourist sights on the way out.

Xi’an also has its old city walls around it, and you can walk on top of them at several points.  There are several sights within the city; you can find them all in any good guide book or tourist map.  One sight they will tell you is the Muslim mosque, which is interesting; right next to the gate to the Mosque is the street market.  There are several covered alleys with hundreds of booths; nearby are many shops.  This was a great place to buy all sorts of interesting souvenirs and decorative things for you apartment.  Unfortunately, I was there the very first day of my seven-week trip, so I couldn’t buy too much because I didn’t want to carry it all.

I particularly enjoyed the Gao Courtyard House, also known as the Ancient Folk House, on  Baiyuan Men in the Muslim quarter.  It was only five yuan to go in when I was there, and  there was an older Chinese man who spoke excellent English who was my personal guide--he walked me around the whole place and explained why they ‘d built  it  arranged according to the rules of feng shui, and what each room was used for, and the family who lived there.  After the tour, there is a tea shop at the back where you can try six different kinds of green tea for only five yuan.  

Baiyuan Men is right in the middle of the area most frequented by travelers, so I was surprised at how many Chinese people weren’t used to foreigners and stared just as much as in Jingzhou.  I had four different people stop me and ask if I would take a picture with them.  I was beginning to wonder of I was the tourist or the attraction. 

Be sure you see the Bell Tower and the Drum Tower at night--they light them up. Besides, it’s a good area for restaurants and such.  Oh, and go to the park by the Big Wild Goose Pagoda, in the southern part of the city.  Get there early and find a spot to sit or stand near the fountains; at about 8:00 PM they have a fun light show with fountains shooting water into the air and colored lights, all in time to music. Here's more information

The hostel I stayed at in Xi’an was one of the best I’ve ever stayed at anywhere.  It was the Shuyuan International Youth Party Hostel, and it was just inside the south gate of the city.   It was an old courtyard-style home at one time.  When I started planning my travels in China, I thought the hostels would probably be a lot rougher and not as nice as the ones I stayed at in Europe.  I found just the opposite--the best hostels I’ve ever stayed at  were in China.  

Hua Shan

Now, my thing is hiking, particularly hiking in mountains.  If you like hiking or beautiful scenery, I recommend Hua Shan.  It is a mountain about a three-hour bus ride from Xi’an.  It is one of the sacred mountains of Taoism, and it is one of the steepest mountains in China—the south face is a sheer 2000 foot drop.  You can take a cable car up to the north peak—I recommend that, because the hike up to there is very difficult and even dangerous in places, but if you are a super athlete who’s not afraid of heights, suit yourself.  From the north peak, you can hike four or five hours up to the other three peaks; there are hotels/hostels on the south and east peaks.  Be prepared for a LOT of stairs.  And then more stairs.  And more.  And then one little part more like a  ladder. But, the scenery is worth it.  Spend the night at the top, and then get up at 4:30 or so in the morning (don’t worry, you won’t miss it…the Chinese people in the dorm room will turn on the lights and begin talking loudly in plenty of time).  Take a jacket, even if you go in the summer, because that early it’s pretty cold and windy up there.  Some of the hotels rent out parkas.  Follow the trail up to the highest point of the peak you’re on, and watch the sunrise.  It was a spectacular sight.  Then you can hike around between the peaks if you want and then back to the north peak to go down. You can go back to this post I wrote about the trip if you want to hear the whole story. 

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