We’re not usually the type to rave about cities. Normally we prefer the quiet solitude of the mountains, or the lapping surf at a beach, but China really does have some magnificent cities.
Our personal favorite is Xi’an.
Xi’an is just so well run it’s hard not to love it. Getting around is unbelievably easy. The center of the city is boxed in by an ancient wall and moat, with exits on the compass points. The streets are spotlessly clean, green space is a priority for parks and boulevards, there is plenty of shopping, a million places to eat, tonnes of historic sites and enough culture to keep you as busy as you want to be.
Xi’an is more than 3000 years old, making it one of the oldest cities in China. For centuries it was known as Chang’an and was the capital of some of China’s most successful dynasties including the Zhou, Han and Tang. The city wall that surrounds the core is the largest in the world and towers 12m high. Xi’an is the beginning of the silk road and has been influenced by outsiders for thousands of years. One of the largest influences has been from Muslims. Xi’an is home to the first mosque ever to be built in China and the Muslim Street district is one of the best areas for shopping and food.
In fact, a huge highlight of Xi’an is the food. We are constantly in search of the best cheap street food and within the first few days we had our favorite breakfast stand, pastry shop, coffee/tea/juice shop, ice cream corner, noodle/pulled meat sandwich hole-in-the-wall restaurant and dumpling lady. And yes, we ate at most of these places every single day.
When a bowl of cold noodles (don’t bash it ‘til you’ve tried it) costs around $1, a dumpling is $0.13 and a large beer is less than $2, you know that you’ve found a very budget friendly city. Still, we were surprised to see so few travelers there. There are plenty of Westerners living in China – mostly teaching English – and there was the odd traveler we would run into who came to see the sites, but very few traditional backpackers like us. The hostels can be a bit pricey ($15-20 a bed) but when the food and transportation is so cheap, it makes traveling pretty darn affordable. The fact that you’re usually surrounded by ancient history is just one of the perks.
All around Xi’an is a totally lovable city, but the city itself comes secondary to one of the most famous archaeological finds in our lifetime, maybe even history. The terracotta warriors are about an hour away from the city. They were discovered by farmers in 1974 who were drilling a well. Excavation started immediately after. To date just over 2,000 terracotta warriors and horses have been uncovered, with an estimated 4,000-6,000 still buried. The statues are incredible! They were built under the direction of China’s first emperor Qin Shi Huang over 2000 years ago and stand in battle formation near his tomb. It is commonly believed that the emperor had them built so he could take them with him into the afterlife, where he would continue his rule.
Their real magnificence is seen by viewing the soldiers close up. Each one has been handcrafted and is totally unique. They are life-size, some are taller or shorter, they have different hairstyles and facial expressions, also individualized armor. There are generals and infantrymen, bowmen and chariot drivers. Even the treads on their shoes are unique to the style of footwear they have! Even for non history buffs the terracotta warriors are an incredible site to see and you can’t help but wonder what other amazing treasures are still buried in the other pits, waiting to be discovered.
Have you been to China? What was your favorite city? We’d love to hear about it!