We originally added Xian to our itinerary just to visit the Terracotta warriors. We hadn’t read that much else about the city and didn’t know what to expect. As it turns out, the terracotta warriors weren’t that exciting (in our opinion), but Xian itself was great. The city has a really interesting and easily walkable old city center, a couple memorable sites, and easily the best night market that we visited in China. Not to mention one of the countries most awe-inspiring natural landmarks just a short day trip away. Although most visitors only stay long enough to see the Terracotta army, we would highly recommend staying a few extra days to enjoy the rest that Xian has to offer.
Bike the Old City Walls
As soon as she heard that you could ride a tandem bicycle on top of the ancient city walls, Anna was adamant that we had to try it. To me, it sounded like a tourist trap so I wasn’t as enthused. Fortunately, Anna was able to convince me to give it a shot and I am glad she did. It was some of the most fun we had while in China! You have to pay a fee of 50 yuan to gain access to the huge walls that encircle the old city. Once on top, you can rent a bicycle at a pretty reasonable price of 40 yuan ($6) for 1.5 hours. There are bike rental stalls above each of the 4 gates and you can return the bike at any of them, not just the specific stall you picked it up at. The walls are wide and flat, with plenty of room to dodge the crowds of tourists walking around on foot. Cruising along while passing ancient towers and looking out over the rooftops of the city… definitely one of the most unique cycling experiences we have ever had! The full loop is about 14km and takes around 1.5 hours at a leisurely pace.
Wild Goose Pagoda
Chinese tourists crowd to this large pagoda south of the city for two reasons: the first is the pagoda itself. The 65m tall tower was built in 652 and you can climb to the top for a fee of 30 yuan. Legend has it that long ago some starving monks prayed for help from Buddha and a wild goose dropped from the sky at their feet. A pagoda was built to commemorate the miraculous occasion. The second reason people visit is the huge fountain next to the pagoda, which erupts into a musical water show a few times a day. The show is not particularly interesting (if you have seen one fountain show you have seen them all), but the festival-like atmosphere and the spectacle of hundreds of Chinese families gathering to watch make it worth seeing.
Muslim Street Market
Other than the terracotta warriors, this is probably the most recommended thing to do in Xian. A maze of quiet streets in the city’s Muslim quarter come alive at night with a vibrant and crowded night market. Unlike some other night markets in Asia, this one is all about FOOD. There are few clothing or souvenir shops, but there are hundreds of shops and stalls selling delicious Chinese street food. It’s no surprise that the market with the most food options happens to be our favorite. They had everything from noodles to dumplings to squid on a stick to the best lamb skewers we’ve ever had. On weekend nights, the market gets packed and can be a little claustrophobic in some areas, but the variety and quality of the street food can’t be beat.
We asked a few locals if there were any other markets they would recommend in Xian, and all of them mentioned this small night market near the city’s East gate. Unlike the much larger Muslim street market, Yongxingfang is contained in a small complex of restored hutong buildings. It is a cleaned up and modernized version of a traditional market, with spotless stalls, permanent seating and live music. There is even a charge card that you buy on your way in and use to purchase food at all of the stalls. Although to us this immediately felt “less authentic”, it turns out that the locals prefer the calm Yongxingfang to the overcrowded Muslim street most of the time. The food was still tasty and we have to agree that it was nice to not be herded along like cattle.
We might take some flack for saying this but we weren’t that impressed with the Terracotta Army. Yes, we know that they are one of the most important archeological finds of the last century, and yes it is amazing to think about the number of statues and the immense scale of the burial grounds, but visiting the site itself ended up being a bit disappointing. There are three excavated pits you can look at, however only one of them has rows of restored warriors in it, the other two haven’t been fully excavated so they are basically just empty pits in the ground with a few visible fragments of broken statues. There is a museum, however, it mostly consists of photos of Chinese dignitaries visiting the site and doesn’t have much in the way of historical information. The main excavation pit where you can see the restored warriors is cool, just not as awe inspiring as we were expecting. If you have seen the photos and videos of the army in the past (like we have), then seeing it in person is not that different. We still recommend visiting if you have the time while in Xian however, if you only have time for one day trip, we would pick Hua Shan over the Terracotta Army hands down.
Although most people haven’t heard of Hua Shan, they have probably seen a photo of it on social media at some point. The most common shot is of someone walking along a wooden plank drilled into a cliff side, usually posted with a caption like “I survived China’s most dangerous mountain!” Because of a few deaths a long time ago, Hua Shan is frequently marketed to adventure-seeking tourists as being a death-defying hike. The truth is that the cliff-side plank walk is only a small and optional section of the hike during which you are harnessed in the whole time. The rest of the mountaintop is a popular and completely safe collection of temples, tea houses, and small hotels. Chinese tourists flock here year round to take in the phenomenal views and visit the beautiful temples perched high on the cliffs. To reach the mountain peak you can take an exciting ride on one of the world’s longest cable cars. From the base, it goes up a small mountain, drops almost straight down to the other side, and then climbs up to the top of some incredible sheer cliffs, all before ending in a cave at the peak. Once at the top you can hike a loop around the different peaks of the mountain and visit the temples and small restaurants along the way. Although like many places in China, navigating the crowds can be exhausting, the views from the peaks are truly incredible and visting Hua Shan ended up being one of the most memorable experiences of our trip to date.