I Will Climb That City Wall (Xi’An)

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Riding along the Old City Wall, Xi’An

Over our little three day weekend in September (thank you, Autumn Festival!), I finally went to Xi’An. Xi’An is most famously known for its massive collection of terra cotta warriors unearthed in the 1970s by a few Chinese farmers just out to dig a water well. Imagine pulling up a clay head instead of H2O!

I checked in at my hostel in the centre of the old city (Hanting Hostel – absolutely recommend!) and headed out for a whirlwind tour of Xi’An. Since the day was beautifully warm and sunny – and the next was to be chilly and rainy – I decided to kick it into high gear and get as much done as I could possibly on Saturday.

I wasn’t but a few steps out of the hostel, armed with a map and a taxi card, when I ran into my checklist item #1 – local food. One of the best local dishes is paomo, a lamb soup dish with little bread dumplings and veg in it, with chili and fresh garlic stirred in for that “I’m fending off vampires for the week” spice. The local stared at me like I was a munchkin fresh out of Oz, replete with striped stockings, but I just wanted some soup.

Beyond full, I walked toward the prominent Bell and Drum Towers in the middle of town. I went the Drum Tower for a lovely view of the centre, then descended into the Metro tunnel to take me to the Bell Tower. It was there that we were told not to take photos but selfie sticks still made a prominent appearance as soon as they could sneak it out.

I decided to pop on the “small” (compared to Shanghai’s bazillion lines) Metro line to take it a few stops down to the Shaanxi History Museum, a recommended stop for tourists. I actually had to Google “what to do in xi’an besides terra cotta warriors” because that’s all I knew to be there. At the museum, the guide told me I’d get in free if I had my passport, which, thankfully, I did. After signing in for a free ticket, I was on my way to explore this Silk Road stop and all it’s glorious history.

While dark and short on English signs, the museum was interesting. I explored ink paintings and full length posters of major Chinese political men, and I impressed the lady when I asked if it was Zhou Enlai in one of them. She asked how I knew. Simply, I teach this history, but there wasn’t much more that I could tell her. My vocabulary is limited.

I stopped at a local stand to try a bun. If it’s a bun or a dumpling, I’m willing to go all out like crazy. The buns were 1 kuai each, some with cabbage and some with cabbage and pork. I asked what kind, but she wasn’t sure what to tell me. She didn’t want to sell them in case I didn’t them. A young girl next to me had just bought some and offered me one of hers. I asked if she wanted a kuai for it, but she said it was to be nice to a traveler. People are awesome in Xi’An – friendlier, I felt.

After a stint through the museum, I walked to a local temple complex, which took some creative wandering to find the entrance to. There was meant to be a musical fountain there and the Wild Goose Pagoda. I opted not to pay to go up into the temple (once you go up in one, they all seem the same – loads of stairs), but it was a nice stroll through watching kids play with kites and other cheap 10 RMB toys.

From there, I wandered back to the Metro to take it into town, toward the city wall. I was in line for change only tickets, and when I couldn’t find another kuai for the ticket and had to switch lines, a teenage girl handed me one and smiled. Seriously – I missed this in Shanghai!

At the old city wall, I meant to rent a bike and bike all the way around the city on the old wall. At the first station, right by the main gate, they said I couldn’t go up any more because it was too late. I wanted to go that night before it rained, as the next day the rain wasn’t supposed to stop.

Not to be defeated by two people hollering at me in Chinese – as if I were partially deaf and raising their voicing to yelling level would make me understand them – I wandered down along the wall’s edge, nibbling at hot chestnuts and bao, only to find another entrance to the upper wall. Victory is mine!

I paid my entrance fee and was allowed to climb up. A biking company was right there, so I got a mountain bike and proceeded to bike around the wall, my teeth clacking together with each uneven stone the thin tire bounced against. My backside was going to hurt after this bike ride!

In my opinion, the best time to get up on the wall is at night. You can’t see the city – save for the modern neon lights on the outer wall buildings – but the lights on the city wall and its guard stations are gorgeous. Not unlike the Great Wall, the Xi’An city wall has many guard houses along it. The colors are beautiful already, but the nightlights make them so. I marveled at them as I passed them, trying to avoid the thinning traffic of others on their bikes.

It’s an even ride, though some parts include sharp ramps that you either have to walk up or anticipate by gathering great speed and flying up them. It’s bumpy, of course, because the wall is old as heck, but the fun of riding a bike on the centuries old wall isn’t to be missed.

Along each side are little shops where you can buy drinks, snacks, and ice cream, just in case you’re in for the long haul. The rental fee covers two hours (maybe three, I don’t really remember), so you can be rather leisurely about it. I’m in no great shape whatsoever, and with stops for pictures and water, along with reflection time along the ramparts, I was back within an hour and forty-five minutes.

Post bike-ride, I walked back to my hostel. Fortunately, I was able to secure the last spot on the Terra Cotta Warrior tour the next morning, and I went up to shower happily. Someone was in the shower, so I settled in on my bunk bed and caught up on my Instagramming.

A few minutes later, out of the steamy shower popped a very handsome German guy who was on a tour of China but worked there (I believe). I’ll tell you – great ending to the day, really, to have someone to chat to about the ups and downs of living in this crazy dynamic country. The others in our room were listening to music with earbuds in, wiling away the evening.

Exhausted, I fell right to sleep.

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