Xi’an: history, food, and lungs full of carbon

What is this? I had it for breakfast twice and it was delicious.
What is this? I had it for breakfast twice and it was delicious. I must know what it’s called and if I can find it in Chongqing.

My students sometimes ask me if I like to travel. I usually reply, “Well, everybody says they do,” to buy some time and because I’m not really sure of the answer. I like seeing new things, but I also like sleeping in my own bed at night. Of course, those of us who self-select to live abroad are more likely to be travel enthusiasts, but I consider myself more of a migrant worker than an adventurer.

Still, it’s winter break. We have about 6 weeks off, since Lunar New Year is so late this year. Staying in Chongqing is not recommended. Many of the stores around campus have closed for the month, and January and February are not the most naturally beautiful times to be here. (I’ll write more about what I’ve been doing here in another post.) I want to make the most of my time here in China and learn about this country, and it’s really inexpensive to travel here if you can economize a little. So off I went to Xi’an and Chengdu.


The day before I left for Xi’an, one of my students accompanied me to English CAFE. (He had just finished taking exams and was waiting to take the train home. He was bored and likes practicing English, so we made the trip downtown together.) I told him my plan and he said, “Who will help you on the train?” I don’t know. Someone? No one? He decided to go with me to the train station Monday morning, even though his train for home didn’t leave until Monday evening. I told him it was ridiculous for him to sit in the train station for 12 hours and that I would be fine on my own. But if a Chinese person wants to help you, they’re going to help you. You can only argue so much. (I don’t agree with all of Confucius’ teachings, but his ideas about respect toward teachers have been a great benefit to me personally.)

My student and I took the subway early on Monday. He found a comfortable seat and a cup of coffee, and I got on the train to Xi’an with little drama (the signs are not that hard to follow) and found my hard sleeper. I’m not sure if I’d want to sleep a long time on it, but it’s nice to stretch your legs and have a place to put your stuff next to you. The train took about 10 hours and tada! Xi’an.

I stayed at Hantang House, which I recommend. It’s very nice, bathrooms en suite, clean, beautiful dark wood, not too expensive, great location, a little noisy in the evenings but not unbearably so. The beer is not cheap, so it’s not the kind of hostel where you pre-game for your night out. But I wasn’t really there for night life. I stayed in an eight-woman dorm so I could have more money for other activities. That turned out great. Most of my roommates were Chinese, and they are used to sharing and being respectful. Your results may vary during peak season. (The most disrespectful people I encountered on this trip were Americans. Ugh. They weren’t that bad, they just stood out compared to everyone else.) I wasn’t in the room much, anyway, so aside from the need to lock my things in the locker when I left, I didn’t miss having a private room. So I checked in, signed up for the tour to the Terra Cotta Warriors the next day, drank a beer, and went to bed.


I have wanted to see the Terra Cotta Warriors since I first heard about them on Ripley’s Believe it or Not! at at age seven or so. I saw the touring exhibit at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, but there is more to explore. A bunch of us from the hostel took a van with a tour guide.

Overall, I enjoyed it. In Minneapolis I got to see some of the warriors up close, but it was hard to grasp the scale of how huge the project is. (And then after all that, they just covered it up and killed all the workmen.) But it was a bit overwhelming and a bit rushed. The tour guide was kind of a B-minus. I know she didn’t want us to feel bored and like we spent too much time there, but I think she erred too far on the other side. I’m really glad I went, but maybe going on my own would have been a better choice. Certainly less expensive.

That evening, four of us from the tour met up to go to the water fountain show at the Big Wild Goose Pavilion. A water fountain show sounds totally Vegas—music plays and the water shoots up in time to the music and there are colored lights. But it was free, so what the hell, right? I did like it more than I thought I would. It was 30 minutes but didn’t feel too long.

We were a little cold from sitting by the fountain, so we got some noodles afterward at First Noodle Under the Sun. The Xi’an specialty is biang biang mian, which I guess is one bigass noodle in a bowl. It was delicious. All the food in Xi’an was really good, without being burn-the-paint-off-the-ceiling hot like in Chongqing.


I struck out on my own and immediately got lost. I had a decent map, and Xi’an is laid out like a grid, but for some reason I had a hard time getting around. The map made things look closer together than they were, and that did not help. After about 90 minutes of fruitless staggering around (which, really, isn’t so long to be lost if you really think about it), I found the Muslim Quarter. And lucky me, it was time for lunch.

The Muslim Quarter is my new favorite thing. So much food, so many things to look at. I love the points where cultures intersect, and the Muslim-Chinese market was so stimulating to my brain (and belly). So I walked around there and ate hot beef on a bun. What else do I need?

The Drum Tower and Bell Tower are both nearby. Since I had to pay to go to them, I decided I’d pick one, not both. Drum Tower it is! It was pretty. They had a lot of antique furniture on display. It was fine, I don’t regret going, but it’s not a can’t-miss unless you really love architecture or furniture.

I wandered a bit more and found myself by the West Gate of the ancient city walls. I had plans to explore the walls; why not now? I paid to get in and decided to rent a bike to ride around the walls. That was a great decision. I would have been a little bored at walking speed, but riding was perfect. The ride was a little rough at times, and I think navigating through crowds might be stressful on a busy day, but this was great. (I was sore the next day; going on a ten-mile ride after no biking for months was not easy!) I also got into a conversation with another rider who just moved to Madison, Wisconsin. It’s a small world.


On the Terra Cotta Warriors tour I had met a woman named Jo, and we decided to attempt to visit the Tomb of Jing Di independent of the Hantang tour group. We both like museums and felt rushed on the Warriors tour. We set out to take the subway and a bus, and it worked out really well. I also started to feel like I was in possession of some useful Chinese skills. The Xi’an accent is much easier to understand than the Chongqing accent, and I was able to conduct simple transactions. Knowing that “图书馆” means “library” meant we got off the subway at the correct stop. Practical language skills at work!

The Tomb of Jing Di is not world famous, but it’s really fascinating. Jing Di had a burial site with terra cotta effigies of men, women, eunuchs, and animals and chariots. The bodies of the humans were about ten inches high and dressed in silk clothing. Each face was individually carved, although the bodies looked to be mass-produced (with a bit of extra attention to the genitals). It looked like a Fisher-Price My First Emperor’s Tomb, and I just wanted to get on my knees and play with the pieces.

After half a day, we returned to Xi’an proper. I was hungry and Jo was cold, so we went to (sigh) Starbucks for a warm-up and then back to the Muslim Quarter for something delicious. We ended up getting deeper into the Quarter than I had on my own and found the places where the actual residents buy their goods. My big honky face apparently gave some gentleman quite a start, according to Jo, who was walking behind me. It’s interesting how unaccustomed to Westerners some Chinese are. (Xi’an was the first place I actually heard people refer to me as 老外, although that could be because their accent is easier to understand.)


Jo reported that the Shaanxi Museum was worthwhile and also free, so I did my best to find it. I had another bout of being lost and wandering in the wrong direction, but I got there. I found a lot of really incredible artifacts and historical pieces. Quite crowded, but I was still able to see everything I wanted. I highly recommend it.

The crowds did make me want to do something a bit more relaxing afterward. I made my way back to the Big Wild Goose Pavilion. I ate again at First Noodle Under the Sun and spent the afternoon exploring the gardens around the pavilion. I didn’t pay to go inside, but I felt I had enough to do. I bought a coffee and just watched the people outside, then walked a bit more when I felt ready. I also walked up and down a street called “Chinatown,” mostly out of curiosity. It looked like a Bar Street with some restaurants (mostly Korean and Indian). OK, call it Chinatown if you want, Xi’an, see if I care.


I didn’t really have a plan for Saturday, unfortunately. I was leaving, but not until later. I think I thought I’d sleep in a bit longer than I did and have less time to fill. So what did I do? Starbucks, then Muslim Quarter for lunch. Hey, it’s my damn trip, I’ll do what I want.

I did pop my head into the Great Mosque. I had read that there would be a charge and that I would not be admitted during prayer times. No one charged me, and no one stopped me from going into the courtyard. I removed my shoes and went into the mosque itself. I looked around a bit, then the imam saw me and shooed me out. It was really beautiful (again, cultural intersections), but all my photos from the courtyard got lost.

I did a little more shopping. Then I thought, what the hell, I’m going to get a massage. There is a place in the Muslim Quarter that advertises massage by the blind. I was still sore from the bike ride and general walking around, so I went for a full body. I kept my clothes on and the guy worked on my through my clothes with a cloth over. He had really good technique and I felt much better afterward.

Overall, I really love Xi’an. Except for the pollution. I should have bought a mask to wear, and if I’d stayed longer, I would have. I felt horrible every night, with a hot scratchy throat and watery eyes. I may go back some day, but I really hope they can manage the air quality. (Some of my students are environmental engineers; Godspeed, you guys!)

At that point, it was time to return to the hostel, pick up my bag, and go to the train station. And there my troubles began.



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