Xi’an 西安: 27 Jun – 1 Jul 2016
Xi’an was the ancient capital of several dynasties in Chinese history, including the Zhou, Qin, Han, Sui and Tang, the starting point for the Silk Road, and most importantly, home to the famous Terracotta army. It is also a place that has been on our bucket list since we visited Beijing 8 years ago but could not spare the time for a side trip to Xi’an.
Since my sister-in-law was able to get us low priced tickets to Xi’an now, we knew that we could not let this opportunity pass, we had to see the Terracotta warriors! TigerAir is the only budget airline to fly from Singapore to Xi’an, and to our pleasant surprise, we were given complimentary meals and water both ways. Well done! 🙂
The only down side was the timing of the flights. Arriving in Xi’an at 11:30pm, you would have lost one day of sightseeing. But for independent travellers, don’t fret, you will still have the option of taking the airport shuttle into the city at Xi Shao Men as the bus runs up till the last flight of the day. Also, thanks to AirBNB, there are whole apartments you can rent for as low as SGD35-40 per day. Similarly, the flight back from Xi’an departs at 7:45am, which meant that we had to catch the first bus at 5am from Xi Shao Men to the airport.
Our verdict? The ticket and bus systems were rather efficient, the ride was around 45 mins and everything went smoothly, so don’t bother spending a huge sum of money on taxis to and from the airport. All-in-all, our 3D/4N stay in Xi’an only cost us just under SGD1000 for both of us, including airfare, accommodation and all other expenses. Who said that travelling has to cost you an arm and a leg?
By the way, we really loved this apartment we rented. It was on the top floor (32nd-floor) of a condo, with everything we needed, from toiletries, a washer, dryer, cooker, coffee machine, toaster, seasoning, fresh milk and even home-made cookies!
BELL TOWER 鐘樓
The Bell Tower which stands at the old city centre of Xi’an, was built in the Ming dynasty by Zhu Yuanzhang and is more than 600 years old. It had been moved eastwards from its original position next to the Drum Tower and rebuilt as the city expanded and its geographical centre changed.
Today, the Bell Tower stands in the middle of a busy roundabout and is accessible only by the underground entrance. The tickets are rather expensive at CNY 35 for either the Bell Tower or Drum Tower or joint tickets for both at CNY50. We opted to visit only the Drum Tower.
DRUM TOWER 鼓樓
The Drum Tower is located right next to the Muslim Quarter. Built in the Ming Dynasty by Emperor Hongwu, its purpose, together with the Bell Tower was to tell time. The bell would be struck at dawn, while the drum was sounded at dusk.
There is an exhibition of drums from different periods and regions across China, at the second floor of the tower.
And further up on the third floor, you can find a small scale exhibition of Ming and Qing era furniture. The exhibits do not seem to be very curated, more like a random display of furnishings, but it was still great to be able to see these antiques so up close.
You can then take a walk outside the third floor corridor for a view of the city and the Bell Tower. Don’t forget to look up to appreciate the woodwork and painted motifs that are unique to Chinese architecture.
We love how this chair takes advantage of the natural grains of the stone to illustrate the painting of a mountain landscape.
There are drum performances at the tower on the hour, but not hourly. We happened to catch the show at 3pm and it really enhanced the experience of our visit there. This little girl probably doesn’t agree, haha.
Remember to drop by the Drum Tower again at night. When illuminated, the tower looks even more breathtaking than it is during the day.
STARBUCKS @ BELL TOWER
The Starbucks situated between the Bell Tower and Drum Tower is especially eye-catching with its modernistic geometrical wooden structure.
Feeling hot and in need of a coffee, we went in and found it full, mostly with tourists trying to beat the heat, and some locals taking advantage of the air-conditioning and having a nap. Well, Starbucks being Starbucks, it tastes the same as it would anywhere 🙂 Still, we were glad to get our coffee fix!
XI’AN ANCIENT CITY WALL, SOUTH GATE 西安古城牆，永寧門 (南門)
As you travel through the city, you will sometimes find yourself passing through an old city gate and in awe at how the whole city wall could be so well preserved in its entirety. For our visit, we chose the South Wall as it was most accessible by metro.
The entrance and ticket booth are just a short walk from Yong Ning Men Station – quite a nice walk too as you are serenaded by guzheng music while you walk towards the gate. The feeling would have ironically been quite the opposite for enemies approaching this fortress wall.
It costs CNY40 per person to enter by the South Gate, but this is the oldest gate in Xi’an, built as early as 582AD in the Sui Dynasty. The rest of the city wall was constructed later on in the Ming Dynasty by Zhu Yuanzhang.
The South Gate has a unique crescent shape fortification which acts as the first line of defence for any invaders before they can reach the drawbridge to the city. Standing above that gateway to provide intensive firepower, is the impressive Archery Tower with windows on the front, left and right walls from which arrows can be fired at attackers.
We were really intrigued by this sun dial, but we are unsure if it is original. The time when this photograph was taken, was around 5pm.
Old is beautiful.
The long climb up to the city wall.
The Xi’an city wall is also the most complete and unbroken ancient city wall in China, which means that you can go all the way round the 14km long wall. By foot, it would take 3 hours, and if you rent a bicycle, you can get around within 90mins.
Take time to enjoy the view at the top of the wall.
TERRACOTTA ARMY 兵馬俑
Since it was first discovered by villagers who were digging for a water well at the foot of Li Shan in 1974, three pits of terracotta warriors, horses, chariots and weaponry have been uncovered. It is estimated that only one third of an entire necropolis, including Qin Shi Huang’s tomb mound, of burial items have been unearthed so far.
The terracotta warriors are located an hour way from Xi’an Railway Station by Bus You 5 (Route 306). In future, based on the Xi’an metro planning map, there might be a subway line that can bring you direct to the Mausoleum. There are other local buses that can take you to the Terracotta Army. These buses, 914 and 916, are not fake buses and will not attempt to cheat you. Make sure that you ask the price of the journey before you board the bus. Although the local buses makes a number of quick stops along the way to pick up and drop off locals (that is their means of livelihood), it will still get you to the Mausoleum or Railway Station in about the same time.
Don’t worry too if you haven’t had your lunch, there are plenty of food options at the carpark area outside the entrance to the Terracotta museum. Tickets are a bit pricey, at CNY150 each, but they are worth every buck.
We did not manage to visit the tomb mound itself as the weather was too hot and we were physically spent (although the ticket to the Terracotta Army also entitles you to visit the tomb mound for free).
We first headed to the exhibition hall on our right as it was the closest and we were in need of some shade from the scorching sun. It proved to be a bad decision as we were feeling hot and unaccustomed to the dim interior lighting. The underground space was also too small to handle that many people making that much noise and trying to take photos of everything in that space.
It was a real pity, because the hall actually houses the two bronze chariots that were unearthed right next to Qin Shi Huang’s tomb mound. They are deemed as the “earliest, largest and best-preserved bronze chariots and horses in the history of Chinese archaeology”. Unfortunately, while trying to catch a glimpse of the relics through the mass of people and cameras, we had misread the description explaining that the chariots were replicas, meaning reproductions. They are in fact original but half sized models of an actual chariot, driver and horse. Had we known that (we could not as google was not working well for us in China), we would have returned for a second look before leaving.
Pit 1 was the site where the first terracotta warrior was discovered. It is estimated to contain more than 6000 warriors and horses. Excavation was halted when scientists and archaeologists could not stop the warriors from losing their colours, just minutes after they have been unearthed.
The front portion of Pit 1 is the most impressive and draws the most visitors, with around 1000 terracotta warriors and horses on display. You would really need to be patient to wait your turn in front of the railing, for a good face-to-face view of the terracotta army.
The gate in front of the army is one of the 4 entrances to the pit that were sealed off when the construction was completed.
This was the exact point where the well had been dug, leading to this amazing discovery that has shocked the world.
It was a surreal feeling staring down at the individual faces of these people from a dynasty more than 2000 years ago.
The terracotta army had suffered significant damage before it was uncovered. It was believed to have been burnt by Xiang Yu at the fall of the Qin Dynasty, evidence of black soot still evident today on the top of the walls. The pit was also later flooded, causing the puddle walls separating the warriors to partially collapse and damaging the terracotta figures within.
There is a open conservation workshop at the back end of Pit 1 where there are boxes and boxes of broken terracotta chips and pieces, waiting to be pieced back together. There was no one at work that day as it was probably too hot and humid for any one to be working in this weather.
We were rather dismayed when we spotted a drink bottle in the pit, hoping that someone had accidentally dropped it in, instead of throwing it in on purpose. Just a few minutes ago, we had encountered an elderly man spitting into the pit as well. We deeply wished that people could understand the value of these antiquities, and the sweat and pain that the experts had put in, to unveil these treasures to us all.
Pit 2 might seem smaller and less visually impressive as compared to Pit 1, but according to archaeologists, it is the more spectacular of the two. Pit 2 in fact contains more complete units of armed forces, and shows more complex combat formations of an estimated “80 war chariots, about 1,300 terracotta warriors and horses, and thousands of bronze weapons”.
The remnants of a war chariot that would have been a part of 64 chariots placed in rows of 8, to make up a complete combat formation. Each chariot is drawn by 4 horses, one driver in the middle and another 2 warriors at each side.
The broken figures of what look like unamoured standing archers, similar to one of the complete warriors that was on display in Pit 2.
An excavation team at work (this is the only pit that has air conditioning). Look at the thousands of pieces on the ground that have been labelled for processing.
The extraordinary relics that had been unearthed from Pit 2 were definitely the highlights of our visit there. Especially this armoured kneeling archer, who is the most complete terracotta warrior found to date. A total of 160 archers were found. In Pit 2, the archers are positioned in front of the chariots and calvarymen, acting as the first line of defence.
The details on the archer are incredible, the hair braids, the folds and fluidity of his garment, the expressiveness of his face, and the non-slip soles of his shoes!
This terracotta figure is said to be that of a high-ranking general, based on his clothing and headgear.
What’s interesting is the placement of his hands and a raised index finger, that does not seem to have any explicit explanation behind it. Some suggest that this indicates his important position as second to the emperor, while more complex theories observe a number code among the hand gestures of the warriors across various ranks, with the general here representing a ‘9’ (ten minus 1).
This middle ranking officer looks focused and poised, ready for battle.
A calvaryman and his horse, complete with bronze harness. The horse looked extremely life-like with impeccable details to its face and physique.
Bronze weaponry unearthed from the pit were found to look new and still sharp. Analysed by scientists, the weapons were discovered to have been coated by chrome, a technology that was lost and only mastered again in recent times.
Pit 3, although the smallest of all the pits, is the key command center for the entire Terracotta army as many high ranking officers have been found in this pit. While the figures in Pit 1 and 2 are lined up for battle, the ones in Pit 3 face one another like guards of a command post, spanning two wings. In the middle, facing the entrance, is a single war chariot pulled by 4 horses.
The excavation of Pit 2 was completed by archaeologists in 1977 as it was the smallest and least damaged of the three pits. Many of the warriors here were found without their heads, believed to have been deliberately destroyed and removed.
SHAANXI HISTORY MUSEUM 陝西歷史博物館
The Shaanxi History Museum was one of our final stops in Xi’an and one that I highly recommend if you are keen to have a better overall understanding of Chinese history. Do note too that like all attractions in China, you would have to deal with large amounts of visitors and noise. Even though we were there on a Thursday, it was relatively crowded with families.
The museum offers free tickets, up to 2500 a day, that entitles you to visit three permanent exhibition halls. To skip the long queue for the free tickets, as we did that day, you can choose to pay CNY20 for tickets at a different counter located to the right of the museum entrance. Do not be confused by another different ticket that costs CNY300 which gives you additional access to the Tang Dynasty mural paintings. Unless you have sufficient energy, time and budget, (we spent more than 3 hours in the museum on our CNY20 ticket), you could skip this extra exhibit. Also, to the credit of the museum, most of the exhibits had English descriptions, so you can go without a guide if you prefer.
The Shaanxi History Museum is not huge if you compare it to the likes of the Lourve Museum in Paris or the British Museum in London. But for it’s size, it packed a whole lot of precious antiquities and a compressed yet concise history of China from prehistoric times, the bronze age, the warring states, to the unification of China, through the rise and fall of its dynasties.
Ceramics from the Neolithic Age (3000BC) that had been unearthed from Xi’an City. This is the earliest known Chinese stone age culture.
Spanning the 21st to 11th century BC, the Xia and Shang were ancient China’s first two hereditary dynasties. Many bronze artifacts were found from this period and seem to have been beautifully preserved despite the test of time.
The Qin dynasty is perhaps most famous for being the first feudal unified dynasty, established by Emperor Qin Shi Huang in 221BC. Emperor Qin achieved great feats despite his short rule, standardizing weights and measures, and even the way characters were to be written across China. He is of course, best known for his burial complex which holds thousands of life-sized terracotta warriors, horses, chariots and weaponry.
The Han Dynasty preceded the Qin Dynasty, before it was broken up into the Three Kingdoms. Spanning a period of more than 400 years, the Han emperors carried on to make greater improvements to agriculture, commerce and crafts, marking the Han period as a golden age in China’s history.
The Tang Dynasty was probably the most powerful and influential dynasties as it enjoyed long periods of economic stability, progress and prosperity. Trade in ancient China was at its height, and many notable innovations, including the development of woodblock printing, evolved. This period is also well known for two of China’s most reknown poets, Li Bai and Du Fu.
MUSLIM QUARTER 回民街
Vibrant, chaotic, sensory overload, and way more food than you can ever finish trying. This is the Muslim Quarter of Xi’an, where more than 20,000 Muslims reside. The area became a home to a large Muslim community since the Tang Dynasty when Emperor Gaozong first introduced Islam to China. Now, it is food heaven and THE place to go to get your fill of street snacks in Xi’an.
The whole street gets rather crowded at night.
Street vendors making a show out of making candy.
One of the most famous must-tries of the Muslim Quarter, is the Beef or Mutton Pao Mo 牛肉/羊肉泡饃. It is a type of flat bread (a thicker version of Indian Naan) which is peeled into bite sized pieces and cooked to-order in a rich beef or mutton broth with vegetables, tofu, and bean vermicelli.
The pao mo is cooked over a huge fire, in an open wok.
We opted for the Mutton Pao Mo. The soup was delish, the meat tender and flavourful, a very hearty dish that we think would be excellent on a cold winter’s day. Also, if you are not a huge meat eater like us, we recommend sharing just one bowl as the meat portion is rather generous.
Jing Gao 鏡糕, is a sweet dessert that you makes a great snack between all that savory food that you are having. Made of sweet glutinous rice, you have a wide range of topping options from sweet jams to nuts. We tried the Eight Treasure 八寶 and the walnut flavours which both thought were really yummy, and not overly sweet as you might expect from street stall desserts.
Possibly the most common snack you will see along the Muslim Quarters, is the barbecued mutton on sticks 羊肉串. Some of the vendors have whole sheeps hung up and sliced up before you as you queue for your mutton sticks.
We tried a stick from two different vendors. The meat is rather fatty, and slathered with a savory marinade, then cooked over an open fire and coated with sesame seeds. They were both not exceptionally delicious, but we say, try a stick just for the experience!
We had heard a lot about the local ‘biang biang’ noodles through video recommendations and flyers we picked up, so we stepped into this nice quaint restaurant and ordered a bowl to try out.
The noodles got its name from the ‘biang biang’ sound of the noodle hitting the table when the chef is making it. We wouldn’t say that we loved it, because we personally prefer our noodles less thick. The braised beef was rich and savory, but the noodle proved rather difficult to eat. The slippery and thick noodles, a thicker version of ‘ban mian’ in Singapore, would slip from our chopsticks each time we tried to put it into our mouths, causing quite a splash. Perhaps fans of ‘ban mian’ might appreciate this dish better than us.
Squid is Ed’s top-of-the-list street snack, all around the world, whether its fried or grilled. He definitely couldn’t resist these huge fellas calling out to him. The wait for the squid took quite a while even though the queue wasn’t very long, but it was well worth the wait.
Deep fried, hot, crispy, with a layer of delicious spicy seasoning sprinkled on top, it was sinfully satisfying.
We were actually on a lookout for the recommended shop specialising in ‘guan tang bao’ 灌湯包 but were too tired out from the day’s walking, that we settled for the closest one we spotted. Guan Tang Bao is very much the same as Xiao Long Bao. They are meat and vegetable dumplings that pack a treasure trove of broth in them and spill out as you bite into it. This shop’s dumplings were a little disappointing, but they were still a fulfilling end to our long day.
SHAANXI CUISINE 陝菜
Sour and Spicy, these are the flavours that are most distinct about Shaanxi Cuisine. Shaanxi cuisine also known as ‘Shaan Cai’ 陝菜 or ‘Qin Cai’ 秦菜 make frequent use of vinegars, chillis and garlic, flavours that really suited out palettes. From our short stay there, we did not find many options of dishes with rice. In fact, meals often comprised mainly of noodles, breads, pastries or dumplings.
Li Ji Jiao Tuan 李记搅团 is located just around the corner from our BNB, in the Gao Xin District 高新區. This was to be our breakfast and lunch, so we ordered to our heart’s content but it proved to be way too much for us to finish.
Li Ji is a big banquet style restaurant. We were there at mid day, so it was packed full of people, we were lucky to get a shared table immediately though.
We ordered the half-platter of You Bing 油餅 (which is 5 huge pieces), a spicy pork dish with served with flatbread, a tofu and seaweed colddish, a local farmer’s specialty of spinach cubes and a pot of bi luo chun 碧螺春, costing us just SGD24 for that meal. We even packed away the remaining breads that became our breakfast for the next two days.
The spinach cubes are our favourite. It had a nice chewy texture and the flavour was unlike anything we had ever tasted, especially when dipped in the spicy vinegar sauce that accompanied it.
Cold dishes are great when you are hungry and you need your food served quickly haha. But this cold tofu and seaweed combination was delicious and it really opened up our appetite.
The pork dish was the most expensive part of the meal, costing about SGD9. The combination of the fresh flat bread and the spicy savory pork, together with the condiments of different chills, was just perfect. It did not taste as oily as it looked, and the flat bread was crisp but light. Fantastic dish.
The You Bing seemed to be the most popular dish in the restaurant as almost every table we observed, had ordered it. Do note that this is the smallest portion available and it does take quite a bit of time for the dish to be served. But, it is a must-try. The texture is similar to our Singaporean You Tiao, but the flavour is awesome especially when eaten with the condiments.
Fan Ji Braised Meat 樊记腊汁肉 (竹笆市店) located not far from the Drum Tower, is said to have more than a hundred years of history behind it. The shop specialises in ‘Rou Jia Mo’ 肉夹馍, one of Xi’an’s most popular and common street snacks or better known to some as, the Chinese burger.
‘Rou Jia Mo’ is a flat bread bun packed full of coarsely chopped up braised pork. There are fatty meat, lean meat options, so we chose the ‘regular’ which we assumed would be an in between. However, we were not overly impressed as it is a little on the salty and dry side, but I do feel that their braised meat is a lot more flavourful than most others I have tried. Perhaps we had set our expectations too high and perhaps we should have tried the fatty meat option which might have been juicier.
It is still a great snack to have if you need something to fill your stomach while you are on the move.
Wei Jia Liang Pi 魏家涼皮 is a local fast food chain that you can easily spot around the city centre, and even outside the Terracotta Army museum. It serves a lot of local favourites and pretty good drinks as well. The environment is clean (they even have chopsticks sterilizers), and the menus are easy to read.
The restaurant is named after their signature dish, the Liang Pi 涼皮 which is a type of spicy cold noodles. More than just a healthy, balanced meal, the Wei Jia version is top notch. It is crazy spicy hot, with the aroma of fresh red and green chillis. Undoubtedly the best Liang Pi I have tried, but even a chilli lover like me gave up towards the end w hen my tongue started to lose its senses. Still, I would eat that over and over again.
Yi Min Mi Fen Dian 益民桂林米粉店 is a little vermicelli shop situated opposite the Shaanxi History Museum. It might not be distinctively Shaanxi cuisine, but we loved the simplicity of this meal. If you do not like vermicelli, noodle options are also available. We highly recommend this place if you are heading to the museum, but need a cheap yet satisfying meal to fuel your expedition.
SPOTTED AROUND XI’AN
A bicycle, a tricycle or a car?
At the intersection in front of the Drum Tower, a veteran playing the ‘Yang Qin’, a Chinese hammered dulcimer, with a photo of his younger self placed in front of him.
Call us urban bumpkins, but this was the first time we have ever seen sunflower seeds sold as a whole sunflower!
Our last meal in Xi’an!
As we had an early flight to catch the next morning, which meant that we had to checkout of our BNB by 4:45am, we chose to have a simple home cooked dinner at the BNB on our last day. From the nearby supermarket, we bought some prawn and chives dumplings, and a head of broccoli (that only costs a whopping SGD0.40!). Thankfully our host had black vinegar and soy sauce which we made into a simple sauce. Simple but Yummy!