Xi’an, Hua Shan, and some useful China travel advice
We boarded a crowded train. The aisle was full of people standing (much like a subway). We slowly pushed our way towards the seats. As I sat down, I began to realize that the seats weren’t comfortable. Of course this shouldn’t have been a surprise (no one had ever suggested that they would be comfortable), but somehow it was. I’d say their comfort level is somewhere in between the seats on a subway and the seats at a Subway (the restaurant). I had been sitting for about five minutes when the man across from me expressed his confusion for our choice of seating. I didn’t understand much more of what he said, but generally his point was that we were fools. I felt need to take action on this. Shortly I was navigating my way through the train in search of a conductor. I found one and asked if any beds were left. He sent me to a different conductor who sent me to yet another one who sent me back to the first conductor. After a very confusing twenty minutes, we were informed that there were four beds available for us. The upgrade was fairly priced. It was only a little more than if we had been able to buy the sleeper tickets originally. There was an empty carriage at the end of the train where we found our beds. We were happy to go to sleep in relative comfort.
Xi’an’s main train station isn’t very nice, so the morning arrival was a bit disappointing. But everything got better from there. The taxi stand at the train station is unfriendly. Our hostel was quite close, so cab drivers did not want to take us on the meter. Luckily a transport police officer came over and got a driver to change his mind. After being dropped off, a quick walk down a small street brought us to Han Tang House. The staff speak English and are happy to help with anything. They recommended biking the city wall for day one in Xi’an.
After taking some time to refresh and have breakfast, we walked to the south gate of the city wall. I then spoke on the phone with Ben. Ben lives in Shanghai and was going to join us on the trip, but he wasn’t keen on taking the overnight train. His flight had been canceled, and the airline wasn't being particularly helpful. By the time he could get to Xi’an, he would have missed most of the trip, so he decided to cancel. The lesson here is that flying is not a very dependable way to get around China.
The bike ride was a lot of fun. Helmets are available for no extra charge, and I recommend one. The wall is bumpy and the condition of the bikes reflects this. The standard bike rental is for two hours, and it took us around one and a half hours to do the full ride (but with many of stops). Later that evening we headed to the Muslim Quarter. It’s best to go once it’s dark. The place has a vibrant atmosphere, and the lights at night make it feel even more exotic. Street side food carts are everywhere and there is a market as well selling a variety of souvenirs, clothes, and other goods. We started by visiting the Great Mosque of Xi’an, then did a bit of shopping, and finally had dinner from various street vendors. The food is not your typical Chinese street food, but something entirely different. I particularly enjoyed the fried Bananas.
On Sunday we boarded a Beijing bound train from Xi’an north station, but we weren’t going home. We got off at the first stop, about 30 minutes away from Xi’an, called Huà Shān 华山 (sometimes referred to as Mount Hua in English). From there a ten minute taxi takes you to the beginning of the park containing the mountain, which consists of several peaks. From the main welcome center you can take a bus to one of two cable cars. There is also the option to hike. We took the shorter and less expensive of the two cable cars for the north peak. From that point it was two to three hours of stairs. Now this may not sound appealing, but the views were beautiful, and there are plenty of places along the way to rest or have a snack. Happily done with the stairs, we finally reached the whole reason we came to Hua Shan, the plank walk, near the south peak. The plank walk is made of wooden boards attached to the side of the mountain. You rent a harness for 30 RMB and walk across to a small landing on the other side, and must return the same way. Pictures describe it better than words. I should note that if you’re not interested in taking the risk, there is a green screen set up right before the plank walk selling fake photos to make it look like you actually did it.
Pretty exhausted after the plank walk, we took the other (longer, newer, and more expensive) cable car down the mountain. A 30 minute bus ride brings you back to the welcome center, where taxis are available back to the train station. Not knowing how long the whole venture would take, we booked at 19:15 train back to Xi’an, but were done much earlier. We were able to change our tickets to the next train with availability for no additional charge. This was a tiring day, so upon arrival back to our hostel in Xi’an, we enjoyed some of their surprisingly good western food, and went to sleep.
The next day we got in a cab to Xi’an train station, but again, we weren’t heading home just yet, we took a bus for what is perhaps the area’s best known tourist attraction — the Terracotta warriors (bīng mǎ yǒng 兵马俑). The over 2000 year old army is definitely a must see in Xi’an and I personally enjoyed it, but it’s important to be a bit aware of the historical significance before you go, because the museum lacks in this area. After a few hours here, our Xi'an trip was complete. We boarded our train back to Beijing, and luckily this time we had been able to book our beds ahead of time, so without any complications we went to sleep.
For more on Xi'an check out Andrew's Xi'an blog.