I’m writing this post from my bed, where I’ve spent most of my day today, because I think my legs might be broken. Okay, they’re not really broken, but they really hurt. Anyone who knows me can assert that I love reading and writing (which can both be done from the couch!), but I’m really not an athletic person, and this past week has included a lot more physical activity than I’m accustomed to. But my leg muscles will have plenty of time to heal during my long long flight back home that’s coming up in just a few days! Here’s a recap of some of the coolest (and most tiring) things we’ve done during our week in Xi’An:
1. Bike Ride Around the City Wall
One unique feature of the city of Xi’An (located in central China) is the ancient stone wall surrounding about thirteen kilometers (eight and a half miles) of the city. It reminds me a little bit of the old fort in St. Augustine, Florida that I visited on school trips as a child, except that this wall is a lot bigger. While the city inside of it has developed and changed with passing time, the wall remains largely unchanged, as restorers have tried to maintain its original appearance. The hostel we’ve been staying in is directly across the street from the west wall, within walking distance of the large west gate (one of four original gates that remain the only entrances/exits to the city within—always heavy with traffic, let me assure you). The wall is impressive during the day, and even more striking at night when it is all lit up with twinkle lights and colorful spotlights.
Justin and I were excited to learn that we could rent bicycles and ride around along the top of the wall, which is actually pretty wide (about forty feet across in my estimation). Though we thought it was lame that they charge an entry fee to even walk up the stairs to the top of the wall, we knew it would be worth it to get a bird’s eye view of the city. We also knew that a bike ride would be much quicker (it took us about an hour and forty minutes) than walking the entire wall. Though it’s been rainy off and on all week, the weather held up for the duration of our ride, and we really enjoyed it. I had jello-legs by the time we turned our bikes back in to the rental place, but it was worth it.
2. Eating and Shopping in the Muslim Quarter
There is a surprisingly large Muslim population here in Xi’An, and this city was actually host to the very first mosque ever built in China (a country which remains largely Buddhist). We didn’t go visit the mosque (I would have had to wear a scarf over my head, and I didn’t bring any scarves with me), but we did visit the Muslim Quarter, a section of town overflowing with Muslim restaurants and shops. The Muslim Quarter has some of the coolest souvenirs I’ve seen during my entire stay in China (why did I have to finish my souvenir shopping early? Grrr), and it’s a great place to find some unique antiques. I’m used to tourist shops in China being full of cheap identical junk worthy of the dollar store, and I always lament thinking, “Is this the selection I have to choose from to buy souvenirs for family and friends? Cheap plastic junk with ‘Made in China’ stamped on the bottom?” (I apologize in advance to some of you for the souvenirs you’ll be receiving from us—we did the best we could.) The Muslim Quarter, however, was full of items that appeared to be the real deal—many booths replete with dusty items that appeared to be pulled straight from the vendor’s attic. I even saw one vendor selling some old, very communist-looking war medallions that probably belonged to a soldier in the family a long time ago…how cool is that? Justin couldn’t drag me out of there without me buying one souvenir. He tried his best, and I know our suitcases are full to bursting, but really there was no chance that I was about to leave empty-handed.
The food was a welcome change as well. The streets were loaded with women wearing modest head-coverings cooking dishes that made my mouth water as I walked by. We weren’t really able to find many nice sit-down restaurants in the Muslim Quarter, though. It was mainly street food that you eat on a stick or out of a Styrofoam dish as you continue walking down the street. We did stumble upon an outdoor restaurant with picnic tables, and Justin ordered up a bowl of thick beef stew that an old woman was brewing in a giant cauldron on the side of the street. I sat with him as he ate (I was chowing down on a corned beef sandwich that I bought two blocks down), and we listened to the sundown call to prayer broadcast on loudspeakers throughout the Muslim Quarter every day. It was really interesting!
3. Visiting the Terra Cotta Warriors
The Terra Cotta Warriors are probably the most famous attraction in Xi’An, and they were honestly the only claim to fame I knew about Xi’An before we came here. Back in the 1970’s, some farmers in Xi’An were trying to dig a well, and they came upon an ancient mausoleum buried under the ground, dating back to the Han Dynasty. Once they brought in archeologists to continue the excavating, they found out that it was HUGE, and it included much more than just tombs. Right now, they have three “pits” open to the public for viewing, and they estimate that there’s even more excavating to be done to uncover all of the treasures hidden under the ground.
4. Climbing Hua Shan
We couldn’t leave China without visiting one more beautiful mountain range about two hours outside of Xi’An. While I’m definitely not a “mountain climber,” there is really no mountain climbing experience required to climb Hua Shan. This mountain, along with many others that we’ve visited all across China, has been made accessible to the general public by a series of stairways chiseled directly into the stone. That doesn’t make it any easier to climb, however. Not even halfway through our journey to the top, after climbing a few hundred steps, I began to question out loud, “Why did I think it was a good idea to climb a mountain, again?” Justin insisted that this was the coolest thing that we’d done in China to date, and he told me it was worth it. I had to stop for breaks several times on our way to the South Peak, the highest of the five peaks in the Hua Shan mountain range, and Justin had to constantly reaffirm his belief in me that I could make it to the top. The views on the way were breathtaking, but my breath was also literally taken by the high altitude—I found myself gasping for air at the top of every staircase. However, other climbers also shouted words of encouragement as we ascended the mountain together. I wasn’t the only one struggling to the top, and many hikers passing us on their way down the mountain gave a thumbs up and shouted, “JIAYO!” (something like, “Come on!”) to boost the confidence of those ascending. Eventually, we reached the top of the mountain.
But he was right…the feeling of accomplishment after reaching the top was worth it.
I think my favorite was the epic ride in the chair lift. It’s the highest chair lift I’ve ever ridden (or even seen!), and the Peking Opera music playing on the speakers inside of our cable car added to the monumental feeling of it all.