As an old walled city and the original capital of China, through the Ming dynasty, and the eastern capital of the Qing, Xi'an (formerly Chang'an: "chang" means long (wall); "an" means safe) could be as charming as the old walled cities of Europe. However, it is the most unfriendly city we have visited in the four years that we have been in China. It is also the most commercial, in that every little piece of Chinese history stored in this treasure trove of a former capital costs money: sometimes, it costs to get into a place and then costs more to continue. It reminds me of the old joke about Granny's Whore House ... you pay $5 to get in; you come to the next door and pay $10 to go in; then, there are more doors with more payments, until the final door, which leads outside to a sign that says: "you have just been screwed by Granny."
We stayed at the City Hotel, just south of the Bell Tower Square on Nanda Jie, in the center of the walled city, where a two-room suite cost us about ¥400 per night. We almost stayed in the Bell Tower Hotel, which bills itself as a four-star hotel. However, the 360o view of a room that we saw on a website was nothing like the tiny, dingy backside-view room that they tried to stick us with So, ever up for adventure, we left, went across the street to Starbucks, pulled out one of our computers, and booked a great room at the City Hotel. The City Hotel has its own restaurant (where Ayu had the complementary breakfast and said it was good; I had the chocolate chip muffin breakfast across the street at Starbucks), and it even has a gym on the top floor.
We ate at a French restaurant, La Seine, located across the street from our hotel on Nan Da Jie, that is billed as the most expense restaurant in Xi'an (apparently, the people who billed it as the most expensive have never been to any of the Guangdong or Hong Kong seafood restaurants, in town), but we were really unimpressed (bored) by the food. We tried one of the various Hong Kong/Guangdong seafood restaurants that are scattered around the area near our central location, but we were appalled by the prices: they told us that the the prices were so high because the seafood came from the south, to which we responded: that just means it's 3 days old, so it should be discounted (it would have cost us somewhere north of ¥1,000 for "fresh" seafood, there; whereas it costs us around ¥200, across the street from where we live, in Guangzhou). A restaurant that we did like was up West Street from the Bell Tower, past the Drum tower, called Bai Wo Niu, on the north side of the street, on the second floor. The fare was Xi'an, which means noodles and spicy, but it was open late, the service was pleasant, and the food was great. We also tried the Japanese restaurant, Yuan Shan, on the third floor of the shopping center across the street from the Drum tower, which was also very good with polite service. There are a number of other restaurants around this central location, but many of them close by 9 p.m., which is early for us when on holiday. If you are looking for the disco scene, try walking along Nanda Jie or Dongda Jie from the Bell Tower.
There are a bunch of Starbuck's cafes around the area of the Bell Tower, and there is also Coffee Street, De Fu Xiang, hidden in a little nook, just south and slightly west of the Bell Tower Square: walk down Nanda Jie, right on Fenxiang, and look for the archway on the left side of the street to enter. It is a quaint little street with cute little multi-storied cafes. If you want to buy a bag of coffee to make yourself, stop a Huang Pine Coffee, on the right at the top of the street; we buy our coffee from the same vendor, in our neighborhood, in Guangzhou (the owners are from Taiwan and very friendly). The only problem, as with any of the Chinese coffee houses, is that they are geared toward the nouveau riche Chinese who want to be part of cafe culture, so the prices are always about twice as much as Starbuck's. On the other hand, that also means that you can have food, tea, and liquor at a coffee house. We had lunch there twice.
A walk, a bicycle ride, or a bicycle cart ride along the wall is also in order for your visit to Xi'an. The length of the wall is about 14 km, so, it would take quite some time to walk it. If you take a bicycle cart, beware of the foreigner rip-off: we were on the south wall, and a bicycle cart driver offered to take us to the West entrance for "only" ¥50 per person; we asked a Chinese girl, passing by in another cart, what she paid, and she said ¥20 for her and her friend. The Bell Tower and the Drum Tower are near the main intersection, inside the wall; it costs money to go in either. The Big Wild Goose Tower, outside the wall to the south, has a Disneylandish shopping area around it, much like the commercial village near the site of the terra cotta warriors. It costs money to get into the Goose Tower complex, then, more money to get into the tower, itself. As Frank Zappa once said in a song: stictly commercial!
Our friends also told us not to miss the Muslim street behind the Drum Tower, but, again, we were less than impressed. The last time Ayu got food from a street cart, which is the main source of food on the street, she was sick for 3 days, in Qingdao. Also, cheap trinkets are not what I want to take home as souvenirs, and the one bronze and terra cotta shop that we did go into almost ended in a fistfight because we laughed at their ridiculous prices (we laugh at prices, all the time, in Guangzhou, and we never have that violent a reaction, but it does explain a lot about an ex-girlfriend of mine from Xi'an). However, there are quite a few nice shopping centers and shops around the central intersection of Xida, Dongda, Beida, and Nanda Jie, inside the wall. Also, along the south wall, just east of the south wall main gate are a few streets beginning with Shuyuanmen, which offer arts and crafts, including, jade, bronze, leather art, teapots, terra cotta, and paintings, if you really want to take home some good souvenirs from Xi'an.
You can hire a taxi for a few hundred Yuan to take you to some of the points of interest outside the city, like Banpo, which is a museum of a Neolithic village, found there, and the terra cotta warrior site, which is in an extensive park about 40 km east of the city. However, our taxi driver also stopped at various outlets, like jade, bronze, and terra cotta, which were priced for tourists, and when we failed to make purchases at those places, he, all of a sudden, got an emergency phone call and dumped us at the terra cotta warrior site: there were plenty of buses to get us back to the city (just another adventure). As a foreigner, prices will always appear cheap to you, in terms of dollars or Euros, but do not get snookered, as prices, in China, are priced in Yuan (see "You're Missing the Point" on the In Country Analysis part of the website). At the factory that the taxi driver took us to, a small terra cotta soldier was ¥80; from little ladies selling them at the site, they were about ¥20 for a box set; and in Xi'an on the tourist street by the south wall, a life-sized one was only ¥1500.
Another attraction 120 km east of the city is Huashan, which is a series of 5 huge stone outcropped mountains. Again, there is an entrance fee and additional fees for cable cars or other transport. The climbing is along stone or wooden steps, wooded planks and chain handholds along sheer rock walls, and it can be very dangerous, especially since people are going in both directions along the "trails". The views are breathtaking, and you really need to spend more than one day, there, to see the sights. However, do not be too foolish in what you take on for climbing. Other attractions outside the city, include tombs of several emperors, a number of hot springs, and temples.
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