The ancient city of Xi'an
I was feeling like my morning wellness had gotten to a good start. At the People’s Grand, where I’m staying, everyone is assigned a personal butler and mine has hung tai chi robes out for me as requested. At 6am a clutch of us stand in immaculate, tranquil grounds and begin a soothing practice bathed in early light.
Refreshed and ready to hit the terracotta warriors, undoubtedly one of China’s most famous tourist attractions, I’ve revved off from the hotel in an Audi A6 and am surprised when my guide suggests a detour to Xing Qing Park just a few minutes later. Luckily, she isn’t playing ‘trick the tourist’. Noting my interest in fitness, she deems the stop a must, and she is right. Here it seems that most everyone in Xi’an is out exercising. Tai chi is performed in massive groups, although the concentration level is just as focused as it was at my hotel. Around those doing tai chi forms, groups dip and swing, line dancing, fan dancing, some even ballroom dancing, while others play badminton or swing ball. Many, wearing bright-coloured costumes and big smiles, beckon me to join, and I can’t resist the attempting fans.
I insist on a sudden detour myself, after mulling over advice from staff at the hotel who said this morning I must visit the Shaanxi Historic Museum. It’s a great way to gen up on history ahead of the warriors but it’s better to go early, they said, since daily ticket numbers are limited. So we drive back through town, past the historic bell tower that marks the centre of the city, to the museum, viewing bronze and silver artefacts from the Han and Tang dynasties, as well as large murals revived from Tang Dynasty tombs. Once I’ve haggled over the price of some souvenirs in the gift shop, we are back on route to the warriors, passing another famous site, the Giant Wild Goose pagoda, on the way.
A wall bounds the city and so when locals talk location, it’s all “within” the city wall or “outside” of it. Much of what Xi’an has to offer is found within and, as one of the four great ancient capitals of China, I’d expected to be moved by Xi’an’s history, yet I haven’t quite realised how much of it I’ve passed just navigating streets. The wall, the bell towers and the pagodas seemed to recall history instantly, even as you whizz past in full 21st-century style.
The terracotta warriors are about an hour’s drive outside city limits. If you doze off on the way, you’ll know you’ve arrived by the sheer number of people swarming the site. This can be good or bad – expect some brow-furrowing frenzy – but following the masses means you’ll hit all the main attractions. Seeing these ancient relics in the pits is still breathtaking, no matter how many others share the experience (and snap pictures) around you.
Lots visit the Han Yangling Museum too, which is close to the warriors, but I feel I’ve taken in a fair dose of history, and besides I have a spa treatment to rush back for at the Shangri-La.
Natural woods and warm tones inside the hotel’s Chi, The Spa do a lot to soothe an onset of travel weariness and I bravely select a Jade Stone Massage. This Meridian Tracing Guasha massage promises to release blocked chi in 90 minutes, but I brace myself for the traditional scraping technique, which, this being the Shang, is done using polished Lantian Jade. The stones are sourced locally in Shaanxi and as my therapist goes to work, I breathe deep, feeling quite at one with my surroundings. As the going gets tough and the therapist works across particularly tight muscles, I let out more than a few huffs and puffs, even some grimaces, but I emerge glowing, chi-flowing, and ready to tackle my next assignment: dinner.
Xi’an is almost as famous for its culinary history as for its ancient sights.
As a major departure point on the Silk Road, it’s absorbed a cacophony of influences, many Middle Eastern. For an upscale meal, Chang’an Da Pai Dang, a traditional-looking place, decorated with antiques and red lanterns, where the specialties include Gourd Chicken and barbecued meats, is highly recommended. For fare with less of a local focus, there’s Real Love, which serves health-conscious Pan-Chinese dishes best enjoyed from their seventh floor terrace and in view of the Small Wild Goose Pagoda.
But, perhaps after my surprise visit to the park that morning, my tummy is rumbling for street life and local cuisine, and so I join Ruixi Hu, founder of Lost Plate tours, to sample noodles, dumplings and more, beginning in the city’s Muslim quarter. Our first stop is for Rou Jia Mo, a kind of ancient distant cousin of the hamburger, and then for a bowl of Biang Biang noodles, where we watch the cook stretch and slap dough to thin noodles that he then sears in hot oil. Both prove delightfully moreish. We pass bread baking on open fires, meats sizzling on grills, dough soaking up broth. Dishes here, says Ruixi, have been made the same way for hundreds of years. If Xi’an is to see history, then it is also to taste it.
After copious sampling, we end at the city’s only micro brewery, Near Wall, where the Chinese and American owners brew craft beers on-site, in view of the city wall, and where we meet Ruixi’s friend, Patrick Anthony, who runs Xianease, a local city guide. There’s time to hit some more bars, they say, as we finish sipping a glass of Citra IPA, perhaps at Slow Life Coffee, a quirky café, or The Belgian Bar, both back inside the South Gate on Xia Ma Ling road. Or they could set me up with a bike so that I could ride the entire 14-kilometre wall.
I’m not swayed by suggestions this time. Instead, I make my way back to the peace and luxury that is the People’s Grand, where I might enjoy a quick dip in the glass-walled pool and a last quiet drink in the 1953 lobby lounge. I’ve earned it, I think. Tomorrow, I’ll walk off the night’s excesses on an 11-mile day hike up Cuihua Shan, finishing at the top of an alpine field. I might not even see a pagoda – after all, Xi’an has proved full of surprises.
WHERE TO STAY
People’s Grand Hotel Xian
The Westin Xian
Grand Mercure Xian on Renmin Square
Shangri-La Hotel, Xian
Kempinski Hotel Xi’an