Perhaps the best trips are those that are unplanned and spontaneous. There is no itinerary or any expectation. Every corner is a new surprise. Pack a bag, head to the train station, hop onboard the next departing train and pick a random destination.
This was what I did over the long Easter weekend. I made a last minute decision to visit Jinmen Island, Taiwan (my ancestral hometown) the night before. My original plan was to take a 3-hour train from Shenzhen to Xiamen and take an 1-hour-ferry-transfer to Taiwan Jinmen Island.
Early Friday morning, Tracy and I left Hong Kong at 7am and headed to Shenzhen train station. Minutes before we arrived at the Hong Kong-Shenzhen border, I heard the news on the radio. The immigration department estimated there were about 800,000 travellers crossing the border! It was too late to turn back. In the end, we spent 2.5 hours clearing the jam.
By the time we arrived at the train station, it was already 10am. The queues at the train station were long and slow. While queuing, we found out another bad news – all tickets to Xiamen were sold out. Stranded and clueless where to go next, I decided to take my chance. After all, China is such a big country with so many diversities – North, South, East, West, there must be something new for us to explore. I bought the next available train ticket and hopped on.
It was a long 10-hour ride and the train’s final destination was at Xi’an (西安). Since both of us have never been to Xi’an, we decided to alight at the final station. The return ticket cost RMB2,810/each. Despite being more expensive than the usual airfare, I personally prefer train over plane. I managed to secure the hotel rooms five minutes we board the train.
Travelling at 300km/h, we were transported from the hot sunny coast of Shenzhen to the chilly foggy valleys of Xi’an. Since this was an ah-hoc trip, I didn’t prepare any winter/spring clothing at all! The billboards along the journey were remarkably interesting too! Property prices displayed on the advertising panels fell from $35,000/sqft at Shenzhen to only $2,500/sqft after Wuhan. What a world of difference!
Our ride ended at Xi’an at 10:30pm in the night. It was raining and windy cold. I didn’t expect the temperature to drop as low as 11°C. I began to feel worried for the chilly weather. Lots of people at the train station were staring at me as I was the odd one out in my Bermuda shorts, tee and sandals. It was one of those rare moments in my life that I felt worried for my situation.
The ride from the train station to the hotel took around 40 minutes. I tried to keep warm by staying indoor as much as possible. I wore up to 3 layers of t-shirts. I wasn’t sure how am I going to survive the cold tomorrow morning unless I postponed the sightseeing tours to the afternoon. I might want to take the morning to buy a jacket.
The next morning, I decided not to postpone the tours as I might not have time to visit all the places of interests. I decided to go ahead and braved the cold. Lucky for me, the day temperature was bearable at 14°C. Again, I was obviously the odd-looking traveler. Everyone was in their winter attires except me – simply just shorts, tees and sandals. Even my private hotel chauffeur was worried for me.
FIRST STOP – THE EMPEROR QIN SHI HUANG’S MAUSOLEUM SITE PARK (秦始皇帝陵遗址公园)
Here lies Xi’an’s 2 most famous world heritage sites – the Mausoleum of the China’s First Emperor (秦始皇陵) at Lishan Park (骊山公园) and the Museum of Terra-cotta Warriors and Horses (秦始皇兵马俑博物馆). Discovered in March 1974 by a group of local farmers who were digging a water well, this site turned out to be one of the world’s most important and amazing archaeology discoveries of our era. Completed 209 years before Christ, it was only in recent years when archaeologists, scientists and physicists identified the advanced technologies ancient Chinese used to create these magnificent funerary art. The astonishing mystery was how the Chinese mastered advanced technologies that were only made possible in the 21st century.
The site was located at the foot of Mount Lishan (骊山), an hour car-ride away (35km) from Xi’an’s city. Many travel bloggers advised visitors to come early in the morning to avoid the tour groups. I arrived there 30 minutes after the opening hour, the crowd was already massive. Thousands of tourists alighted from the tour buses, all headed towards the same enclosure. Tour leaders were reciting historical stories at the top of their voices and tourists were shoving to get good photo spots. It was chaotic inside the enormous pit.
It was impossible to get a good clean shot without the tourists in the frame. Thankfully, for only RMB50, there was a special designated photo spot (closer to the terracotta figurines) where a photographer took a nice shot of us. I used this opportunity to steal some quick close up shots of these marvellous relics.
The burial sites of the Terra-cotta Warriors and Emperor Qin are massive and impressive, almost doubling the size of Macau. There were a total of 2 separate key sites with 6 excavated pits opened to the public. It took me about 4 hours to explore all of them. Pit 1 being the largest (230m x 62m) holds more than 6,000 figures with a few thousands more remain buried. Many important sites like the pyramid-tomb of Emperor Qin remains untouched and protected for future excavation as the Chinese today do not acquire the right technology to excavate and preserve the relics. We also saw one of the surviving farmers who discovered the Terra-cotta Warriors. He was there almost everyday to autograph on the souvenir books. It is certainly still worth a trip to Xi’an to see this historical marvel and learn its amazing past. However, I do strongly advise travellers to visit during the off-peak travel seasons so one get to view these magnificent excavated sites at your own pace, space and comfort.
2ND STOP – XI’AN HUAQING HOT SPRINGS (西安华清池)
Naturally existed over 6,000 years, the Huaqing Palace (華清宮) was rebuilt and renamed in AD723 by Emperor Xuanzong (唐玄宗). It was the romantic tragedy love tale of Emperor Xuanzong (唐玄宗) and his favourite concubine, Consort Yang Guifei’s (杨贵妃) that made this place so special. The Guifei Pool was constructed in her remembrance. Consort Yang Guifei’s white sensual statue can be seen by the man-made lake today. Heated by the now extinct volcano, the water stays constant at 42.5°C all year round. The rich hot spring water consists of 12 natural minerals that is said to have therapeutic effects on the skin, improve blood circulation and cure rheumatism.
3RD STOP – XI’AN BANPO MUSEUM (西安半坡博物馆)
Unearthed in 1953, Chinese archaeologists discovered several well organised Neolithic settlements carbon dated to some 6,500 years ago. The museum was built over the original excavations where visitors get to see the prehistoric aboriginal’s residential, pottery making and burial sites.
4TH STOP – XI’AN CITY WALL (西安古城墙)
Build during the Tang Dynasty (AD618 – 907) and expanded during the Ming Dynasty (AD1370), the Xi’an City Wall is the most complete and well-restored ancient city wall of China. Standing 12m tall and a perimeter of 14km, the wall fortified a city area of 36km². Today, it serves as a great overhead highway to explore the scenic Xi’an City on foot or on wheels. For onlyRMB60/110mins (plus RMB300 deposit/bike), you can rent a decent good mountain bike at any one of the 4 gates (north, south, east and west) and ride on the wall. One complete loop of 14km takes about 2 hours.
Thanks to my colleague, Kelly’s recommendation, I rented a bike at the wall. I didn’t manage to complete the entire circuit as it was extremely uncomfortable to cycle long on the bumpy rocky path. Still, this is the best way to see the city. I rented the bike at the East Gate and dropped it off 60 minutes later at the South Gate where I walked to explore the remaining attractions on my list - The Drum Tower, the Bell Tower and the Muslim Quarter.
5TH STOP – XI’AN DRUM TOWER, THE BELL TOWER AND THE MUSLIM QUARTER (西安鼓楼,钟楼,回民街)
The Drum Tower, the Bell Tower and the Muslim Quarter are located less than 2km away from the City Wall South Gate. It took me less than 30 minutes to walk to the attractions.
The Bell Tower (钟楼) marks the center spot of the Xi’an anicent city. Built in 1384 by Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang, the Bell Tower is the largest and most well-preserved wooden tower in China. Located 550m away is the Drum Tower (鼓楼) (built in 1380) where it houses China’s largest drum. Both towers were used as “watch & alarm posts” against invading forces.
The Muslim Quarter (回民街) marked the end of my tiring but super-rewarding 1-day Xi’an tour. There are about 20,000 muslims living here and it is one of the must-visit streets in Xi’an. Here, you find lots of authentic Chinese-Muslim street-food. Similar to those night-market streets in Taipei, the Muslim Quarter is packed with tourists at night! There is no need to park myself into any particular restaurant. I had a fulfilling night, simply walking and eating along the long stretch of colourful and authentic food-&-craft-stalls.
My spontaneous unplanned trip to Xi’an was unexpectedly rewarding. In total, I spent 28 hours traveling over 3,800km on rail from Hong Kong to Xi’an. I can never imagine how great it is to travel by impulse and without any pre-planning. The entire journey was surprisingly comfortable and enriching. This short trip to Xi’an sparked me off to read more about the history of the Chinese dynasties. Xi’an is no doubt one of the four Great Anicent Capitals of China and a great living history book for those who have yet been intrigued by its richness and wonders. With the completion of more high-speed railways across China, I will be doing more inland travels to explore more Chinese cities in the coming months. What a great Easter holiday!