Shaanxi Province: Xi’an, Mt. Hua Shan, and the Terracotta Warriors

Xi’an, Mt. Hua Shan, and the Terracotta Warriors

September 1st to 9th, 2015

By Jenn and Steve

Getting to Xi’an: friendly car mates, sunflower seeds, and numb bum

The 12 hour hard seat train ride from Xining to Xi’an was definitely an immersion in Chinese culture. People were very friendly and considerate, but could also be very gross and oblivious to those around them . Oh, and the train car was PACKED. Chinese trains sell  ‘standing tickets’, which means people do not have an assigned seat and so squeeze in wherever they can – the aisles, the garbage/hot water space, on top of the sinks – think giant sardine can.

The Ctrip app logo. This service saved our butts more than once…

Some people smoke and spit wherever they please, and getting to the toilet takes a mustering of great courage (almost like charging in an epic movie battle scene). Once you barrel your way down the packed corridor, pass through the thick cloud of cigarette smoke in front of the washroom, you attempt to balance, squatting on a moving train, making absolute sure to touch none of the walls (filthy and dripping wet…with what?), and hold your breath at the same time… you imagine why dehydration might be preferable.  For the complete experience throw on a little more spice:

  • loud Chinese music courtesy of DJ stripes (nice dude, questionable taste in music),
  • foks chewing and spitting sunflower seeds
  • chicken feet snacks (yes real chicken feet)
  • noisy noodly slurping (just how many raman noodles are consumed every day in China..can’t imagine)
  • people in the aisles leaning into your small haven of personal space (to sit on your shoulder?)
  • at the same time, the people around being very friendly – attempting to talk and sharing fruits and sunflower seeds

All of this can definitely make it China – claustrophobic at times.   Overall it was an exhausting trip, but a good cultural experience nonetheless; though we are definitely looking forward to sleepers on our next train ride.

Xi’an: Running the wall

After crashing for the night at a guesthouse in Xi’an we got an early start to the day exploring the ancient capital city by running the city wall, a 14km great-wall-of-china-like wall surrounding the centre of the city.  It was beautifully remade wall (at one time it was much bigger), and was a great way to get orientated about the central part of town. It was also a great way to get a run in without the usual Chinese city obsticles: dodging the thousands of people, bikes, carts, and vehicles going about their morning routine on the sidewalks below us.

The wall surrounding the 3000 year old city of Xi’an: the birthplace of Chinese civilization and eastern terminus of the Silk Road. Definitely one of our favorite cities in China, in spite of the smog.

The afternoon was spent fooding/interneting/walking as we made our way to the bus station to Hua Shan. It took about 10 different locals to guide us to the right bus, but we eventually we found the right spot.

Hua Shan: Chinese tourists, amazing camping, and more stairs than you can imagine

The ride to Hua Shan from Xi’an is ~130km, but takes over 2 hours on the bus because of crazy traffic and weird side roads –  (detours to avoid traffic or the tolls?).  We arrived in the town of Hua Shan (at the base of Mount Hua Shan) in the dark,to what felt like a strange Chinese version of a Caribbean resort town.  There were

  • overpriced restaurants competing for business,
  • young couples eating/preparing for the hike,
  • masses of people doing synchronized dancing in the square,
  • guys doing martial arts routines with whips

…not at all what we expected at the base of an ancient Taoist sacred mountain, but that’s the boom in the Chinese domestic tourism industry for you.

We took the next day as a rest day, with some authentically non-touristy back alleys that provided us with delicious cheap food and haircuts – we both got our hair cut short on account of the heat/humidity – a nice change.  It was Jenn’s first haircut in 7 years and she had no way of communicating to the hairdresser what she wanted – just some bad internet photos and “hand speak”.  The result was almost a bad Chinese boy bowl cut, but luckily the hairdresser was convinced to cut it shorter.

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Jenn’s new doo on the mountain

The next morning we took off early (6am) to climb Mt. Hua Shan.  It was a 2km walk to the ticket centre, then a bus ride to the East cablecar.  It was rainy and we thought that this might lessen the crowds, but that didn’t seem to pan out – crowds of tourists showed up, decked out in ponchos and armed with umbrellas to fend off the less than appealing weather.  Luckily, when we started up the first set of we immediately escaped 99.9% of the people that were all headed up the Chinese way, via cable car.

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Steve on the first set of stairs

|And so, we started up the approximately 4,000 steps (didn’t count; it was marked on the map) towards the Northern peak of the mountain.  The rain and fog made it impossible to see most of the mountain views, but provided a real aura of mystery as we ascended, almost vertically.

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Jenn on the ascent.

The original ancient path up the mountain has been improved in stages over the last few thousand years, the result today is a hike of fairly safe stairs (to local Chinese standards, at least).  Older parts – stairs carved right into the mountains’ stone- have chains to hold and are safe enough so long as you are paying attention to what you are doing (watch out for the Chinese tourist above you, you don’t want to get jabbed with an umbrella or selfie-stick).

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Steve disappearing into the fog.
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Jenn holding on tight.

The route up was amazingly quiet, but then we got to the top (where the cablecar ends) we were back into the crazy crowds.  From here we headed up the ridge, aptly called “Dragon’s Backbone” towards the East, Central, South, and West peaks of the mountain.  Navigating the wet, smoky, and out-of-breath tourists, we circled the mountain clockwise, hitting the Central, East, South, West, and finally North peaks.  We couldn’t see much from each point of view on account of the clouds, but as we headed to the North peak the skies started to clear up for magnificent views, and we were finally able to just sit and enjoy the sun and scenery.  As a bonus, the rain had cleared up the pollution so there were beautiful blue skies, the first clean air seen since arriving in Shaanxi Province.  Before relaxing for too long we had to make our way down the longer, but less steep, West side of the mountain.  Exhausted from ~12 hours of hiking stairs, we grabbed a giant supper and crashed for the night at our hostel.

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Clearing skies, zoom into the top left to see some people climbing the Dragon’s Backbone.
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Local photo session on the North Peak
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Here comes the sun, here come the views!
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Looking West.
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The descent.

The next morning, after a good nights rest, everything felt great…almost. Neither of us could flex our ankles at a 90 degree angle because our calf muscles were so sore…so so so sore; we were hobbling around for days afterward.   We managed to stiffly get out of bed, pack up, and hike about 4km to a lesser known trail within the Hua Shan park to the West of the mountain.  After walking 1km up the trail following a river, we found a semi-hidden spot to pitch the tent. It was a beautiful spot along a rarely-found clean Chinese stream in a deep canyon no more than 20m wide. There amazingly few tourists on the trail, though those that did see us camping stared in awe and snapped some photos of us (camping is not a very Chinese thing to do, and so is quite rare).  We were camped by the river, on the other side of a fence for the trail, and it felt eerily like we were zoo animals.

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Steve on the way up the canyon.
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The campsite, featuring Jenn on guitalele.
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Hey, there’s a pagoda up there…

The next day was spent further exploring the trail, with many stops to stretch the still-tender calves.  After coming down a ridge we spotted a back section of trail labelled closed/under construction which we have learned to translate as “THIS IS WHERE YOU WANT TO BE” (yes, we are rebels like that… actually it seems like most people in China don’t really follow any rules laid out by signs so we were just following the local trend).  After crossing a sketchy bamboo bridge section we found a delightful trail continuing upstream with no people.  The end of the trail was getting overgrown from lack of use and we had to dodge jungle critters, namely giant spiders with poisonous-looking markings and a snake.  We decided to set up the tent for the night at the earlier section of the trail, which was much clearer, and we found yet another lovely spot next to a waterfall all to ourselves.  With numerous nights of camping in China now under our belt, we are finding that camping and hiking in China is turning out to be much more successful than predicted, – no complaints there:)

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Sketchy walkway. Note the new one under construction on the right…construction in China is everywhere!

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Steve and his twig/insect pal.
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Hua Shan campsite #2, complete with our own private waterfall and swimming hole.
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The camp kitchen.

Xi’an: Terracotta Warriors and the Muslim Quarter

After our 2 nights camping near Hua Shan we headed back to Xi’an, dirty, but refreshed from escaping the crowds for a couple of days.  The next day, we made the long-anticipated trip to the Terracotta Warriors. After a month in China we were becoming old pros at navigating China’s massive and diverse public transport system. A 30 min walk, 20 min metro ride, 10 min walk, and  1.5 hr bus ride got us to the Terracotta Warriors for the bargain price of 10RMB (~2$CDN) each.

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The front of pit #1. The warriors were discovered by locals digging a well in a field, a few meters from where this picture was taken.

AND THEY WERE AMAZING!  Just the sheer size of the excavated pits and the number of soldiers blew us away . Pictures really do not do the warriors justice; it is one of those things that you really do need to see in person in order to grasp what this amazing piece of history.  Like an army, they all look the same at first glance, but then you can also notice that each piece of the whole is an individual and slightly different from the others around them. As you look at each warrior closer, you begin to appreciate the intricate and unique details of each – some are younger-looking, other are older, some are short and stocky, others tall and lean, and the facial expression, hair, clothing….. every soldier is  unique piece of art.  Quite astounding clay art, especially considering that it is approximately 2000 years old.

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The wavy impressions in the dirt between rows are from logs that once covered and protected the warriors.
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Pit #1 is HUGE.

Another fascinating part of the Terracotta museum is that it is still an active archaeological dig. Less than half the buried warriors have been excavated and pieced together – a painfully tedious process.  On reason for going so slow is that the warriors were originally all painted in color, and the archaeologists are experimenting with  technologies to help preserve the colours once the clay pieces are exposed to air. The warriers are stunning to see in a single shade, it is hard to imagine what they would look like painted.

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Archaeologists at work so many pieces….
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Reconstructing, one piece at a time.

After visiting the Terracotta Warriors we returned to Xi’an and spent the evening checking out the Muslim Quarter of town: several blocks of small crowded, BBQ smoky alleyways of shops and carts. For sale were all sorts of thing/souveneirs and all kinds of delicious and cheap street food. Mostly food.  You definitely want to check out this place when you are hungry!  We do not know the names of most of the things we ate:

  • a sesame seed pizza-dough shaped bread disk
  • spicy fried tofu squares,
  • bbq squid on a stick (also spicy),
  • spongy rice cake pinapple thingy with dates and figs
  • salty baby potatoes with many spices and curries
  • sweet fruity dough ball thing
  • eggrolls
  • noodles
  • and fresly squeezed pomegranate juice to top it off.

An amazing place to check out if you aren’t afraid to try new things.

Whipping up a stir fry.
Squid and spicy tofu.

So that was our week in Shaanxi Province, in a nutshell at least. We highly recommend this place as a stop if you are headed to China!


3 thoughts on “Shaanxi Province: Xi’an, Mt. Hua Shan, and the Terracotta Warriors

  1. This is my favorite post!!! Love love it all! I can’t believe that hike and the train ride. So crazy!!! One day I want to go see the Warriors!!! So glad you guys are having fun. 🙂


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