Heading to Xi’an from Chengdu is an 11-hour ride by bus, very exhausting! You have to know that buses in China are quite exotic. People smoke inside (and Chinese people smoke a lot!), there are big bins so that people can spit (after making a guttural sound of course), and moreover there are TVs broadcasting movies with full sound system on (nice when you want to have a rest under the sound of a big war movie). A true experience!
Arriving at night in Xi’an, we met at the bus stop a friendly Chinese man who lived in San Francisco and thus spoke to us in a perfect English. He helped us to take the right bus to our hostel. He was interested in our backpackers’ story and even asked us if we used to take showers everyday (uhm do we look like we don’t?). Our hostel, HanTang Inn Hostel, was amazing, the best hostel in all our trip so far! The public spaces were lovely AND lively, the rooms were nice, the personnel focused on the experience of their customers (very rare in China) and organized a lot of activities like tours of the city, hotpot night, and dumplings party (during when we prepared dumplings altogether and ate them afterwards), all for free. We loved it! We also met a very nice couple, Daphné and Jérémy from France, who had been living in Hong Kong and have started to travel around Asia and Oceania.
The next day we started our discovery of Xi’an. Xi’an is the first city on the Silk Road so we were excited to see what the impacts of this position at the crossroads to the West were.
We headed directly to the Muslim quarter and visited the Great Mosque, very surprising because it does not look like the mosques we visited before. It does not have a dome or a big minaret. It is a Chinese style mosque and it is beautiful! Actually there are so many Muslims here in Xi’an because for a long time Xi’an was the capital of the China Empire, many emperors ruled in Xi’an. Its population was 1 million and it was the major trade city of China. So Persian and Arab people would come to Xi’an through the Silk Road. Some of them married Chinese women and that is why today the Muslim community is so important there.
The day after, we got on a free tour with our hostel and went again to the Muslim quarter, but this time to discover new streets, less touristic. We also discovered a smaller Mosque. Our guide was so friendly and answering all our questions about China. When asking her about people smoking and spitting, she told us that China is still a developing country and that people need to be educated, because there is a modern part of the country but another part is much less developed. She also told us that the Health benefits depends on the social status of a person. People have their social class written on their health card and according to this class they get more or less refund for their health expenses (workers being less refunded than higher executive… a bit strange for a communist country!)
Apart from the Muslim quarter, there are lots of historical monuments in the city:
the City Wall which runs 14 km around the city centre (we only walked half of it, just enough to feel its hugeness!). You have to know that during its golden age the city was 7 times bigger!
the Big Wild Goose Pagoda and the Little Wild Goose Pagoda (interesting to understand that Xi’an was also once a centre for Buddhism, Buddhism coming from India through the Silk Road),
the Bell Tower and the Drum Tower,
the City God Temple (a Taoist temple with beautiful architecture and impressive statues),
and Guangren Lama Temple, the only Tibetan temple in Xi’an beautiful and very peaceful.
But let’s talk about the highlight of our stay: visiting the Terracotta Army! We had been dreaming about this for such a long time! And it was totally amazing! In the 2nd century BC (yes, that old), the first emperor of China, the one who unified China, Qin Shi Huang (founder of the Qin dynasty) ordered that a big mausoleum was built for him when he dies. In this huge mausoleum, people say that palaces and towers were built, even rivers of mercury were digged to represent a full new kingdom that the emperor could rule in his death. The Terracotta army was found 2 km from the mausoleum (in 1974 only) and historians say it was bound to protect the emperor from his enemies after his death. It was composed of 8000 life size soldiers, and horses, made in terracotta. And moreover, all these soldiers’ faces are totally different which makes each of them unique!
When walking around the site, we could imagine how many crazy artifacts must still be under our feet. Seeing these terracotta soldiers and horses and realizing that these were witnesses of the frenzy of an emperor 2200 years ago is an incredible feeling.
Well, we cannot end this article without a proper little guide to street food in Xi’an, because it was so important and so delicious. You will find all this food mainly in the Muslim Quarter which is very impressive as it covers a large area in the city and almost all the streets of this quarter are filled with food stalls. Every meter there is yummy food to eat! A paradise for us as you can imagine!
Yes, what a surprise to find this beautiful fruit everywhere in the streets! The juice is warmed up and delicious!
Persimmon doughnuts (2.5 Y)
My favorite one. Persimmon is a fruit which has a very floral flavour. It is cooked as a doughnut and filled with sugar and dry fruits or pastes. We loved the ones on Dapiyuan Street. The ones with the red sign are filled with nuts and dried fruits, but there are also some filled with red bean paste, or raisins and sugar.
Stir-fried tofu with spices (10 Y)
You cannot miss these are they are everywhere. Tofu is cooked in front of you on a hot plate and cut in cubes with sprinkles of spring onions, cumin and chili. For me who is not fond of tofu, it was delicious!
Pork or beef burger (10-15 Y) – called Roujiamo
Imagine a fresh flat bread filled with pulled pork or beef, yummy! There is a stall in the main street with always a big queue for beef burgers, but I did not find them exceptional. The pork burgers sold outside of the Muslim quarter in a light blue restaurant on Zhubashi Road (near the Bell Tower) are much more delicious. Ask for the English menu (8 Y with fat, 10 Y without, 12 Y with more meat). (Chinese) People say that Roujiamo is the ancestor of our Western burgers!
Nang (8-10 Y)
Large round and flat bread which is cooked in a tandoor (oven). They are at their best when just being cooked, soft and crispy at the same time. Our favorites are in Dapiyuan Street, don’t miss the tandoor outside in the street, it is the only one. Chinese locals eat it with meat skewers, but we French people love it like this because it reminds us of bread!
You cannot miss them. Meat is everywhere grilled in front of your eyes, and the smell is mouth-watering.
Crab skewers are also esthetically featured on the stalls. Their crispy yellow shapes are spotted from far!
Yellow semolina cake (3 Y)
They are sold everywhere in the Muslim quarter, it is not exceptional, but it is a good light dessert.
Brioches (6 Y)
The one we tried was sweet with a little taste of walnut and a filling of rose. I am not sure they are all sweet as this one! We found some only in the main street of the Muslim quarter.
Battered beef soup (23 Y) – called Xiaosurou – to eat at the restaurant
We only found it on Dapiyuan Street, near the corner with North Guangji Street. Many people hurry on outside tables with their bowl of beef soup and a full bowl of rice. The beef is also sold in blue packets for cooking at home. The soup is tasty with beef broth and Sichuan pepper. A single bowl can easily feed two people (locals even share one for four).
Sticky rice with dates (10 Y)
Heavy but yummy, the mix of cooked dates and rice is addictive. Don’t miss the popular stall on the corner of North Guangji Street and West Yangshi Street.
Yogurt (8-10 Y)
Delicious yogurts, tasting like Greek yogurts are sold everywhere. They are sweet and creamy.
Beef dumplings soup (12 Y) – to eat at the restaurant
What is better than a bowl of beef and chives dumplings. There is a popular place on Dapiyuan Street next to Dalianhuachi Street.
Candy fruits skewers
Fruits are covered with syrup and seeds, and put on a skewer.
Cold sesame noodles (6 Y) – called Liangfen – to eat at the restaurant
Thick noodles mixed with thin slices of cucumber are covered with a hearty sesame sauce and chili oil. Served cold but it is incredibly tasty!
Fried bean jelly cubes
It looks like potatoes, but it is cubes of bean jelly!
These are real potatoes!
Lamb soup with pita bread (17 Y) – called Yang Rou Pao Mo – to eat at the restaurant
To end your discovery, you must eat the specialty of Xi’an, the lamb soup with bread. You will recognize the soup on the tables as a big bowl with slices of tender lamb and little white juicy pieces of bread. Sometimes you have to break your bread by yourself to put it in the soup (don’t break it in too big pieces or you will struggle to eat), sometimes the cook will do it for you like in this popular restaurant on West 1st Road.
We hope you know want to take the next flight to Xi’an, because it is such a comprehensive city in terms of culture, history and food! Now it’s our favorite in China!