If you’ve got several hours to spend in Beijing, I propose that you take a walk. Here’s a suggestion for a leisurely stroll of fancy, or a walk that will test your endurance but satisfy your craving for adventure.
A quick walk of amusement will welcome you to Olympic Park, home of the sensational 2008 Summer Games. As with most of Beijing, the complex hosts a grand collection of architectural marvels, all of them in the modern style, all of them with the most fanciful names. The most popular one, the swimming venue, fondly called The Water Cube, has been converted into a water amusement park, so you can dip in and use the facilities yourself.
The centrepiece of the Games is the Herzog and de Meuron-designed Olympic stadium, or more popularly known as the Bird’s Nest. It’s normally closed to the public, but take a walk around it to capture the magnitude of the celebrations in 2008.
The other option is to take a hike outside the city. Despite not being in Olympic Park, the next walk will make you feel like a true champion when you finish it. Allot 4-6 hours to take the hike from Jinshanling to Simatai and enjoy some of the most wondrous views of the desolate scenery surrounding the Great Wall. Wear appropriate hiking/trekking shoes, bring just enough water, some packed food, and dress appropriately (whether it’s cold or hot).
The fourteen-kilometre journey starts out in Jinshaling (for more details on how to put together the logisitics, visit Great Wall Forum at http://bitly.com/RpfMkv) and ends up in SImatai with a cable car ride. If you want to avoid souvenir wielding touts, and droves of tourists, I would suggest to take this walk. I went on an organised trip with Couchsurfers in 2009, and it was a life-changing achievement that we’ve kept in touch with the people we travelled with.
What’s in store – supreme isolated views of the Great Wall, and supreme sense of achievement after the hike, and a pretty good workout (so remember to stretch – the steps can be almost three-quarters of a meter high).
To be honest, the main reason I ended up choosing Xian was to visit the Terracotta Army and climb Mount Huangshan, one of China’s holiest mountains. However, this trip was meant to be completed within three days, so I had to forgo the ascent. Next time. If you’re heading to Xian you’re probably off to see the army anyway.
The actual terracotta Army dig site isn’t in the city proper – take the buses right outside Xian train station (Xian huoche zhan). Travel time is a 80 minutes. Warning – if you’re heading to the Terracotta army, make sure you get off at the last stop (marked by a market and lots of souvenir shops). Additional warning – the ticket office is a good kilometer’s walk from the actual exhibition area. Don’t worry, there are plenty of shops to distract you along the way.
The army was constructed on the belief that the emperor needed protection after his death. From the looks of it, Emperor Qin made a lot of enemies to warrant that many bodyguards. A lot of enemies. There are archers, footmen, chariot drivers, infantry officers…sure tyrants and dictators back in the day were pretty bad ass, but Mr Q really pissed off a lot of people. I wonder if they have a diplomatic corps buried somewhere there as well…
Each warrior is uniquely detailed, so it is impressive how much time was spent in creating this army. And when you consider that there are three viewing pits, the largest at the size of an aircraft hangar, you wonder how much time was actually needed to do this. But then again, these are the same people who did the Great Wall, so in perspective, creating the army was considered as a ‘hobby’. Excavation is still ongoing in various parts of the complex, so it is possible that in the future more viewing pits will be constructed and opened.
For a bit of fun, there’s a facility you can use to get a Terracotta Warrior in your own likeness. I knew this yoohoo looked a bit too familiar…
All in all a good day – there’s not a lot to do at the Terracotta Army, look at several holes in the ground, pick up a few souvenirs, that’s it. Whole deal should take you 4 hours tops, including the travel time, so there’s enough room to mish-mash the things you want to do in your Xian itinerary (see previous posts!).
If you had only one night to spend in Xian, I would ask you to skip the fancy Chinese restaurants with their elaborate lauriats and cultural shows. Instead, I invite you to have a bowl of piping hot noodles at your neighbourhood shop, plop onto a low stool with a couple of skewers lamb, beef and chicken, and down them all with the mighty bai ju.
Take time out to say hi to your neighbouring table – they most probably won’t speak a word of English, but they’re usually friendly to visitors. There’s also this drinking game you can play – the name escapes me but it involves dice shaking followed by swills of drinking. It’s educational too, see how far you can go and say numbers in Mandarin.
And if you can do it right near the city center where the Bell and Drum Towers are in view, that would be just plain awesome. The Bell Tower rang at dawn, signalising the opening of the city walls, and the Drum Tower beat at sunset to indicate their closing. You can start the evenings with beating drums, and enjoy the night with bai ju and games while waiting for the Bell Tower to signal the start of a new day.
For this blog’s first destination, I sneaked out this summer with a trip to China. This little venture would be manageable for a 3-day visit, packing in all the important sights, and a quick hop to the Terracotta Army. Will talk about the that on the next article. Instead, this post is all about Xian and the city center.
My other previous trips to China were limited to the major cities and their nearby places; this was the first time I was heading into the “main” mainland. So, after 12 hours on a hard seat on the train to Shaanxi province, I was in Xian. To be honest, it wasn’t that bad – the hard seat wasn’t a plank of wood, my two other seatmates weren’t bobbing their heads sideways while drooling. Looks like I set my expectations too low. If you’re taking the plane to Xian Xianyang airport (airport code XIY), get ready for a long drive into town.
As you exit Xian train station, you will be greeted by the city center’s main draw – its walls. The train tracks run along the northern wall and offer a glimpse of what activities you can do in town. Not to be missed is to bike along the walls. The whole loop will take about an hour and a half – but surely you can have it a more leisurely pace. If you time the visit to the walls properly, you can get to see the changing of the guards in elaborate costumes – just like watching the terracotta army in real life.
Xian is also the eastern terminus of the famous Silk Road and serves as the intersection of Chinese and Muslim culture. The Great Mosque isn’t all that great to be honest, but take time out to marvel at how the minarets were blended with the pagodas in this very distinct architecture. As with most fusion results – the proof is in the pudding, or food. Take a walk around the Muslim Quarter and have the finest skewers of lamb, goat and beef wonderfully peppered with cumin to go along with your flat bread. Yum!
Now I’m hungry – looks like I have to continue this post on Xian on the next article.