Xi’an, China is best known for being the central location from which one visits the famous Terracotta Army, but in fact, it’s so much more. One of the Four Great Ancient Capitals, the walled city offers enough delights on its own to satisfy the budget traveler needing a break from standard sightseeing.
To begin with, train travel in China is a good value. An overnight journey from Beijing will not put much more of a dent in your wallet than a pricier hostel or budget hotel and the long- distance trains are an experience in themselves! Upon arrival, the city is small enough to navigate with relative ease and the bus system is extremely easy to use -though be sure to secure directions and the location of your hostel beforehand.
Once settled, your first port of call must be to make a circuit above the rooftops along the 8 ½ miles of wall that encompass the Old Town. If your legs are tired out from the train ride, there are regular and tandem bicycles as well as golf carts available for hire. The Drum and Bell Towers are also worth a visit, but on your way, don’t forget to take in the sometimes baffling but always delicious street food - from sweet potatoes freshly baked to a glutinous sweet rice pudding, you’ll never go hungry in Xi’an. Though you may not expect to find hijab and halal in China, another gastronomic gem is the city’s Muslim Quarter.
For budget backpackers I recommend the Xi’an Shuyuan International Youth Hostel . Nestled up against the city wall, they offer a free pick-up service, boast relaxing courtyards (complete with a pet terrapin), a pleasant cafe with one of the best cups of tea I had in Asia, and a lively bar decorated with an array of Terracotta Warriors. The owners clearly understand their clientele for should you go during St. Patrick’s Day, you will find the bar and hostel bedecked with shamrocks and all-round Irish cheer. They put on a celebration with any excuse, and attract an engaging mix of travelers, expats and locals. In addition to making you feel at home, the hostel will also happily organize day trips to nearby panda sanctuaries and, of course, the Warriors themselves.
Should you want to save your money and go it alone, a short bus ride from the East Square, opposite Xi’an’s central station, will take you to the Terracotta Warriors. Be sure to stop off en route at the Huaquing Springs where the Emperor Xuanzong caused outrage by “frolicking” around with his saucy concubine Yang Guifei back in the Tang Dynasty. Today the gardens are a place of quiet beauty which one can admire from the heights above by taking a reasonably-priced cable car. The coolness and calm will be much appreciated afterwards in the hectic tourist bustle you’ll find shuffling between the three pits containing over 7,000 life-size models of warriors and horses arranged in battle formation, one of the most astounding archaeological discoveries of all time. Though enjoyable, the gardens were not, however, the highlight of my visit to Xi’an.