The city of Xi’an has a population of 3.5 million. It used to be a key trade city on China’s end of the silk road during its heydays. Consequently, there are a lot of historical sites to visit. Being a silk road buff, it is obvious that I had to explore this place during my China visit.
Upon arriving in this city, it became obvious to me that there are other silk road fans as well. My hostel is packed with a lot of people – a harsh change from Pingyao where I finally had a dormitory room on my own. Also, I am sharing the dorm – among other people – for the first time with some Chinese travelers. This is quite an experience in terms of noise levels, snoring, various sounds from different body holes – and last but not least – unusual smells.
Since I was still a bit lazy from the resting days back in Pingyao, I decided to jump on the first occasion to visit the “Terracotta Army” right on the first day. Together with Joe, Evan and Peer (all of whom I met in Pingyao) we went for a package tour provided by the hostel. As it turned out, our backpacker place runs the same kind of tour which you would expect from an average posh five star hotel: Essentially it was a 7 hour sales show featuring a two hour stop at the archaeological site of the Terracotta Army.
The first stop on that tour would bring us to a souvenir factory, where we were introduced into the making of terracotta statues. After that ten minute crash-course providing us with “insights” into what the guide called “traditional terracotta statue making” (cough, cough, the Terracotta Army was discovered in 1974, cough, cough), our tour group had a lot of time to learn about how to bargain when shopping. However, I discovered that the toilets were pretty clean, and since the one next to my dorm is of a squat-type and not too clean, I decided to spend some time next to the sales facility simply dumping in style.
During the afternoon, we had the chance to learn about silk making. This was the perfect opportunity to take a couple of pictures, because the silk sales show was just next to a tourist spot featuring clones of Egyptian monuments, such as the Pyramids. And the “dumping” facilities at the silk sales show were absolutely superb,too. Looking back, I feel like the “day one” consisted of going to the loo and a bit of sightseeing at the Terracotta Army site.
Day two was much more interesting. Probably because we had a plan and organized the trip ourselves: Go up the Hua Shan mountain. There is some backpacker legends surrounding this climb. It is supposed to be very dangerous. So, we were scared (woo hoo). The Chinese guy in our dorm was just coming back from there, confirming to us that the trail was very dangerous indeed – and that we should not underestimate the trip. Among other – helpful – hints, he strongly suggested to us to use gloves. Sure, the mountain top was on 2105m of altitude – but would it really be that cold up there?
Nevertheless, we set off next day with the intention to stay overnight at the “East Peak” on top of the Hua Shan mountain – without gloves. The start at the mountain base was at an altitude of 400m and the first half of the 6km journey to the “North Peak” was literally a walk in the park. Lots of hawkers were positioned along the route selling – among other things – gloves. There were also loads of kiosks along the route, where we stacked up on food and drinks whenever needed. People coming into our direction were all wearing gloves and we started to question our keen ambition to do this trip without wearing them.
The second half of the “North Peak” climb – at an altitude of about 800m – was indeed becoming quite steep. It essentially consisted of stairs with chains on each side to cling on. Some of the stairs were literally vertical and having an additional chain in the middle. But this was far from being dangerous. But there we discovered why the locals were wearing gloves: They were climbing the mountain by walking up “on all four” (with their hands on the stairs instead of using the chains). Once arrived on “North Peak” (about 1600m), we were expecting the trip to become a bit less strenuous. But we were mistaken. Yet another stretch of endless stairs would finally bring us to our destination, “East Peak” (2105m), where we booked into a hostel dormitory for the night.
It wasn’t really peer pressure (an inside joke) forcing us to climb yet another set of stairs to watch the sunset at the “South Peak” (2160m). Once there, we discovered, that China is – even at this altitude – still covered in a smog and dust cloud. The sun simply sets in a grey, foggy soup. Nevertheless, we (Peer, Joe and I) enjoyed that part of the day a lot and we went back to catch some food at the hostel on “our peak”. Since prices seem to be regulated on the mountain, the dinner and the beer were quite cheap. In fact, it was cheaper than most places downtown Xi’an, although everything is being hauled by foot on top of the mountain. This puts things back home a bit in perspective: Paying twice the price on a Swiss mountain for a “Snickers” bar, just because they had to drive it up the mountain, is quite upsetting.
Watching the sunrise next morning was much more interesting from a scenic standpoint. Winds seemed to have cleared the skies and the view was quite nice. For the subsequent walk down the mountain, we did choose a different route, which runs underneath the cable car linking “North Peak” to the mountain base. This path was considered to be even more “dangerous” but to us it was simply “strenuous”. After all, the whole trip was quite a walk in the park – worth doing it and certainly a highlight of the Xi’an stay.