Exploring the mist shrouded Xian City Wall the “easy” way

Early mornimg walking through Xian
Early mornimg walking through Xian

We arrived in Xian after a 17 hour train ride from Chengdu. This super long train ride was not as bad as I expected as we played some card games and I actually had a chance to catch up on my travel writing. Sleeping on the bumpy ride was a bit difficult though, so by the time we arrived in Xian at 5 am we were all a bit tired and grumpy. The only thing I could think of was having a shower and a cup of coffee.

Xi’an is one of the oldest cities in China, with more than 3,100 years of history. With so much history within the ground the city lies upon, it is no wonder that there are so many historical ruins, museums and cultural relics to be found here.

After checking into our hotel and went for a walk through the quiet streets of this historicity.

The Drum and Bell tower which is close to the south gate of the famous Xian City Wall was only a bus ride away from our little hotel. The Drum and Bell tower was erected in 1380 during the early Ming Dynasty. This early in the morning most places were still closed so we had to wait before we could get a cup of coffee. After a lovely ice coffee we headed for the beautiful City Wall!!

The fortifications of Xi’an represent one of the oldest and best preserved Chinese City Walls as well as being one of the largest ancient military defensive systems in the world. This ancient city wall stretches for 13.7 km round the old city with a deep moat surrounding it. The City wall stands 12 meters tall, 12-14 meters wide at the top and 15-18 meters thick at the bottom.

The South Gate Tower
The South Gate Tower
Choosing the “easy” way to explore Xian City Wall
Choosing the “easy” way to explore Xian City Wall

We entered through the south gate, Yongning (eternal peace), which is the most beautifully decorated of the four. It is very near to the Bell Tower in the center of the city.

We had the option of actually cycling the whole length of the wall or to take an open mini bus. All the other members of our China Odyssey group got ready for their 14km bicycle tour of the City wall.

Luckily for me mom wasn’t feeling up to it after that long grueling 17 hour train ride so we decided not to join the group and opted for the “soft option”. We ended up joining a group taking a little open bus that drove you along the top of the wall.

Our Xian City Wall adventure starts!!
Our Xian City Wall adventure starts!!
Driving along the empty mist shrouded City Wall
Driving along the empty mist shrouded City Wall
I can understand why the Xian City Wall is world famous, it is stunning!!
I can understand why the Xian City Wall is world famous, it is stunning!!

Every 120 meters, there is a rampart which extends out from the main wall. All together, there are 98 ramparts, which were built to defend against the enemy climbing up. Each rampart has a sentry building, in which the soldiers could protect the entire wall without exposing themselves to the enemy.

The City wall stands 12 meters tall
The City wall stands 12 meters tall

The first city wall of Xi’an was built of earth, rammed layer upon layer. The base layer was made of earth, quick lime, and glutinous rice extract, tamped together. It made the wall extremely strong and firm. Later, the wall was totally enclosed with bricks. A moat, wide and deep, ran around the city. Over the moat, there used to be a huge drawbridge, which would cut off the way in and out of the city, once lifted.

What a beautiful sight having the deserted wall stretch out in front of us.
What a beautiful sight having the deserted wall stretch out in front of us.

Driving along the wall we got to observe the Old city it surrounded and protected. It was quite sad that most of the original old houses are now gone and replaced by modern high rises and apartment blocks.

Remnants of the Old City inside the City Walls.
Remnants of the Old City inside the City Walls.

The gates of the city wall were the only way to go into and out of town. Therefore, these gates were important strategic points, which the feudal rulers racked their brains to try to defend. We stopped at each gate and got to explore the wall and surrounding area for 15 minutes before the little bus drove on.

Our first stop at one of the four gates of the city wall
Our first stop at one of the four gates of the city wall
A war bell at the gate tower
A war bell at the gate tower

 In Xi’an’s case, the north, south, east and west gates, each consist of three towers: the gate tower, which holds the drawbridge, the narrow tower and the main tower. The gate tower stands proud of the wall. It is used to lift and lower the drawbridge. The narrow tower is in the middle. Its inner walls have square windows to shoot arrows from. The main tower is the innermost one, and forms the entrance to the city.

One of the gate towers
One of the gate towers

A watch tower is located on each of the four corners of the wall. The one at the southwestern corner is round, probably after the model of the imperial city wall of the Tang Dynasty, but the other three are square-shaped.

There were a few lost cyclists along the wall, otherwise it was quite deserted
There were a few lost cyclists along the wall, otherwise it was quite deserted
Such an amazing experience!
Such an amazing experience!

It was great as we got to see the whole wall and weren’t dead tired by the end of our adventure. I don’t think either one of us would have enjoyed our “wall experience” this much if we had peddle the whole 14km.

Looking down onto the south gate square
Looking down onto the south gate square

After the wall adventure we stood around watching people practice for an upcoming show at the South Gate. Important greeting ceremonies organized by the Provincial Government are usually held in the south gate square. We got to listen to the band and even watched the whole parade practice after which we went and had our photos taken with some of the “soldiers”. 

Loved watching the greeting ceremony
“Soldiers” at work
Loved watching the greeting ceremony
Loved watching the greeting ceremony

Chinese Lanterns, Street Food and Crazy Tuc-Tuc drivers at China’s Jinli Steet

Walking along the river flowing through  Chengdu
Walking along the river flowing through Chengdu on our way to Jinli Street
Chengdu is filled with tea houses and tea shops.
Chengdu is filled with tea houses and tea shops.

I think the best way to soak up the atmosphere and culture of a city or even a country is by walking through its streets, visiting the markets and just mingling with the people. While on our China Odyssey, Mom and I loved experiencing the Chinese culture and learning about all the little things that make it so different and interesting. 

We spent 2 days in Chengdu, a city located on the edge of the fertile plains of the Red Basin and surrounded by small mountains. This city kept a lot of its historical identity and this lent a very tranquil atmosphere to the place. One of the first places on our list to explore was Jinli Street, located just to the east of the Wuhou Memorial Temple.

Im in Jinli Steet!!!!
Im in Jinli Steet!!!!

Jjinli Street consists out of a couple of alleyways and narrow streets crammed full of old buildings, interesting little shops, tea-houses and restaurants all modeled on the architectural style of a traditional old town. It is recorded that as early as the Qin Dynasty (221 BC – 206 BC), Jinli Street was one of the busiest commercial areas of this city. Hence, it is known as ‘First Street of the Shu Kingdom’. Visitors from all over China and abroad gather here to relax, admire the traditional-style buildings, and taste some local snacks.

The two of us entered this very lively street through an imposing archway with ‘Jinli Street’ carved on it. From there we walked along the winding street paved with green flagstones.

Jinli Street!
Jinli Street is such a peaceful place to spend the day
The beautiful Chinese Lanterns we bought
The beautiful Chinese Lanterns we bought

Strolling down the narrow street we were surrounded by old-world stores selling Shu Embroidery, lacquer products, folk handicrafts, curios, calligraphies and lanterns. All of these stores have their unique style but also have one thing in common: no matter how busy the place is, the stores feel peaceful and relaxing inside. Most of the special local products can be found here. Here I bought myself a beautiful Chinese lantern. I probably would have bought way more than one but we still had 2 weeks left of our China Odyssey and I felt that I couldn’t fit more than one into my backpack. Needless to say my mom with her already overloaded backpack bought two!! One of which I in the end had to fit into my backpack.

Tranquil Jinli Street and all our shopping!
Tranquil Jinli Street and all our shopping!

Lotus Palace Bar tea house
Lotus Palace Bar tea house

A huge part of our Jinli street adventure was spending some time at a traditional tea house sitting outside, relaxing and chatting over a cup of tea.

We sat down at the Lotus Palace Bar tea house for some very aromatic Chinese tea. This tea garden is situated in the centre of the Ancient Jinli Street, but it’s the perfect example to highlight how Chengdu has retained its cultural heritage. We sat in the courtyard with its red-and-black lacquered tables and chairs of conventional style ready for our tea adventure. Being tea novices and not actually knowing what we were going to get we ordered two different flower flavours. Instead of bringing two different teas they brought the lavender and flower tea mixed in tall glasses with a jug of boiled water. The flower buds and tea leaves were all loose and floating at the bottom of our glasses.

The fragrant aroma was a delight and we couldn’t wait for the water to cool down enough for us to taste our flower tea. We realized that the flavours were quite strong and would have been better if we only had one flavour but it was still very tasty. We did have some trouble drinking our tea without getting a mouthful of tealeaves and flowers every now and then which just added to the weirdness of the experience.

The entrance to one of the many restaurants along Jinli Street
The entrance to one of the many restaurants along Jinli Street
We got to see a part of the show for free!
We got to see a part of the show for free!
Jinli has a Starbucks!?
Jinli has a Starbucks!?

In the middle of the street we came upon a wooden stage which looks like an ancient pavilion. It is used from time to time for performing classic Sichuan Operas and we were lucky enough to be there during one of these performances. We had the opportunity to stand and watch some of the actor’s beautiful, quick costume and make-up changes.

Despite the traditional atmosphere here, you can also sense something fashionable. There are many cafes and barrooms here – including Starbucks, which is a bit sad as it just seemed so out of place.

When we reached the end of the street, we were tempted by the aroma of the delicious local snacks. Here there are many restaurants as well as sidewalk booths offering local snacks that will make your mouth water.

Trying Kebabs....from the stall behind me!
Trying Kebabs….from the stall behind me!
Smells like duck?!?!
Smells like duck?!?!

This is a fun place to try street food and we had a great time tasting some different snacks. On offer is everything from spicy noodles to duck necks, which I wouldn’t consider a snack at all. The first “dish” we tried were great looking kebabs. They ended up being chili kebabs that were so hot that I had to spit out the first bite and had all the bystanders laughing at me! This sent me running off to the nearest drinks vendor where I tried to put out the burning furnace that my mouth had turned into.

We next tried duck spring rolls which were fabulous but I would have skipped the chicken “cake” we had for desert as it ended up being a bit dry and hard to swallow.

Desert is chicken cake!!
Desert is chicken cake!!

That evening we sat down at one of the numerous bars down Jinli Street where they brought small tot glasses for us to drink our beer out of, this was very strange! These cafes or bars are the perfect place to take a break, rest, and soak up the local culture after a long day of exploring. 

We had to drink our beer out of shot glasses!!
We had to drink our beer out of shot glasses!!

All the walking around had exhausted us so we decided to treat ourselves with a “taxi ride” back to the hotel.  We got a ride from a little old guy with a motorbike tuc-tuc. After making sure that he knew where our hotel was and agreeing on a price we got onto his small tuc-tuc. As we sat down a tiny old lady told my mom to move her feet a bit, she then plopped down a tiny pink plastic chair and sat down with us fanning herself. Apparently she was coming along for the ride.

The guy drove with his hand permanently plastered to the hooter making a dreadful noise as he weaved through the traffic ignoring all road signs and rules. He turned up a one way street next to the river and continued to swerve through traffic going in the wrong direction. The two of us clung to each other and you could see the horror on our scared faces. What the hell had we gotten ourselves into!! I thought that at any moment an oncoming car was going to squash us and end our China adventure.

Our crazy tuc-tuc!!
Our crazy tuc-tuc!!

As soon as he stopped the little tuc-tuc in front of our hotel we both couldn’t wait to get out, our legs still shaking from the experience.  We were so glad and grateful that we actually got to our hotel in one piece! This was definitely a very frightening but unique and also fun experience that we will definitely always remember. We took a photo of our the tuc-tuc and its “hell-driver”!!

our the tuc-tuc and its “hell-driver”!!
Our the tuc-tuc and its “hell-driver”!!

I read that very few people who visit this part of China leave without becoming hooked, and I can second this statement. I would love to visit Chengdu again!!