Our overnight sleeper train (the 20:43 Z19 from Beijing) pulled into Xi’an at 8am — a comfortable and economic journey that didn’t feel like 11 hours. It’s preferable to a long-haul flight in economy that’s for sure. What wasn’t quite so good was the weather — outside it was raining, and raining hard, the pavements were forming little rivers and in sandals it was pretty cold. The rain didn’t let up, and for the entire time we stayed in Xi’an, from stepping off the train to boarding our flight to Jiuzhaigou, it rained, and it rained heavy. We were soaked just walking to the minibus which would drive us the short route to our hotel.
We were staying in the government owned Bell Tower Hotel in a prime location — the centre of town next to the traditional bell tower and the muslim quarter. It’s a fairly stereotypical business hotel, the reception is plush but characterless, the rooms acceptable but not astounding — although ours smelt a little of smoke and opening the window worked better than air conditioning. It was fine and comfortable for a couple of nights. The breakfast was expensive so we didn’t try it, we didn’t try any of the food from the hotel’s restaurants.
Our main grievance with the place was the architecture; a hotel right on a roundabout that should look out on the spectacular old bell tower might well have just ignored it — the restaurants and bar were on lower floors at the rear, and the majority of rooms looked away from the spectacle. There’s a rooftop bar but its reserved for business functions, and was always closed.
We arrived at 9am, and they allowed us to check in much earlier than usual, which was great considering how wet we were and that after a night on a train we needed a shower and a change of clothes. There was a half hour wait until the room was ready, but we passed the time in the nearby Starbucks (not a usual choice — but this one could be reached without walking far in the rain), eating croissants and drinking coffee for breakfast.
After a nap and a shower, with wet weathers and sandals on, we set out to explore Xi’an in the miserable weather. Sam’s sandals didn’t last long, and after slipping and almost falling over a couple of times we dived into a shoe shop to grab some quick replacements.
Mercifully we were close to the Muslim quarter, although the whole area is perpetuated with street-food and open-air stalls — each with their own form of umbrella to protect them, that always somehow managed to funnel the water onto my head. That said, the street food was the best we’ve ever had.
Right at the entrance to Beiyuanmen we found a place selling Rou jia mo, or Chinese hamburgers. At this stall a long queue were waiting for slow cooked lamb to be diced and shredded, slipped into a mo flatbread, before a little bit of sauce is drizzled on top (video). These were so good we came back for more on two more occasions.
Next door a stall was selling crispy fried squid on a stick. Of course we had to try that too. Then there was meat cooked on wooden skewers, walnuts were being rolled around in sugar, pigs trotters coated in sauce and sesame seeds, baked cakes and desserty snacks, rice pudding cakes, fried potatoes, swirls of mushroom and tofu, men beating slabs of sugar with mallets, fresh pomegranate juice — and so much more. We reached a point where we were too full to eat any more.
Inside the Muslim quarter, down Beiyuanmen street is an old folk house that provided just enough cover from the rain to let us dry off a bit. I say just enough, it’s a few buildings that you still need to hop between, so inevitably you never really dry off. We paid a bit extra for the tickets to go and see the shadow puppets and have a drink of tea (it’s never just a drink, always a ceremony). The shadow puppet story was all in Chinese, so we were simply bemused by shadowy figures flying around a white canvas. The buildings themselves are filled with antique furniture, paintings and calligraphy; the ceilings are wooden and outside hang traditional red lanterns. It doesn’t quite meet the standards you’d expect of say a National Trust place in the UK, but it’s a good stop for an hour or so.
After returning to the hotel, drying off and heading back out again, it was time to find some dinner. The area is mostly full of shopping malls, and with it cafes and restaurants that are ideal to eat at when you’re carrying a hundred bags and just need some quick grub. But by the evening most of these places are shut, and the ones that aren’t are empty — making it hard to work out where’s good. Trip advisor, Lonely Planet and Foursquare all come up short with recommendations — having everything in Chinese characters makes it all a bit harder to recommended somewhere, or even find it online in the first place.
From the Kaiyuan shopping mall we took some evening photos of the bell tower, and inside we checked out the food court. All the places looked good, but they were mostly buffet and we wanted a proper sit-down-meal after eating street food all day. The mall itself could have been in any country, and the lifts were painfully slow.
Outside the rain continued, and we meandered up and down streets, peering in restaurant windows and checking out the few menus we could find. At one point we found ourselves in a trendy karaoke night club by mistake, thinking it was somewhere we could eat. Eventually we gambled on a place which we couldn’t see in from the outside, some red steps went up to a higher floor, but the sign clearly showed a stylised picture of some noodles.
We loved this place, which we think is called Jin gui xiao shan cheng — Google says the name translates to “Kim Gui small mountain town”. Upstairs the restaurant opens up into a red and white trendy eatery for young and cool clientele. A TV screen showed highlights of US basketball matches, and the menus handily came with pictures. Importantly, the place was pretty full, and the food looked great (and enormous — weirdly groups of two had four or five enormous dishes between them).
Two of the waitresses were incredibly eager to help us, and were relishing the opportunity to use their English. Although sometimes this wasn’t much help, our waitress pointed at the menu as we looked through — “noodles”, “rice” she’d say, which we’d worked out from the pictures. We started to order some beer, which I knew the words for, but Sam jumped ahead — she pointed at a table and said we’d “have some of that”. It was something in a red can, and it looked like beer, but it wasn’t. Probably some form of Wong Lo Kat, a popular Chinese herbal tea and soft drink. As it turns out, if you ordered two of these you won a prize! I scratched off a card and soon we were in the possession of a small black rubber dog/elephant designed to hold up a smartphone. The promotions girl was really excited by all of this, even going so far as to compliment us, “you are so beautiful, your skin is so white and pure”.
The specialty seemed to be bullfrog, but we played it safe, ordering fried rice, a beef noodle soup, some more Chinese hamburgers and some sweet spring rolls filled with a purple bean paste. Coming back from China we wish now we’d been a bit more adventurous. Nevertheless, the food was good.
Not quite done with the day, we had the hotel bar prepare us some cocktails, before sneaking to the roof to get some night shots of the bell tower.