Almost 700mi (1,126km) southwest of Beijing, Xi’an is one of the oldest cities in China, but is perhaps best known for its proximity to the remarkable second-century BC archaeological wonder, the Terracotta Army, which depicts the armies of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China. But the ancient city is a gateway to more than this UNESCO World Heritage site.
My husband Mike and I arrive in Xi’an around 7am, well-rested thanks to a private sleeper car on the overnight train from Beijing. We drop our bags at our hotel in the old city and take the short walk to the South Gate of China’s most complete city walls. After paying the entry fee, we climb a staircase to the top of the 40ft (12m) walls and rent a tandem bike to cycle the city walls.
As we pedal the 8.6mi (14km) perimeter above the city, I marvel at the juxtaposition of old and new: traditional music blares from speakers mounted on top of the Ming-era walls; from a single corner, both the flared gold roof of Guangren Temple — the province’s sole Tibetan Buddhist temple — and a slew of modern skyscrapers are visible; and teens pose for selfies in front of the towers.
The next morning, we catch an 8am bus from the station outside the city’s North Gate to Huà Shān, a village two hours away, to hike Mount Huashan, one of the five sacred mountains in Taoism. We work out there are three ways to reach North Peak, the first summit which is a 3.75mi (6km) hike that climbs roughly 3,000ft (914m) to an elevation of 5,298ft (1,615m).
The most popular route up Mount Huashan follows a network of paved paths and steep stairs that weave among pines and switchback up sheer granite cliffs. After heading to the base of the mountain to purchase entry tickets, we begin our ascent.
We set a leisurely pace, and between breaking for snacks, ogling the undulating valleys, and chatting with a pair of Chinese university students, we reach the top in five or six hours.
At the North Peak, we spend a half hour taking in the panorama before descending by gondola. Hikers with more time or ambition can continue on, linking summits via exposed ridges, and even attempting a heart-stopping plank walk where travelers are required to wear a harness and clip onto a wire to walk along a narrow wooden board attached to the side of a cliff.
On our last evening in the city, we head to Daming Palace Heritage Park, just north of the walls. We’re too late to visit the museums and restored Tang Dynasty palaces within the gated area, so rent a four-wheel, surrey-style “Lover’s Bike.” As we explore the free section of the park — bouncing over cobbled paths that dart through groves of trees and arc over ponds and streams — we pass families who are also cycling, boating, strolling, and sharing in our love for the outdoors in this extraordinary city.
With mild days and cool nights, shoulder season — September to October and March through May — offers the most pleasant weather for outdoor adventures.
Xi’an is a big, bustling city, so completely avoiding crowds is unlikely. But, starting your day early helps, especially for visits to the city walls and major sites.
Also, the Chinese National Holiday (early October) means more people are on the road, making travel trickier, but it’s a worthwhile adventure in itself.
Entry to the city walls: US $8/CNY54
Bike rental: tandem bikes cost US $13/CNY90 for two hours; single seat bikes are available for US $6.50/CNY45.
Entry to Mount Huashan: US $23/CNY160 during high season. The gondola costs US $20/CNY140 one way. The plank walk costs US $5/CNY30.
Entry to the gated area of Tang Dynasty palaces: US $9/CNY60.
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