When my travel buddy suggested going cycling on our trip to China, the day after visiting the Terracotta Warriors and the Shaanxi History Museum, I thought she’d lost the plot! I wasn’t looking forward to trying to navigate my way around one of China’s megacities with lunatic traffic, hazardous fumes, heat, humidity, and unreadable road signs. Plus, we’re distinctly middle-aged and unfit! Then she told me that we weren’t going to ride around the streets, we were going cycling on the ancient city wall in Xi’an. We donned our padded pants and set out to have a go. Here is my warts and all report of what cycling in Xi’an is really like.
About the Xi’an City Wall
Construction of the wall began in 1370, during the Ming Dynasty, and was completed during the Tang Dynasty. The wall is 14 km long, 12 metres high, 15 to 18 metres wide and it was fully restored in the 1980s. It surrounds the old city of Xi’an and it’s possible to cycle all the way round it.
Within the 36 square kilometre old city area encircled by the wall, there are very strict building regulations and no building can be higher than the wall. Landmarks such as the Bell and Drum Towers and Muslim Quarter are located within the walls. Outside the wall however, you’ll see a complete contrast as huge skyscrapers rise as far as the eye can see, dominating the skyline!
The approach to the wall is both impressive and imposing. A long, wide path lined with tall columns leads you towards the South Gate which is dwarfed beneath the towering gatehouse. You can’t help feeling how awed and intimidated visitors and invaders would have felt in ancient times as they walked or rode towards the wall.
Key Features of the Wall
With a wide moat and watchtowers every 120 metres, it’s easy to see that the wall was built to protect the city and to accommodate the soldiers defending the ancient city.
There are gates at all four points of the compass, to the North, South, East and West, each fortified with three towers. These imposing city gates still provide access to the thriving old Xi’an city today from the surrounding modern city.
The closer you get to the entrance to the wall, the more you’ll find local Chinese people wanting to have their photos taken with you. If your hair is light-coloured or grey, you’ll be inundated with polite, friendly requests for selfies!
Cycling the Wall
The South Gate is the only location where you can hire a bike. You’ll find a good supply of clean, well-maintained bikes and tandems to choose from (with proper suspension, brakes and padded seats, for which you’ll be very grateful). The staff at the rental shop are super helpful and they will adjust your seat up or down if needed. (You may need to resort to sign language for this).
You’ll easily cycle all the way around the wall in one and a half to two hours if you cycle at a leisurely pace and make lots of stops to take in the sights!
Bike Hire Cost:
It’s very inexpensive to hire a bike for this experience:
- You’ll pay CNY 45 to hire a bike for two hours with a deposit of CNY 200
- Alternatively it’s CNY 90 to hire a tandem for the same time, with the same deposit of CNY 200
The Walking Option
If you prefer to walk, it’ll take you about four hours to walk all the way around the wall. You’ll not be alone as many people enjoy the exercise of walking the wall and you might see joggers too. There’s even a city wall marathon in April…
The Spectacular Views from the Wall
You will have an outstanding view of the city from your lofty perch high up on the wall. Setting off from the South gatehouse, you’ll cycle anti-clockwise, with the fascinating twists and turns of the old city on your left, and the vast sprawl of city skyscrapers on your right. Every point provides new views of the fascinating blend of the old and the new China.
You’ll have a chance to see the towering financial district, traditional Chinese shops, a Buddhist temple with a golden roof and the lush greenery of Huancheng Park. The reward from the West gate is a good view of the historic Drum and Bell Towers, marking the centre of the old city.
In complete contrast to the crowded old city, with its narrow streets and traditional Chinese houses, you’ll see skyscrapers set in wide boulevards stretching as far as the eye can see into the distance on the outer side of the wall. It’s a stark reminder of how rapidly the city of Xi’an is growing.
As you cycle around the wall, stop a while at the intricately decorated watchtowers too and give your legs a rest. Every
We can report that we made it round the Xi’an wall in just over an hour. Our guide, who clearly thought we were fat old women likely to have a coronary on the way, could barely conceal his astonishment!
A Xi’an Report on the Old City Wall Wouldn’t be Complete Without Key Facts
- The wall is very easy to cycle and mostly flat, but there are some slopes and the path is quite bumpy. Do take cycling shorts or padded pants, or risk walking like John Wayne when you get off your bike
- It can get very hot up on the wall, even on an overcast day, so make sure you have a bottle of water in your bag. You can buy water on the wall, but you’ll pay a premium price for it
- Stock up with snacks before you get to the wall. Concessions are limited and expensive once get onto the wall itself
- Toilets on the wall are few and far between; however, there’s one at the start and one at the end! While the toilets are reasonably clean, they are squat toilets and you’ll need to take your own toilet paper plus soap/hand wipes. You have been warned…
Fun Things To Look Out For On the Xi’an Wall
The wall is very Instagrammable, even on misty days. You might even happen upon local people taking photos for a modelling shoot like we did. This girl’s dress was so perfecly matched with the red lanterns decorating the wall and we were more than slightly envious of how stunning she looked. (No she did not cycle in that dress…)
More Must-Visit Attractions in Xi’an
- Treat all of your senses with a trip to the Muslim market
- Experience beauty and tranquility at the Great Mosque
- See the majestic Bell Tower and Drum Tower
- Marvel at the ancient Terracotta Army of Emperor Qin
- Discover the treasures of the Shaanxi History Museum
- Visit the serenely beautiful Big Wild Goose Pagoda Park and learn about the 1,300-year history of Buddhism in Xi’an
Xi’an is a city that is blessed with more than its fair share of fabulous historical sites and it would be easy not to report on the Old City Wall. It would be a mistake not to spend time here if you can – the wall is quite magnificent.
Have you tried cycling the Xian city wall? Do share your Xi’an report and photos in the comments below.
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