Jiuzhaigou National Park Ri Ze Valley-A Walk of Otherworldly Beauty

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I had two days planned to visit Jiuzhaigou National Park, and intended to visit the most beautiful valley the first day. There are three valleys in the park, and two of them are considered the most beautiful. I originally intended to visit Ri Ze Valley and Shu Zheng Valley the first day, but due to circumstances (like my poor aching feet), I decided just to walk Ri Ze Valley, which is about 18km from start to finish.

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Like most of my vacation days, I started the day early. However, unlike most places I’ve visited, an early start did not make me special or alone. Like I mentioned in a previous blog post, the line for breakfast started before breakfast even began at 0630. I intended to start early to maximize my time in the park, and hopefully beat some of the crowds. During the summer season, the park opens at 0700 and closes around 1800. I arrived at the park entrance around 0730, and the hordes of crowds were already milling around.

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My jaw sort of dropped at the number of tour groups, and I pictured a hideously long wait to buy a ticket and get on the bus. I was somewhat pleasantly surprised that the line for tickets didn’t appear QUITE as bad as I feared. Sure, people were just  crowding around all the registers, but it only took me about 10 minutes to get a ticket. Price for one day admission is 220 yuan, plus the 90 yuan for a bus ticket, so one day in the park costs around roughly $50 USD. It’s certainly not cheap, especially in China, but I personally felt the price  was worth it. I mean, I spent several hundred dollars in plane tickets and a hotel room, all to see as much beautiful nature as possible, so why would I quibble about $50 USD per day? This high price is during peak season, but during the winter, the one day admission drops to 80 yuan per day, and a second day ticket for 20 yuan.

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There were many people at the bus stops, but there were so many buses, that it only took me about 10 minutes to get on a bus. Transportation in the park is a well-oiled machine, set up to transport hundreds of visitors per day as quickly and efficiently as possible. Once you get past the entrances, there are two lines for buses. Initially I assumed that one side takes you to the start of Ri Ze Valley, and the other one takes you to Ze Cha Wa Valley. However, as I figured out the second day, that is not the case. There are buses that go to both destinations, but they aren’t separated. The destinations are surely listed on the bus, but since the words were in Mandarin, I had no clue. I just got on a bus and hoped for the best.

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Luckily for me, I got on a bus for Ri Ze Valley. The morning buses take visitors directly to the end of the Ri Ze Valley where the trail starts. The ride itself takes around an hour, and you pass by all the beautiful sites that you will see again on your way back. The final bus stop, or technically first stop of the day is the Primeval Forest. Immediately once I got off the bus, I felt two things: the bracing chill in the morning air, and the altitude. This part of the valley is over 9,900 feet in altitude, and I felt that vague lightheadedness that comes with altitude adjustment. The morning was clear and sunny, and the air very fresh.

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The vast majority of visitors got back on the bus after visiting the Primeval Forest to head back down the valley and stop at all the key sites. I, on the other hand, intended to walk my way out of the valley, which is about 18 kilometers in length. If you have only one day in the park, but want to see as many of the key sites as possible, you really can only ride the bus and stop at all the key sites for pictures. However, visiting two days enables you to see more of the park at a leisurely pace and walk to all the beautiful sites. I chose to come to Jiuzhaigou to walk among the beautiful nature and I wanted maximum amount of time to enjoy it all.

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This park is exceptionally well designed in my opinion. I’m not talking about the beautiful nature, because that just exists, though it is clearly well protected in this part of China. But the way this park is set up, it makes it really easy to enjoy. The paths through the valleys are all wood planked. Most of the path is flat, or some minor stairs, though the trail is always heading down as you descend through the valley. Also interspersed throughout the park are rather nice bathrooms (much better than many I have seen in US national parks), so this ensures the park stays very clean. There are also numerous signs in English, so you know where you are, how far the next sight is located, and where the nearest bus stop is.

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The first few kilometers were in relative peace, as there weren’t that many other walkers. The first sites to visit were Grass Lake and Swan Lake. Grass Lake is a long, narrows, semi-swamp tucked under deep cliffs. Swan Lake is also tucked among dense woods. I was struck by all the different plants that seemed to thrive under flowing water, and I hadn’t seen anything quite like this before. I had intended to walk the entire 18 kilometers, but the trail after Swan Lake was blocked, and I had to take the bus to Arrow Bamboo Lake, but I didn’t miss anything exceptional on the trail, and saved some time, and saved my feet.

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Once I arrived at Arrow Bamboo Lake, I was in for a bit of surprise. By this point, it was mid morning, and the tour groups were out in even greater force. So instead of the peace and quiet I had up on the upper part of the trail, now I had noise and crowds to contend with. Even though this is a place where independent travel is certainly possible, for the most part from what I saw, most people were there as part of a tour group, and these groups tended to be very large.

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So I did my best to block out the crowds and step around them when possible. The beautiful nature made me want to just sit back and take it all in, but that can be a bit difficult at times. The crowds had no compunction about pushing me aside or asking me to move so they could take the umpteenth picture of themselves posing like models. It can get a bit much at times if you don’t like crowds, which I don’t, but honestly, the beautiful nature was worth it. Wait long enough and the crowds will eventually go away (of course only to be replaced with another crowd shortly thereafter). But you can set your own pace and see what you want for how long you want, and there is more than enough time to see it all if you visit the park over multiple days.

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After walking around and admiring the serene Arrow Bamboo Lake, I came upon the first of numerous waterfalls in the Ri Ze Valley. Arrow Bamboo Waterfall seems to be the smallest waterfall in the valley, being only around 7 meters high. This waterfall was formed from collapsed rocks, and is arc-shaped  with a wide span.

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Continuing down the trail, the next stop of beauty was Panda Lake, with its very transparent water surrounded by mountains. You might think that seeing a multitude of lakes and waterfalls would get boring, but I never found it to be so. The national park is pristine, and the colors are bright, and I am very drawn to bright colors. The full visual power of this park is very apparent on a sunny day, like this day was. The blues of the lakes are jewel-toned, and the water is so transparent, it is like a mirror reflecting the landscape around it.

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Right next to Panda Lake is Panda Lake Waterfall. This waterfall is the highest and oldest of Jiuzhaigou’s waterfalls, and it has been forming itself slowly over the past 53,000 years. The sight of the waterfall is majestic, and I’ve read that that the waterfall freezes in the winter to form a solid curtain of ice.

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Five Flower Lake is considered to be one of the most beautiful and colorful of the park’s lakes. The wide variety of colors are formed from the lake bottom travertines and colorful algae. The park in the summer is filled with all range of green and blues, and I kept imagining what this park looks like in autumn, with all the reds, oranges and yellows.

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Walking along the path, I just kept coming up on more beauty, more lakes, and more waterfalls. The head of the final waterfall in Ri Ze Valley is the Pearl Shoals. I hadn’t seen anything quite like it, with the wide, shallow river flowing and bubbling over the travertine surface among the trees and shrubbery.

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These shoals consolidate into the Pearl Shoals Waterfall and form a gorgeous, rushing waterfall. This waterfall is considered the most photographed waterfall. It is gorgeous from all angles, particularly the side view as I descended the path. I have seen many waterfalls in my travels, but I personally think the waterfalls in Jiuzhaigou National Park are some of the most unique and beautiful waterfalls I have ever seen. Many times it felt like I was in some sort of fantasy, fairy land, and I had to remind myself that this was real life, a real place on Earth.

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I had originally intended to walk both the Ri Ze Valley and Shu Zheng Valley that first day. I figured it was only 20 miles, and I’ve done more. However, once I reached the end of Ri Ze Valley around Mirror Lake, I realized my body had culminated. The walking was not difficult, since it is either flat or downhill. But I had been on my feet for around nine hours, the sun was hot and shining bright down on my head, and I was hungry (there aren’t really any restaurants in the park, and I didn’t bring a lunch, and was subsisting off the big breakfast buffet). I called it a day and figured I would walk the Shu Zheng Valley the next day. I walked out to the nearest bus stop and gratefully caught the next bus down to town and gingerly walked back to my hotel for a well-needed shower and nap.

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Jiuzhaigou National Park Overview

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Long Lake, Ze Cha Wa Valley, Jiuzhaigou National Park

I am always on the lookout for new and different places to visit, and I come upon different ideas for travel destinations in many different ways. Some destinations are well known throughout the world. Some are recommended to me by fellow travelers.  Some I discover through reading, TV or the Internet. Sometimes I am particularly attracted to something unique and beautiful in general, and sometimes I want to visit some place to experience something very specific.

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Long Lake, Ze Cha Wa Valley, Jiuzhaigou National Park

In the case of Jiuzhaigou National Park in China, I had never heard of this place until about a year and a half ago. Then I stumbled upon this website that showed off some of the most surreal places on this Earth, both natural and man made. I was instantly intrigued by the pictures I saw. They were unlike anything I’ve seen before and I  very much wanted to visit the place. I mean, this looked like a magical fairy land  filled with lakes the colors of jewel tones, strange and beautiful waterfalls, and reflections on the water like mirrors. Lucky for me that I currently live in Korea, so it’s not THAT difficult to travel to Jiuzhaigou National Park (though it still takes more work to get to than some place like Beijing or Shanghai). After some basic research in my guide book and on the national park website, I started planning on when I could make my visit.

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Long Lake, Ze Cha Wa Valley, Jiuzhaigou National Park

My first desire was to visit in the fall. Autumn is supposed to be the most beautiful time of the year to visit Jiuzhaigou, and I’ve seen the pictures to prove it. However, the park’s gorgeousness is not exactly a secret, so it’s also the most crowded time of the year. There are no direct flights from Seoul to Jiuzhaigou, so at best you have to take a hop through Beijing, Shanghai or Chengdu. I started looking for flights about 60 days out, and much to my amazement, all the direct flights from Beijing and Shanghai were booked, so it would have taken me around 24 hours, and at least two stops, to get to Jiuzhaigou. I decided to put my travel desires on hold, but when I had the opportunity to go on vacation in early July, I figured this was my last, best chance to see Jiuzhaigou before I leave Korea was then. I started planning this trip nearly 90 days out, and luckily for me, there were flights available, and all I had to worry about was one layover on Beijing on the way there, and a stop in Chengdu on the return.

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Long Lake, Ze Cha Wa Valley, Jiuzhaigou Valley National Park

I planned for four full days in Jiuzhaigou to give me maximum time to visit the park. Most things I read suggested a minimum two days to see all three valleys. The nearby Huanglong Scenic Area was also high on the list of must do sightseeing areas, and upon further research, I decided a day trip to the Fairy Pond Scenic Area would also be worthwhile. This itinerary allowed me to see everything I wanted to see without rushing, and allowed me to the time to really savor the gorgeous beauty.

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Ze Cha Wa Valley mountains, Jiuzhaigou National Park

I knew before I went that July is not the best time to visit Jiuzhaigou. Sure, it is the greenest time of the year, but that is because it is also the rainiest. I knew this going in, and I hoped for good weather. For the most part, the weather actually held out. Sure, there was some cloudiness at times, but for the most part, I couldn’t ask for better weather. This park is pretty regardless of the weather, but it is exceptionally gorgeous and surreal when it is sunny out.

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Five Colored Pond, Ze Cha Wa Valley, Jiuzhaigou National Park

The Jiuzhaigou National Park and surroundings are well established for tourist visits, though in some respects, things are easier if you are fluent or at least familiar with Mandarin. However, if you are like me, and completely clueless when it comes to the local language, you can still prevail and enjoy yourself.

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Five Colored Pond, Ze Cha Wa Valley, Jiuzhaigou National Park

Considering that Jiuzhaigou is a small area and is in a very isolated part of China, the modernness of the airport and many of the villages is a tad surprising (though probably not when considering this area is very much about attracting tourists). There are a couple dozen flights a day to and from Jiuzhaigou from around China. The airport is about a 90-120 minute ride from Jiuzhaigou village. If you travel to the area independently, your two choices to get to Jiuzhaigou are bus or taxi. A bus trip is only about 45 yuan, but the schedule is erratic, isn’t posted, and doesn’t seem to run in the evening. Since I arrived around 1900, that left the only option as taxi, of which there are numerous ones. Now granted, none of the taxi drivers speak English from what I saw (or very minimal English), so you have to use gestures and broken phrases to negotiate. The flat fee per taxi is about 300 yuan. That is the same fee if you are by yourself or if you were with other people. Luckily for me, I arrived with two Europeans who also needed to get to Jiuzhaigou and we agreed to split the cab, so I ended up only spending 100 yuan.

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Five Colored Pond, Ze Cha Wa Valley, Jiuzhaigou National Park

There are a wide variety of accommodations in Jiuzhaigou, from really low budget hotels, to the five star Sheraton resort. However, most of the accommodations available for online booking tend to fall at the higher end of the spectrum. I was tempted to stay at the Sheraton resort, because it looked really nice, but the cost was around twice as high as the next most expensive hotel.

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Shu Zheng Valley trail, Jiuzhaigou National Park

I elected to stay at the Qian He International Hotel, which is located very near the Sheraton, and approximately 1500 meters from the entrance of Jiuzhaigou National Park. Overall, the hotel received good reviews, though I was a bit leery of the fact that nobody on the staff was supposed to speak English, and the hotel only accepted cash, and not credit cards. However, I was very pleasantly surprised when I showed up that the hotel now does take credit cards, which is much better than carrying hundreds of US dollars in local currency around. And yeah, nobody really spoke fluent English on staff, but the staff was very helpful, and the assistant manager in particular went out of her way to assist me using translation software.

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Shu Zheng Valley, Jiuzhaigou National Park

The hotel itself is very nice and upscale, and I really loved the bathrooms in particular. Breakfast buffet is included in the room price. I wasn’t surprised since many of the reviews talked about how the buffet is geared to Chinese tastes. But there is plenty of options, and it’s all you can eat, and you can never go wrong there.

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Shu Zheng Valley, Jiuzhaigou National Park

Another interesting thing is how much of an early riser the hotel (and presumably all of the hotels) is. Breakfast opened at 0630, and at most hotels, I would have been completely alone when I was up. Here though, there was a line that formed outside of the breakfast room and the room was swarmed as soon as the door opened. In fact, everywhere I went (outside of my hotel room), I encountered swarms of people. China itself is heavily populated, and Jiuzhaigou is a very popular area, so there were crowds of people everywhere. I am not exactly a people person, and crowds of people make me even more antsy, but it’s just one of those things you have to accept when visiting the area.

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Shu Zheng Lake, Jiuzhaigou National Park

Jiuzhaigou is a tourist area, and most of the places to eat are either hotels or one of the many restaurants that line the river. Qian He International Hotel is located only 1500 meters away from the park entrance, and the walk to and from the hotel was very pleasant and cool along the river. There are so many small restaurants that all you have to do is pick one that interests you and enjoy.

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My two basic criteria for restaurant selection was an English menu and tasty looking food. I may be a somewhat adventurous local eater at times, but I do draw the line at picking something at random, without even so much as a picture.

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But the restaurants I chose had rather tasty dishes. The first night I had shredded pork with green peppers, fried rice, and spiced yak meat. Yes, yak meat. I have to say that was the first time for that, but it was rather tasty. I guess sort of like beef, or maybe closer to deer. The second night, my choice wasn’t quite so well received. I ordered spicy chicken, forgetting for a moment that in China, anything spicy tends to come covered in red chili peppers. And in this case, the chicken was certainly what I am used to in Chinese restaurants at home. It was more chicken parts with bone, and even claws still in the dinner (needless to say, I didn’t eat the claws).

Chinese dinner

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I’ll cover more specifics about visiting the park and the surrounding areas in coming blog posts. This post was more designed as an overview to visiting the area. I will say that if you love beautiful nature, and want to see unique places in this world, Jiuzhaigou National Park should definitely be on your “to do” list.

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Shu Zheng Valley trail, Jiuzhaigou National Park

Xi’An’s Myriad of Pleasures- Temples, Towers, Pagodas and Dumplings

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As I’ve mentioned in previous blog posts, Xi’An wasn’t EXACTLY what I expected. Part of me envisioned a Chinese version of Bruges, Belgium, but that is definitely not the case. Xi’An is very much a modern Chinese city these days. However that doesn’t mean that Xi’An doesn’t have its pleasures ready to be explored. It has all sorts of temples, towers, pagodas, restaurants. It’s just that they are spread out around the city and sometimes found outside the city walls.

Xian Temples, Towers and Pagodas-1Bell Tower, pictured above, is located in the center of Xi’An within the city walls. It’s sort of the focal point of all the roads, particularly the roads leading to and from the main gates exiting the city, and a good chunk of the vehicle traffic goes around the large roundabout. Even though it was a completely different setting, I kept thinking of the scene in “National Lampoon’s European Vacation” where the Griswolds were stuck in a roundabout all day.

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A few hundred meters northwest of Bell Tower  is Drum Tower. It’s pretty much the same setup as Bell Tower. In both cases, you can pay to ascend the tower and get a view of the city outside. Neither tower is really of any historical value; they’re just attractive viewpoints.

Xian Temples, Towers and Pagodas-12Both towers are beautifully lit up at night and are some of the most attractive sites at night. Both towers are open from early morning to around 2130 at night for a visit. At night, the kites came out in force and swayed beautifully in the wind and the setting sun.

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Located a reasonable walking distance from the East Gate is a small, peaceful, interesting Daoist temple called Ba Xian An, or Temple of the Eight Immortals. The temple is located between narrow alleyways, and is across the street from one of the antique market streets.

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Xian Temples, Towers and Pagodas-8The colorful walls and decorations are very different than the other temples in town and the courtyard decorations are also really well done.

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Getting to the temple is a lot easier than my guidebook made it out to be. It assumed you would take the bus 4 or 11 from Bell Tower to the temple and walk from the bus stop. These were the directions listed “From the An Ren Fang bus stop, continue east 135m/450 ft before heading south down the first alley on your right; turn right when the road meets the T-junction. Immediately take a left and continue south to the back of the temple, following the incense vendors.”

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However I wanted to walk to the temple, because I wanted the exercise. I was staying at a hostel near the South Gate and tried to fit in an early morning visit to the temple before a day tour. It was about a 30 minute walk from the South Gate to the East Gate. It was all going well, until I tried to tailor my guidebook directions for a walk and it just wasn’t happening, particularly since the maps I had were a bit generic, and there were no signs pointing the way.

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On my second try, I decided to take a taxi just so I could be sure to find it. I discovered that I had nearly found it on my first trip. I just hadn’t walked far enough down the road and turned back in frustration. So knowing this, walking to the temple is very easy. Walk outside of the big East Gate and cross the divided street and keep walking straight down the main road. The road will curve a few times, but keep walking, and soon enough you will arrive at the temple complex on your left. You can’t miss it. The temple is open from 0830-1800, and with the low price of admission of 3 yuan, it is one of the cheapest visits in town.

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On my final morning in Xi’An (I had a noon flight back to Korea), I visited the Da Yan Ta, also known as the Great Goose Pagoda. The construction of this temple started in C.E. 652, and the style is similar to some temples in India.

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Also on site, very near the base of the pagoda is a the Da Ci’en Si or Temple of Great Goodwill. The temple is Buddhist, and is very elaborately and colorful decorations, like most Buddhist temples I’ve visited.

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The Great Goose Pagoda is about seven stories tall, and you can climb the pagoda for a panoramic view of Xi’An. It costs 50 yuan to enter the temple complex, with an additional fee of 20 yuan to climb the tower. I arrived at the pagoda shortly after it opened, so there was no crowd and it was easy (though temporarily strenuous) to climb the stairs to the top.

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However, the view from the top of the pagoda, while nice, is probably not worth 20 yuan in my opinion. The pagoda is located south of the city walls, and the walls aren’t visible from the tower. While attractive, the view is nothing special or particularly breath taking.

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The pagoda itself is located in a central part of an urban planned shopping complex and park. It is very attractively located, though decidedly modern with no real traces of antiquity left. There is a nice park immediately below the pagoda and I could watch couple ballroom dancing in the park (something rather common across China).

Xian Temples, Towers and Pagodas-17Getting to the pagoda complex is easy, particularly if you don’t mind some walking. Since the pagoda is located a few kilometers south of the South Gate, and since I was short on time on my last morning, I decided to take the subway. The subway is very new and opened within the last couple years. It is very clean, modern, and easy to use. I was afraid the subway would only have Chinese signs, but it is very well marked in English. The nearest subway stop for me was several hundred meters south of South Gate, and it was only a few stops. The nearest subway stop is off Line 2, Xiaozhai. Take exit C and walk eastward for about 10 minutes. You can also take a wide variety of busses or a taxi as well to the complex. Tickets will vary by length of trip, and there are self service ticket machines that are easy to use. However, one key point, is that the ticket machines don’t take 1 yuan bills (it does take 5 yuan bills), but does take 1 yuan coins.

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While there are a variety of bars in Xi’An, one of the biggest offerings for tourists is a night dinner and show.  Pretty much all hotels will offer up a tour to a dumpling banquet/show. There are a couple different possibilities, but the best one, or at least the closest to authentic, is Shanxi Grand Opera House (Shanxi Gewu Da Xiyuan). The typical night out is a massive dumpling buffet and a show.

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So many different dumplings are offered for guests to feast on. They were so delicious and JUST on the side of too much, but I didn’t want to stop eating them. The site is a large, beautifully decorated banquet hall.

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After dinner, the show lasts about an hour and shows examples of more traditional Chinese entertainment for the region.

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While Xi’An isn’t a sleepy, traditional hamlet, there are still plenty of interesting, beautiful and historical sites to be seen and experienced in town that can enhance any visit.







Xi’An’s “Other” Tomb- The Mausoleum of Emperor Jingdi (Han Yanling)

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Xi’An’s Terra Cotta Warriors is probably the most famous and well known historical site in the area, and with good reason. The Terra Cotta Warriors are very impressive in terms of scale of the excavations, the size of the warriors, and the artistic craftsmanship of the work, particularly when you consider that they were created well over 2000 years ago. However, that doesn’t mean it is the only tomb in town to visit (I mean that metaphorically, since both sites are well outside of Xi’An).

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This mausoleum belongs to the Emperor Jingdi who reigned from 157-141 B.C.E. Amazingly enough, even though that was over 2000 years ago, this tomb postdates the tomb of Qin Shi Huang (i.e. the Terra Cotta Warriors) by 300 years. Unlike the militarily turbulent time the Terra Cotta Warriors were built, Emperor Jingdi built his tomb during an economically peaceful and optimistic time, and the nature of his tomb reflects that.

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Like the Terra Cotta Warriors, Emperor Jingdi’s tomb was lost to history for over two thousand years, only to be stumbled upon in the course of other explorations. The Terra Cotta Warriors were accidentally discovered by villagers digging a well in the 1970s, and Jingdi’s mausoleum was discovered in 1990 during the construction of the highway from the Xi’An airport.

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Also like the Terra Cotta Warriors, only part of the tomb complex has been excavated. The main tomb is still a grassy hill, and only about 16 pits to the east of the main tomb have been excavated so far. Remains of the eastern gate are currently being excavated, and the southern gate post has been reconstructed.

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Emperor Jingdi set up his tomb in a sort of similar fashion as Qin Shi Huang’s tomb in the sense that there are a series of pits filled with figurines of persons, horses, chariots and other stuff. However, the figurines are only a third of the size of the Terra Cotta Warriors.

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However, the experience of visiting Emperor Jingdi’s tomb is a different experience than visiting the Terra Cotta Warriors. Both sites are enclosed in  buildings, but Jingdi’s tomb encloses the pits themselves so you can walk over them and see the figurines inside where they’ve rested for a couple thousand years.

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The chariots were made of wood and have long since disintegrated, but the fossil remains of the chariots and the wheels remain, preserved in the dirt. However, there is a model example of how the tombs probably looked like when they were first created.

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Since the timeframe Jingdi created his mausoleum was more peaceful, most of the figurines aren’t of military origin, but rather of a bucolic nature. There are many farm animals in some of the pits along with all the other figurines  from the royal court.

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The setup for the museum is in one building, rather than three like the Terra Cotta Warriors. Also, this is a very peaceful tomb to visit. Even though Emperor Jingdi’s tomb is only around an hour’s drive from Xi’An, and on the way to and from the airport, this site does not receive nearly the same amount of visitors as the Terra Cotta Warriors. Which means that instead of fighting through crowds to get a view of the pits, and having to block out the cacophony created by hordes of tourists, you can stroll through the mausoleum in greater peace and quiet.

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If you are fascinated by historical and archaeological sites, this place is definitely worth your time. All hotels and hostels will offer a half day tour to the tomb, or you can take a taxi there on your own. I do suggest that if you are visiting this tomb and the Terra Cotta Warriors, that you visit Emperor Jingdi’s tomb first. While it is a worthwhile place to visit, it is of a much smaller scale than the Terra Cotta Warriors, and there is the possibility of feeling let down if you see this tomb after.

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South Korea Demilitarized Zone Tour (with Dorasan Station and Third Tunnel)

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There are a few things I would consider “must do” activities if visiting or living in South Korea as an American. One of them is definitely visiting the Demilitarized Zone. It is certainly not the most beautiful thing to see in Korea, but it does show why we (as in the Americans) came to Korea over 60 years ago, and why our armed forces are still here, and we consider South Korea to be of top strategic value to the US national interests in Asia.

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The Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ for short, stretches across all of the Korean Peninsula, bisecting it roughly (though not exactly) along the 38th Parallel where the Korean War armistice was signed in 1953. The DMZ is two miles wide and is considered the most land-mined part of the entire world, and both sides are strung with barbed wire and frequently guarded to prevent people from entering the DMZ.

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While there are different parts of the DMZ that can be visited, the easiest and most frequently visited entry point is in the west around Panmunjom, where the armistice was signed. It’s a roughly 90 minute bus ride from Seoul to the DMZ, and many different tours run periodically throughout the week. Visiting the DMZ is not something you can do independently, but must do as part of a tour group. Many different tour companies offer up tours, some more closely affiliated with the US military and some run by South Korean civilian tour agencies. Most of the reputable tour companies’ itineraries are the same, so you really won’t get more from any one tour company. I chose to go with the USO, which operates tours for both military and civilian personnel ($40 for military/ $80 for civilians).

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The first stop of the tour is at Camp Bonifas, where we received an introductory speech from our “tour guides” who are active duty military from the Joint Security Area. Then we were taken up to Panmunjom itself where we can visit the building where the armistice was signed, and even briefly step inside North Korean territory.

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When we were in the building, we could also see a couple North Korean troops come forward by the building, taking picture of all of us. So of course we turned around and started taking pictures of them, so it was all sort of meta.

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After visiting Panmunjom, we got a driving tour of part of the immediate area in the DMZ. We stopped at various places, such as an overlook where we could see into North Korea and see the huge giant flag that stands over Propaganda Village. Plus we also drove by the Bridge of No Return, where POWs were exchanged at the end of the Korean War.

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It is interesting to realize that even though the DMZ is heavily mined and guarded, it has become a sort of nature preserve. Because no humans have really stepped foot in the DMZ in over 60 years (with some minor exceptions), it has allowed nature, and particularly bird life, to thrive on its own. The DMZ is currently home to a wide variety of rare birds, and one day, if and when the DMZ goes away, at least parts of it might be kept as a nature preserve.

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Once the DMZ part of the tour was over, we still had two more sites to visit. The first stop was at the Dorasan train station, which is the northernmost train stop in South Korea, and the rail line connects with North Korea.

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There are actual trains that leave from Seoul and head to Dorasan and return a couple times a day.

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You can buy a ticket for 500 won and go out onto the train platform. It’s a completely typical train station, though it was sort of funny to see the signs pointing toward Pyongyang.

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If and when the Koreas reunify, this rail line will be one of the first links between the two Koreas restored.

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The final stop of the tour is at the Third Tunnel. The tunnel is one of a few tunnels discovered where North Korea dug underground and opened up tunnels into South Korea as part of a secret invasion route. This tunnel is probably the best preserved for visitors. We walked down a tunnel into the actual North Korean tunnel and we could walk part of the way through the tunnel before having to turn back, because it was blocked. It was interesting to see all the different ways the ongoing conflict between North and South Korea has manifested over the years.

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The tour is a very full day that provides interesting historical and geopolitical information, and allows visitors a glimpse into a very real area of strategic interest. It is a very worthwhile place to visit.

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Muchangpo Beach Sea Parting

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Last month, I went on another Seoul Expat Meetup Group outing to Muchangpo Beach for the sea parting event. This sea parting is not the most famous one in Korea. The most famous one is the sea parting in Jindo, and each year in the spring (typically March or April, depending on the lunar cycle for the year) is the annual Jindo Sea Parting Festival where for roughly an hour, the sea parts to reveal the sea floor underneath and people are able to walk across it to a nearby sandbar. I considered going to the Jindo festival this year, but once I found out that the actual sea parting was around 0500 in the morning when it was completely dark and therefore  I would have been unable to see anything, I decided not to go.

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So when I saw the notice for the Muchangpo sea parting meetup, I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to see a sea parting, even if it is not the same grand scale as Jindo. The meetup was an entire day trip down to Muchangpo Beach in the morning, and an afternoon stop at the nearby Daechon Beach.  The day’s weather was gray and cloudy, but warm, and thankfully not raining.

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The term “sea parting” is a bit of a misnomer, and brings to mind the image of Moses parting the Red Sea. What is really going is a very extreme low tide, and in the case of Muchangpo, it is tied to the lunar cycle.

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During this particular trip, the sea parting was from 1100-1200 on Sunday, June 15th. We arrived on site around 1030, and the tide was still going out. We started making the crossing at about 10 minutes until 1100, and the water was about mid calf deep at the time. We crossed to a small rocky outcropping that was exposed during the sea parting.

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There really isn’t much to do on the tiny island (if you can call it that, since it was basically just exposed rocks), but walk around and look at stuff that is normally underwater. All around, there were groups of Koreans digging in the sand for all sorts of buried creatures to make into a nice meal.

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The seaweed covered many of the rocks and was a very glistening green that almost looked painted on. We saw a wide variety of colorful starfish just hanging out in the waving seaweed.

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It was interesting to walk around and see stuff that is normally buried under several feet of water, and only occasionally see the light of day for a brief period.

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After the hour was up, these air raid-like sirens sounded with an announcement in Korean and I assume telling us to return to the beach before the tide came in. As we walked back, the water level was lower than when we headed out to sea and it was only a couple inches deep in places and the path was clearly marked with buried tires.

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However, not that long after noon, the tide started coming back in. Shortly after that, everything that was exposed to us was completely covered in water again, hidden only to be viewed again during the next sea parting.

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Xi’An Muslim Quarter and Great Mosque (Da Qingzhensi)

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The third item on my Xi’an must do list was visiting the Muslim Quarter. Muslims have a very long history in Xi’an, over 1,200 years, and the Great Mosque (Da Qingzhensi) was founded in Xi’an during the Tang Dynasty in C.E. 742. The mosque is tucked away deep inside the Muslim Quarter, at the confluence of narrow and busy shopping streets. To get to the mosque involves a walk through one of the busiest, most colorful and vibrant parts of Xi’an.

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Xian Muslim Quarter-2

The Muslim Quarter is the best place for souvenir shopping in my opinion. There are a wide variety of shops around the city, but most of the stores are either geared specifically toward to the local buying market or more Western stores. But the Muslim Quarter is packed with stores selling local crafts, trinkets, art, jewelry, knockoff clothing, and pretty much anything you could want to buy as a tourist.

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There are a couple ways to arrive at the Great Mosque. The main entrance to the Muslim Quarter is directly behind Drum Tower. One way is to travel down the narrow covered alleyway filled with vendors on the first left. Another possibility is to travel straight down the main street of the quarter for a few hundred meters, and take a left and then another left down the other end of the covered alleyway (follow the signs). Eventually you will find yourself at the mosque.

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Xian Muslim Quarter-11

Da Qingzhensi is a peaceful complex in the densely populated neighborhood. The mosque complex is filled with buildings built in an aesthetically pleasing blend of Arabic and Chinese architectural styles.

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The prayer hall is towards the back of the complex, and it has a blue tiled roof.

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The mosque has its version of minaret which is closer to a Chinese temple pagoda.

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After visiting the mosque, it is very easy to just wander around the rest of the streets of the quarter.

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The Muslim Quarter is brightly lit with neon lights at all hours, but it particularly comes alive at night. It is also one of the best places in Xi’an to indulge in a wide variety of street food. You could literally eat your entire day away in the quarter. There are so many different meats and seafood on a stick to choose from.

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There are sweets and beverages of all kind. I even planned on eating at a restaurant, one that came highly recommended for excellent Muslim food, Jiasan Guantang Baozi. Likely the food is excellent, however, it certainly was not what I was expecting. I was expecting Middle Eastern Muslim food, which I love very much. Chinese Muslim food is radically different, offering up all sorts of dishes from all sorts of meat parts I don’t typically see on restaurant menus. While the food is probably delicious, since it certainly wasn’t what I wanted, this restaurant was one of the few restaurants I actually walked out of without ordering.


Instead of strange meat dishes, I indulged in a very tasty local specialty. It’s called rou jia mo, and it is finely chopped pork pressed between two halves of a solid steamed bun. I capped that off with some local delicacy. I don’t know what the name for it is, but it is some very sweet, dense cake dipped in honey. I had never seen anything like that before, and assumed it was pineapple until closer inspection.

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As I mentioned before, definitely don’t miss the Muslim Quarter. It is very much worth your time.