It’s always been a dream of mine to see the fabled Terracotta Warriors in the legendary city of Xi’an. On this trip to China, I’ll be able to make that a reality as the family starts in Shanghai before hopping up to Luoyang and then Xi’an. Every time I go to China, there are a lot of twists, turns and surprises so make sure you follow along the live blog episodes throughout the 2 week journey from big city lights to mountain tops, temples, and Ming-era glory.
In this post also get an inside look into the planning for this trip and what the full itinerary is going to look like.
Live blog episodes
Throughout the two week trip, I’ll be compiling a few live blogging posts about my experiences and journey up to Xi’an
- Episode 1: Back to Shanghai we go!
- Episode 2: Shaolin Temple – Birthplace of Kung Fu
- Episode 3: Yuntai Mountain Geo Park
- Episode 4: Luoyang – Peony, Temples and Grottoes
- Episode 5: Xi’an – Terracotta Warriors Museum
- Episode 6: Mount Hua and Plank Walk
- Episode 7: Xi’an – 2 Day Itinerary in the City
- Episode 8: Xi’an – Tomb of Emperor Jingdi and Yuan Jia Cun
Planning the road to the terminus of the Silk Road
I’m always a bit apprehensive about travelling in China because I always come out of it with mixed feelings. On one hand, the landscape, culture, history and food is one of a kind but in a lot of ways tourism in China is still in its developing phases and there are many places that are still very raw. It’s hard to describe but for those that have been to China, you will know what I mean. You really have to go into China with a different set of expectations and go in with an open mind to accept whatever comes your way.
So with this being a family trip I had to find a fine balance between being guided and having the freedom to explore on our own. The one thing I told my parents up front was that I absolutely did not want to do a Chinese bus tour. Sure they’re incredibly cheap but I just can’t stand the shopping stops, cheap food and ridiculously short photo stops. That is why we planned this trip on our own, identifying all the major spots we wanted to hit up but do it with the help of local private drivers.
Here’s a look at all the spots we’ll be going to on this trip:
14 Day Itinerary
[Day 1 – 5] Chilling in Shanghai
- Order a few suits
- Buy some fake stuff
- Eat good food
[Day 6] Kung Fu Mecca (with Lisa)
- Flight from Shanghai to Luoyang
- Shaolin Temple
- Stay in Dengfeng
[Day 7] Yuntai Mountain (with Lisa)
[Day 8] Impressive Grottos (with Lisa)
- White Horse Temple
- Peony Garden (we’re there just in time for the Peony Festival in Luoyang)
- Longmen Grottoes
- Bullet train to Xi’an
[Day 9] Terracotta Warriors (with Michael)
- Terracotta Warriors & Emperor Chin Shi Huang’s Tomb
- Banpo Neolithic Village
- Big Wild Goose Pagoda
[Day 10] Mount Hua
- Plank Walk
[Day 11] Exploring Xi’an on our own
- Walk to East Gate from the hotel
- Explore East Gate
- Bike the City Wall from 10:45AM – 1:30 PM
- Lunch at a local noodle shop
- Roam around Shuyuanmen Cultural Street
- Small Wild Goose Pagoda
- Big Wild Goose Pagoda markets
- Dinner at a Chinese fast food restaurant
- Watch musical fountain show at Big Wild Goose Pagoda
[Day 12] Exploring Xi’an on our own
- Shaanxi Museum
- Big Wild Goose Pagoda
- Muslim Quarter
- Lunch in the Muslim Quarter
- Bell Tower
- Dinner at a dumpling restaurant
- South Gate
[Day 13] Countryside of Xi’an (with Michael)
- Tomb of Emperor Jingdi
- Yuan Jia Cun Village
- Overnight train back to Shanghai
[Day 14] Back Home
Local guides in China
This was probably one of the hardest things when planning the trip. There really is no central resource to find good reputable English speaking guides. In the end I relied purely on the TripAdvisor forums to see what others had posted about good guides.
Here’s how to search for a guide on TripAdvisor:
- Go to Tripadvisor.com
- Search for the city of interest
- Click on Forum
- Do a search for the term “guide”
- “Sort by Date”
- Start reading
Here are the two guides we’ve selected for our trip.
Price: 3600 RMB total
- Guide 400 RMB x 3 days = 1200 RMB
- Van 2200 RMB
- Accommodation for driver and guide for one night 150 RMB x 2 persons = 300 RMB
- 100 RMB discount (she would not negotiate any lower)
TripAdvisor forum thread: Lisa, An Excellent Tour Guide for Luoyang and Shaolin (I’ll be honest I looked pretty hard to find alternatives but Lisa’s really done an excellent job at being pretty much the only player in town. Did she wipe out the competition some how? :O)
Pre-trip feedback: Compared to Michael, Lisa was a little slower to respond and not as easy to communicate with. We were also a bit puzzled by the need to pay for both a guide and a van but after doing some research it looks like that’s how most guides are in Luoyang. Guides just do the talking but not the driving. Strange that it varies so much from city to city. In the end, we were able to negotiate something that worked for us but as you can see her prices are a lot higher than Michael in Xi’an.
Post-trip feedback: As our first guide of the trip, I thought Lisa was pretty good throughout the trip. She was quite knowledgeable about everywhere we went to and was incredibly accommodating in terms of our (really my) pace and what we wanted to see. Typically before getting to each place she’d give us a detailed rundown of the history of the location and from there she’d answer any questions that we had.
Driver wise, he was quiet throughout but he efficiently got us from place to place, dropping us as close to the entrance as possible and picking us up on time. One of the nice things was that our van was stocked with water although they had this strange tasting soda water that I just couldn’t get used to. There was also never any expectation to pay for dinner as it felt like they much preferred eating on their own but we did end up treating them to a few meals.
Now where Lisa could’ve improved I thought was that often times while at a certain site, she wasn’t that great with being proactive about continuing the conversation about where we were at and diving a little deeper. There was less from Lisa in terms of anecdotes and I even caught her a few times taking photos of info plaques to presumably memorize for later. There were also a few times where there was definitely a small gap in English. A lot of times I’d say something and she’d just look puzzled and that resulted in my parents jumping in to translate to English. That’s not to say her English was bad but overall her command of the language was mainly just around her talking points along the tour.
Overall, I’d definitely recommend Lisa to anyone heading down to Luoyang and is looking for a private guide.
Photos of Lisa:
Name: Michael Yang
E-mail: email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
Phone number: 13991917258
Price: 1950 RMB total
- Day 1 (Terracotta Warriors day) 450 RMB
- Day 2 (Hua Shan mountain day) 800 RMB
- Day 3 (Explore country side and Yuanjia Cun) 700 RMB
TripAdvisor forum thread: Tour guide Michael Yang (there are more if you search)
Pre-trip feedback: Michael’s been really easy to communicate with via e-mail to coordinate everything. His e-mails are clear. What I love about Michael is that he understands that we don’t want to go to any tourist traps, shopping spots and how we want to eat at local authentic restaurants. His pricing structure was also made a lot of sense for us as it seems that he is both the driver and the guide.
Post-trip feedback: I thought Lisa was awesome until we got Michael in Xi’an. For one, it just made that much more sense that he was driver and guide. That meant we didn’t have to pay extra like we did in Luoyang. Michael’s command of English was also way better. We later found out that he actually taught English at a university in the city. What really set Michael apart from Lisa was the fact that he was constantly aware of giving us the best experience throughout which was most prominent when we were at the Terracotta Warriors and he made sure we stayed away from the big hoards of tour groups and gave us proactive tips on not buying the warriors at the “official store”.
Comparing to Lisa, Michael was just a lot better at thoroughly explaining everything to us and in English all the way through. I loved how he’d throw in anecdotes and fun stories in there too that really provided us better context of what we were seeing and experiencing. Overall he just seemed that much more confident and knowledgable about EVERYTHING.
His style was definitely different as well. Where Lisa was very laid back and relaxed, Michael was much more up tempo and more regimented in terms of really guiding us through each spot of a site step by step. While strange at first, I ended up loving the fact that he’d always go “Hey William! Come over here.” and pull us aside to a specific area to give us an explanation and point out things that we’d never even notice.
Oh yeah and his car was stocked with regular water. That was incredibly helpful because we could just drink from his stash and even after the day was over he’d give us a bunch to take back to the hotel.
There’s nothing more that I can say other than, Michael’s your guy in Xi’an. He’s a fine gentleman and really knows how to provide quality guide service to his customers. He books up quickly so I would recommend reaching out to him as soon as you have details locked down.
Photos of Michael:
Voice recording of Michael: While I didn’t get to do this for Lisa, this little excerpt of his explanation inside the Terracotta Warriors museum gives you an idea of his excellent English. (Sorry if the player widget below is a little wonky)
Glimpse of what’s to come
Here’s a little photo journey through some of crazy wicked cool things we’ll be seeing on this trip.
Tips and lessons learned
- HOTELS – When booking hotels in China, it’s totally different than how it is in North America. Agoda and Ctrip reign supreme. I loved how with Agoda specifically that I could pay with Paypal. Keep in mind that there are additional service fees tacked on at the top at the end so to know the real price, always go to the final page.
- FLIGHTS – Ctrip was the easiest for us to book flights within China.
- TRAIN – We ended up getting our private guides to buy our train tickets but a great resource to figure out train schedules is Travel China Guide.
- GUIDES – How did we find the guides we used? TripAdvisor ended up being the best resource for local guides in both Luoyang and Xi’an. Yes, guides can buy train tickets for you in advance which is a good idea especially if travelling around when any China holidays are. All they need is a scan of your passport.