I’ve always had a bit of a fascination with Asia and have been fortunate enough to live and travel in South-East Asia but the rest of the area has always been a bit of a mystery. I always had a bit of a dream of heading off somewhere foreign with the kids (probably put in my brain by House Hunters International) but it always seemed a bit intimidating.
Nicole Webb who writes the blog Mint Mocha Musings has embraced the expat lifestyle raising their daughter first in Hong Kong and now in the ancient Chinese city of Xi’an. It sounds like it would be such an eye opener to visi, but some first hand advice is definitely required.
Find out what makes Xi’an just so special and such an immersion in Chinese culture and read her blog to see more about her life as an ex-pat in this wonderful Chinese city.
After four fabulous years in the ‘City that Never Sleeps’ it was time for us to pack up our chopsticks and say goodbye to the glittering high rises and fast paced, frenetic city that is Hong Kong and head north, to our second expat posting, Xi’an, China.
Despite both coming under the umbrella of China, Xi’an and Hong Kong are about as alike as chalk and cheese! Unlike the Manhattan of the East, Xi’an is China’s oldest city and one of the oldest civilisations in the world. Filled with historic treasures, stepping into Xi’an is a lot like stepping back in time. A place where just ten years ago bikes and Tuk Tuks ruled the roads and there wasn’t a McDonalds in sight, Xi’an still bears the hallmarks of an ancient Chinese city.
For us, even though we had lived in Hong Kong, it was initially a case of culture shock on many levels. Because Hong Kong was under British rule until 1997, it has had a huge British influence and is quite a unique blend of the East and West. Xi’an is the cradle of China’s civilization and while there is more and more western influence, (like McDonalds, 5 Star hotels) it’s very limited. The average Xianaese person really knows very little about westerners apart from what they see in the odd movie. Of course that makes the level of fascination with us foreigners even greater. English is quite widely spoken in Hong Kong, hence you can avoid having to learn the local language. Here it’s much more of a necessity but 18 months later we’ve lived to tell the tale and are surviving and thriving. You can read more about the differences in my post here.
For my five-year-old daughter Ava it’s the only place she’s lived outside of Hong Kong, where she was born, so I can see the Chinese traditions are definitely becoming second nature to her. Celebrating Chinese New Year, it was obvious she knew more about these customs than throwing a shrimp on the barbie, down under!
I think when we do return home to Australia to live, she will be filled with a rich, cultural understanding of this fascinating place, not to mention the ability to speak Mandarin, which she has been learning in some way or another since she was just two.
The locals here do love children, very much, especially one with blonde hair and fair skin.
As one of the few foreigners in town, we are the object of much attention and my ‘Small Person’ has grown used to what we like to call the ‘paparazzi’ rushing after her for a photo or just a quick touch of the hair.
Of course being the hotelier’s wife, I know a very good ‘child friendly’ hotel in town! 😉 We actually live at the Westin Hotel in Qujiang New District which is situated right opposite Xi’an’s most famous attraction, the Big Wild Goose Pagoda, a 1300-year-old temple. Without being biased, this really is a great spot to stay in, with lots of interesting shops, stalls, local restaurants and sights to see, as well as a beautiful lake not too far away with fun bikes to ride around it or paddle boats to float across it. Xi’an is growing at a rapid rate and hotels are popping up all over the place, so there are plenty of options. Come and say hi!
When it comes to food in Xi’an, there aren’t a great deal of options outside local Chinese food, which I might add, up north is very spicy! However, there are the good old favourites like McDonalds, Pizza Hut and Starbucks to go too if you’re really stuck….and for some fun I would recommend Hi Di Lao…a chain of great ‘hot pot’ restaurants which cater to kids with a great playroom and all sorts of fun. Hot pot is a Chinese traditional food where you wear an apron and choose your own food and cook it yourself in a giant pot of boiling water.
If you are interested in trying a few local dishes here are some I can recommend:
Rou jia mo – this is Xian’s version of a burger – not your typical bread and filled with spicy pork. Very tasty.
Ma Po Dofu – tofu smothered in chilli mince
Chao Tu Dou si – fried shredded potato
Chao mian – Shaanxi noodles are a famous staple at every meal.
Jiao zi – dumplings (my favourite).
I probably wouldn’t eat the street food unless you have a very good recommendation…hygiene is not quite as we know it in the West, so can cause a few upset tummies. Of course the 5-Star hotels also have a lot of western food available for the kids.
No one comes to Xi’an without seeing those famous Terracotta Warriors….they really are a spectacle and well worth seeing. Make sure you book a tour guide before you get there or you’ll be hounded by all and sundry wanting to ‘show you’ the army!
The Muslim Quarter is also an amazing sight to see, filled with all sorts of stalls. Most are selling street food but, mums, if you want a quick shop, there are some great little trinkets (not to mention some great handbags behind the scenes).
The City Wall is also fun to see and if you aren’t up for riding a bike around it, grab a golf buggy and be driven the 13 kilometre stretch. It gives you a great perspective of the city and it’s ancient past.
For something a little less touristy and just for the kids, it pays to note, every major shopping centre has a pretty impressive children’s playroom on the top floor!
Getting around Xi’an is not always easy. Getting a taxi can be difficult especially if you are a foreigner. If you’re going somewhere close by, grab a Tuk Tuk, or ask the hotel to order you a taxi, rather than trying to flag one down on the street. Depending on where you are staying, there are plenty of busses and underground trains.
I would definitely try to plan your visit after winter (or at least in the very early stages of winter or last stages of winter) it’s very cold and can get very polluted. Summer on the other hand is a furnace. Best times: Late March to early May, Late August to early November.
If you do come on the edge of winter, take the kids out to the mountains where you’ll find some (small but fun) ski fields – great for tobogganing!
China is super safe and while a lot of people don’t speak English, they are very friendly, just be prepared for a lot staring. Oh and most toilets are squat so come prepared with BYO tissues and lots of hand sanitiser…..and a good sense of humour.