The Xi’an China Runaround

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It’s funny to think that prior to booking my airline ticket to this city, I’d never heard of it.  In fact, I can’t think of the last time I booked any travel to a place I didn’t know existed.  I’ve never heard a mention on TV, in a book, or online – nope, never in my life had I heard of this place.

Yet the city has roughly the same population as New York City (technically it’s slightly larger than NYC).  Thus expressing just a tiny bit of the enormity of China.

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The real kicker is that in China, Xi’an as a city doesn’t even hit the top 10 list (by population, only if we include metro catchment area does it barely slide in).  To think that almost every city on that (very long) list is at least bigger, if not multiple times bigger than the second largest city in the US (LA) is mind-boggling.  At any rate, here I am.  Quite literally in the middle of China, but definitely not in the middle of nowhere.

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I’m here for a short duration for some meetings. I think technically only 36 hours if my math is right.  Then off to another big city in China.  But for now, the approach into Xi’an.

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Now despite me (and likely many of you) never hearing of Xi’an, you’ve probably heard of the Terra Cotta Warriors – which are here.  And, within historical circles, the Xi’an City Wall is well known as well.  Which, brings me to the focus of today’s runaround.  Though I actually completed two runs while here – one a little under 8 miles on Thursday evening and then the below, today on Friday.

After having run around a large chunk of the city on Thursday night after arrival, I decided to tackle the one part of the city I was unable to on my first run: Running on the wall itself.

Because I wanted to get the most ‘wall time’ as possible within my allocated run duration, I took a taxi from the hotel to the south gate of the wall.  Total cost: Roughly $1US.

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From there I spent a little bit of time trying to figure out how exactly to get in.  Construction in the area meant the entrance wasn’t readily visible from my drop-off point.  But after a bit of walking around I figured it out.

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The ticket cost ¥40, which is roughly about $7US to get in.  So a bit pricey if you were going to run regularly on the wall (which people do).  But for a one-time thing, I was down with that.

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Through a tunnel below the wall I went:

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Once inside it was as simple as going up the steep staircase to get up to the top of the wall – 15m high (~45ft).  I was thankful I decided to start running once up top.

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Once up top I took a moment to check out the scene.  You can rent bikes here and bike all the way around on top of the city wall – 13.7KM (8.5MI) in total length making a perfect rectangle around the city.

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When you think about it – that’s really cool.  There are many cities in the world with walls, but very few are as long, or totally complete all the way around.

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Down below me just outside the wall were kids doing a dress rehearsal for a children’s festival.  It was sorta like watching bumblebee soccer as the parents/teachers tried to get the young children in order.  Except instead of bumblebees, they were sunflowers.

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Once I was done there started my watch and set out.

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As noted, the wall is about 8.5 miles around – so you can get quite the workout in.  On this day at lunch, the place was basically empty once I got a few hundred meters out:

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The surface is large stones – arranged essentially as cobbles.  While I saw a few notes online about folks saying the surface wasn’t smooth – it seemed pretty smooth to me.  Certainly a heck of a lot better than cobbles at home in Europe anyway.

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A bit later, I came upon another bike rental/drop-off station.  There seemed to be a couple of these around the length I ran.  You could rent both solo and tandem bikes.  If I had more time, I would have definitely rented a bike and kerplunked some unique Strava segments.

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As I ran along I found myself a giant red glass balloon dragon (Edit: apparently, a snake!).  It was rather impressive in length – perhaps ~100 meters long:

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Obviously, it seemed like a good time to take a self-portrait:

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Once I passed the dragon, things got pretty quiet.  I’d go some stretches and not be able to see anyone up ahead on the wall:

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The fact that I could see straight for quite a ways and not see anybody just shows how massive it really is.  Eventually, I’d hit my first corner, and made the turn northbound:

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As I did so, a couple rode on by:

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After completing the turn – yet another stretch of nobody:

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Interestingly, it’s during this time that I noticed the smooth instrumental jazz music playing.  On every other post all the way around there are speakers mounted, and for reasons slightly unclear to me, they selected instrumental jazz as the background audio of choice.  Not a Chinese variety.  Just more of the $1 Target CD variety.

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There’s both an annual running race up here (a marathon), as well as some cycling events too – there were some signs I ran past earlier describing the cycling scene as well.  Pretty cool.

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I neared the eastern gate, which was quite big like the South Gate.  It too had temples attached to it:

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As well as having an assortment of devices that appeared to inflict pain on those attempting to get into the walled city:

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I’ve gotta hand it to them – I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to attack this city.  The wall is actually surrounded by a moat all the way around (could probably qualify for big river status), not to mention how massively thick the wall is (or high).  Nope, I would have moved along and pillaged a different city.

Especially if they had all these dragons on top back then too:

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Meanwhile, I kept on cookin’.  My run was essentially a 20-minute chunk at Z2 heart rates, and then another 20 minute chunk of speed-play where I just mixed up intervals generally from 30 seconds to 2 minutes in length at varying paces between 5:30/mile and 6:30/mile.

My goal was to make it to the North Gate, and then cut back down across the city to the hotel.  However, when I got there, I couldn’t quite figure out how to get off the wall – as all the entrances/exits were closed (similar to below, which are frequent along the wall).  I would kinda suggest that those one-way turnstiles outbound only would make a nice addition to the gates down below.

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As it would later turn out – it’s because I hadn’t quite made it yet to the actual North Gate, but rather just another large watch tower structure along the way.  This one in front of the railway station:

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And looking back into the walled city, you can see the hustle and bustle below:

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Lacking any way to get out at the North Gate (that wasn’t really the North Gate), I turned back around and simply backtracked towards the eastern-most gate where I knew I could get off the wall.  More tranquil running:

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Finally – I found my exit and headed on down the steps in between intervals:

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From there, I just needed to cross one of the intersections of death and then continue the last little bit back home within the walled city.  This would actually be much like my run the night before, where I crossed a large chunk of the city.  During that run I had followed along the inside of the wall on the ground (makes for an excellent running path), but then eventually cut across trying to get back to the hotel.  In the case of today, this also took me down smaller side streets lined with shops and market-like activity:

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Last night, I went down a very similar street – except it was far crazier. So much so that after running on it a number of minutes, I decided I’d video record a couple minutes of running through it all (at pace – about 7:20/mile).  Thus, enjoy:

Toward the end of that run I also got to see a number of other sights – like the Bell Tower:

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…and the bull rider.  You know, just a random mechanical bull out in the street for folks to ride.

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With that, I soon found my hotel and completed today’s run – pretty close to spot on my 45 minute time allocation:

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Here’s the complete route of today’s run – with the wall clearly visible. Keep in mind the city is much bigger than this, this is just the older walled section (built in 1368AD):

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I leave you with one final photo – seen in the last mile of the run.  This being a bicycle street vendor.  And they say triathletes take too much stuff on their bikes…

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There ya have it – a Xi’an Runaround!  From here I’ll be boarding my flight in a few minutes and heading onwards to my next destination in China.

Thanks for reading!

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Read all my worldly Runarounds here!

44 Comments

  1. Alex

    That dragon is pretty darn cool.

    However I think your being a little disingenuous to NYC. Your comparing Metro Xi'an to Urban NYC. If you compare it to Metro NYC, its a different story: 19 million vs 8.5 million. Of course given that urban Xi'an is 6.5 million vs 8.4 million NYC; it is still a darn big city, and much larger then most US cities.

    Reply
  2. Amedeo

    Ray, considering intervals aren't based on time or distance, your workout is a kind of fartlek, right?

    p.s.: that confusion in the video is very similar to Napoli's confusion :-)

    Reply
    • Rainmaker replied

      Yup, exactly. I was just on a plane writing the post and couldn't remember if it was fartlek or farklet (always get them mixed up), so - I called it free-form intervals. ;)

      Reply
  3. Michael

    Very cool. I'm sure it's somewhere else - but what line of work are you in that gives you the opportunity for this travel?

    Reply
    • Rainmaker replied

      I work in IT, designing various enterprise IT systems and datacenter infrastructure.

      Reply
  4. I did cycle over the wall on a rented bike one and a half month ago and I'd higly recommend this to anyone who finds himself in this place. See below the output of my Garmin 910XT. Note that it was a sightseeing tour, although you could do some nice interval training on the wall.
    link to connect.garmin.com

    Reply
  5. Lourens

    I have been living in China for about 5 years and Xi'an is my fav place. If you have time take a stroll through the old city - specifically "calligraphy street". I love the old city(inside the walls). Btw, I appreciate your blog, it has helped me make some really great purchases!

    Reply
  6. Thomas

    Awesome post!!!

    Just one thing. 2013 is the year of the snake in the Chinese Zodiac, pretty sure it was a balloon snake and not a dragon. But still awesome.

    Cheers,

    Reply
  7. pink from G+

    it was a pity that you did not come to visit the Qin Shi Huang Terracotta Warriors .

    :)

    Reply
    • Rainmaker replied

      Indeed, just not enough time this trip unfortunately. :( Next time!

      Reply
  8. Zen

    Thomas is right, that's a snake for sure, dragons should have antlers and paws. I lived in this city for 10 years. Everything looks so familiar to me. Thanks for the great post.

    Reply
  9. Eric

    Ray, Just curious, when you say your run was in Z2, what system are you using for your zones? I've been using %HRR, but just recently switched to Friel's LTHR .

    Reply
    • Rainmaker replied

      The zones are defined by my coach, though they do roughly align with Friel's system.

      Reply
  10. Clint

    Very cool run! What kind of Asics are you sporting? Well done!

    Reply
    • Dr. D replied

      I believe they are the DS Trainer 17. I have exactly the same type of shoe down to the colours ;-)

      Reply
    • Rainmaker replied

      The model on the inside says T212N. I didn't buy them (The Girl sorta did), so I know almost nothing about them. But, they fit, and they feel comfortable, so I'm good with them. :)

      Reply
  11. RV

    Nice area to run on, unfortunately you did not have that much time.
    Why do you actually still run firmware 2.46 on the FR910XT while 2.70 is released?

    Reply
    • HappyRunner999 replied

      Any long time user of Garmin products knows to NEVER upgrade firmware unless you are experiencing a specific problem that you just cannot live with. Garmin "upgrades" often fix some problems but simultaneously introduce new problems. It's basically a crapshoot.

      Reply
    • Rainmaker replied

      Funny (albeit sometimes true).

      Actually, this particular 910XT is in a bit of a no-mans land of firmware updates. I've been meaning to fix it, it had a beta build on it which ended up being 2.5x.

      The Girl had been using this one since last fall, so I hadn't gotten around to updating it like one of my others.

      Adding it to my weekend list...

      Reply
  12. song bo

    I love reading your post! However, I'd like to point out the vendor is on a tricycle not a bicycle. You see, it has two rear wheels...

    Reply
  13. Bilbo Baggins

    Whats with the bars between you and the cab driver? Bulletproof glass, I understand, but not sure how bars protect from getting stabbed or shot. Plus, I thought crime was rare in China.

    More importantly, is it true that toilets are devoid of toilet paper as a general rule in China?

    Reply
    • Rainmaker replied

      Hmm, not sure on the toilets. Thus far I've been in decidedly Western establishments, and all have had TP. We'll see on Monday/Tuesday if that holds true...

      Reply
    • Adam R replied

      Emphatically yes, and squat toilets. Even in many popular spots for western tourists. You should always carry some paper with you in China. Western chain fast food places are a rare exception, with both western toilets and usually paper.

      Reply
    • Rainmaker replied

      Noted. Will now stock TP in my bag on Monday...

      Reply
  14. Monica

    Nice post. You always to such a great job describing the cities you are in. Like my own personal travel agent! I'm just discovering that the best way to see a new place is on foot or bike!

    Reply
  15. Ken

    I started to read your blog for the gadget reviews--got the wahoo Bluetooth HR monitor for iPhone and RFLCT thanks to your endorsement, and love them--and now I'm even more hooked on your terrific travel stories (and as an American who loves France, I include your day trips around Paris w the Girl in this category).

    Thanks, Ray, for such great posts!

    I esp like the video of chaotic chinese streets--adds flavor even beyond the pics and text.

    Please keep the great stories coming.

    Reply
  16. These pics bring back my own experience in China-- though a rich and ancient culture, it's difficult to set aside the soupy murk hanging over the cities as a result of industrialization. I had to go hundreds and hundreds of miles from the nearest metropolis to see a blue sky in China. How did you find your run, did the pollution have any effect on you?

    Reply
    • Rainmaker replied

      I didn't find it too bad in Xi'an, though I could feel the effects slightly towards the end of the second run. Here in Beijing, I was bummed that the level was too high today for my run (at 294). So treadmill later tonight it'll be. :(

      Reply
  17. That's really cool photos. I've been to the walls of Xian before, but never run on them. 8.5 miles of the old city! that tells you about the scale of the place. And I really like the idea of a marathon here. Will look that one up, may be on my bucket list.

    Keep the posts and photos coming.

    Reply
  18. OperationOne

    if you want to experience the pleasure of running on one of the most beautiful walls around a city, search for "Lucca, Italy" on the net, and arrange a trip if you can :D link to it.wikipedia.org (sorry, no english language wiki page)
    and yes, that's my usual running track, 4.2km of pure enjoyment :)

    Reply
  19. Champ

    How was the air in the area that you were running? I was told that pollution in china is so bad that you can't see clear sky

    Reply
    • Rainmaker replied

      It depends on the day. I could see blue sky on Saturday just fine. Sunday, I couldn't see more than a few hundred meters (in Beijing).

      For Xi'an, that day it wasn't terribly clear (slightly smoggy), though the AQI wasn't bad at 74.

      Reply
  20. BillM

    Taxi drivers gonna have an awful headache should he get rear ended and whack his head off those hard edged bars.

    Reply
  21. Just found this post a day or so before I left for Xi'an and was already determined to run around the wall. link to runcode.wordpress.com

    Reply
    • Rainmaker replied

      Awesome. Very cool, especially on the stone cutter piece, didn't know that. Neat!

      Reply
  22. crispy

    Just recently moved to Xi'an, but haven't been up the wall yet. Have done a bit of cycling around the city. Do you know if you can take your own bike up on the wall?
    BTW.. some great pics

    Reply
    • Rainmaker replied

      I don't believe you can. There's an entrance guard and I can't imagine they'd let you past unfortunately.

      Reply
  23. Narralakes

    Great blog you have provided for your readers, congratulations on the top quality of your reviews. I go to Xian every couple of years, I am a teacher in Sydney and take my students and family members that wish to get the China experience. We usually include a ride on the city wall as part of the itinerary, the boys love riding around, although it does get a little bumpy if you don't get a bike with suspension. Great material, keep it coming.

    Reply
  24. Awesome write-up, just like your GPS reviews. I do have a quick question. It looks like I might be headed to Xi'an in a couple of months for a conference and I was wondering if you can actually run the entire wall without having to get off the wall, e.g. do a full loop of the 8.5 mile wall around? I though you said so in your report, but just wanted to confirm. Thanks again.

    Reply
  25. Mike, actually, my travel is booked for the first full week of May, so I'm still looking forward to that wall run:-) If you find out about any other cool running locations in or around Xi'an, please let me know.

    Reply
  26. Travis Sturm

    Xi'an is the favorite place I've been in China. My wife and I were there in 2007 and were impressed to see all the work in Beijing getting ready for the Olympics. If you get a chance when you get back there, besides the Terra Cotta Warriors, there is an ancient village/archeological dig a little outside of the city which was very interesting. Happy travels!

    Reply

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