My girlfriend and I had the extreme pleasure of having Michael Chang as our private tour guide with Lily Tours in Xi'an. Everything you want and expect from paying for a private tour was satisfied above our expectations - customized itinerary, individualized attention and comfortable transport, flexibility in accommodating our travel schedule, in depth knowledge of history and culture, and a fluent English speaking guide who is cheerful, enthusiastic, and friendly. The customized itinerary was made by emailing back and forth with Lily a couple weeks ahead of time, while the rest was fulfilled and provided by the wonderful Michael.
We arrived at our hotel in Xi'an at about 1am in the morning. Michael had left a message with the front desk for us with the plan of meeting us and picking us up from the hotel lobby at 7am. This would have left us with no sleep for a full day tour. Our hotel phoned Michael at around 2am in the morning and he actually picked up the phone and spoke to me. I explained that we got in late and our desire to get a full night of rest, and Michael agreed to postpone our pickup time to 10am. I will pre-emptively say right now we were actually able to complete the entire packed itinerary I designed with Lily (actually with an additional unplanned stop), with most of the thanks going to Michael's excellent efficiency and time management of our tour.
Our original itinerary planned to start at the Terra Cotta Warriors (museum), but since we were starting so late in the morning, Michael recommended that we save that for the last thing of the day to avoid the crowds that would undoubtly be there now. Let's face it, tourists come to Xi'an to see the Terra Cotta army, so we were initially very hesitant to this itinerary change lest we miss out on it by not getting there before it closed due to our packed itinerary. However, with a little more insistence, we decided to trust Michael's advice, which at the end of the day, turned out to be excellent foresight and planning.
We started off the tour at the Bell Tower and Drum Tower where Michael began explaining the history of the city, the various districts/quarters in Xi'an, and the culture of the people who have lived here past and present. After that we walked through the Muslim quarter to visit the picturesque Great Mosque where we learned in depth about these people and their religion. Then we visited the adjacent and famous Beiyuanmen and Yangshi snack streets. Before and during exploring the streets, Michael gave us quite a few tips about pickpockets and how to secure and hang onto your valuables, which restaurants to come back and try, and warnings against certain street foods and vendors. We actually did come back another night and try the restaurants that Michael recommended (Jia San Soup Pau, Muslim Family Restaurant, Lou bei lou Restaurant) and found one thing that blew us away at each of them. Mind you, the dumplings here are SWEET not SAVORY.
On our way to the City Wall, we drove by Ketang Park. Driving past, we were captured by the fountains and statues, and curious, we asked to make an unplanned stop. Michael and the driver accommodated our request and we walked through the park filled with the local people. We watching them play games, dance, and write Chinese character calligraphy using water and human sized brushes that would evaporate in a few minutes providing a new blank slate. During our walk, Michael told us more about the people, his people (Han people), and showed us the best spots to take pictures with the Big Wild Goose Pagoda to get the whole leaning tower effect. We needed a bathroom break so we were guided to the the "7 star toilets" at the new Westin at the back of the park for a quick break and the driver picked us up there.
Next, at the Xi'an Great City wall (north part), Michael taught us so much more history and told us many interesting stories. After taking a bunch of photos for us, Michael helped us rent bikes to ride around the wall. This part is not a reflection of Michael or Lily tours, but I want to warn people NOT to rent bikes and ride around the wall. It may look fun and all the tourists are doing it so why not (or so we thought), but the stone on the ground is full of pockmarks and divots and the shocks on the rusty bikes do nothing to cushion your ride. It was terribly uncomfortable and NOT FUN!!! We did not even make it 15 minutes or 1/4 of the wall before turning back and returning the bikes. Regardless, the Great City wall was very cool to see and be on top of.
On the way to lunch, Michael had the driver take us through Dayantacun and Qujiang Residential District where the wealthier people of Xi'an live (southeast corner of Xi'an). We were impressed by the gated communities and beautiful buildings, the gorgeous Tang Paradise and Quijiang Pond and Park, perfectly manicured lawns, trees, and bushes and clean wide streets, and the bulk of exotic cars, which all felt like we were driving through a wealthy suburb in America.
A part of traveling the world and learning about new cultures is to sample the local food, so we asked Michael to take us to lunch at a place where local people eat and he did (in that fashion, there is no English name for this place). Michael brought us to a little shop that makes METER long noodles, and offers them by the gram. We chose a bowl of noodles made from spinach and another bowl of noodles made of egg flour along with a sampling of other local dishes that Michael recommended. This is one of the best meals my girlfriend and I have had in China and this takes into account all the Michelin star restaurants and fine dining we indulge in Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong. The fresh noodles are truly continuous (we trust that they are a meter long since we didn't measure) and absolutely delicious.
The final stop of the day was the Terra Cotta Warriors Museum. On the drive there, Michael taught us more history, told us fascinating stories and urban legends, and explained the layout of the land while using the Emperor’s mound as a reference point. Getting into the Terra Cotta Warriors museum was where Michael's brilliance shined. There were no lines and no crowds this late in the day, we simply waltzed in. We are able to find spots easily on the railing in all the buildings for appreciating the warriors and for pictures due to the sparsity of people. Our trip through the museum with Michael was fun because he is so knowledgeable. We ended our day and tour with a dropoff at our hotel and a personal invite by Michael to his home for homemade dumplings the next time we return to Xi'an.
In addition to all the history, culture, and knowledge Michael imparted to us on this private tour, we learned to trust Michael with our time and our bellies. My girlfriend and I both highly recommend all future travelers to request Michael Chang as their Lily's Tours private tour guide for an amazing tour and experience of the city of Xi'an.