Our train trip up to Xi’an (my mom’s first in China) was a bit of a non-event. We went to bed almost immediately on boarding. The views out the train on waking were surprising. My initial visions of almost every region of western China had been mistaken, and this was no exception. I was expecting Shaanxi province to be flat, dry and brown. Instead it was forested hillsides with lots of tunnels.
On arriving after (finally) managing to buy train tickets for a later leg of our trip, we enlisted the help of two students in finding the bus down to our hotel (actually their help was kind of forced upon us really, but it was no less welcome for that.)
We checked into the Ibis hotel (the first international chain hotel of our trip and something of a novelty and luxury) and had a bit of a rest before going out for a walk.
Though Xi’an was an ancient city, having served as China’s capital for several centuries starting over 1500 years ago, it had long since outgrown its past. It was now a dusty, flat, hazy, busy city of several million people (pretty much exactly as I’d imagined all of Shaanxi to be come to think of it.)
An entry about Xi’an kind of has to begin with a photo of the Terracotta Warriors, doesn’t it?
It was an amazingly busy place, and probably had more people out on the streets walking around, shopping and recreating than we’d seen anywhere else in China. This was doubtless helped by the hot dry weather (which as in turn helped by our getting ice creams as we walked… Mango and Hami (a city to the west) melon flavour!)
The Muslim quarter, which we spent most of our time walking around, was a place of contrasts. The main street was broad, shaded by trees and absolutely packed with tourists. In short it was what you’d expect of any renowned historical district in any city in China.
But once you got off the main drag it was a fascinating maze. It was still shaded overhead by trees, but now the streets were much narrower and were occupied by shops selling hijabs and prayer caps, bakeries (with real, non-steamed bread), halal butcher shops, and (only slightly incongruously) tons of LED lights. We tried some of the bread and found it deliciously spiced with chili, cumin, garlic and onion, though rather tough (not sure if that was because it had been baked much earlier in the day, if the locals don’t mind leathern bread, or if tourists get stuck with the day-olds.)
The sun lowered in the sky, combining to give everything an orange hue. We visited a taoist temple on the edge of (though kind of by definition not IN) the Muslim quarter. The most memorable part of this place was the sixty figurines, each carved with a character all its own, about half life size, each of whom acted as guardian and interceder for those born in its specified years.
Meat and kebabs ready for grilling on a side street in the Muslim quarter
Walnuts spinning around in a giant combination mixer/roaster. Women in colourful hijabs chat in the background.
The wall facing a mosque entrance from across the street. Note the Arabic script
A minaret in the Muslim quarter. Interesting to see how local architectural style was absorbed into the design of the mosque.
My guardian, for the year 1975 (and 1915 and 2035.) He even has a bit of a beard!
For dinner pickings were a bit thin near our hotel, but we eventually found a restaurant nearby where we had some great spicy noodles (complete with a light dose of ma jiao. We hadn’t completely left that aromatic spice behind when we departed Sichuan) and a Caijiamo, a bun filled with what was surprisingly like tasty, slow cooked BBQ pork.
We’d managed to pack a lot into our first afternoon and our second day was no less busy. In the morning we hit up the Shaanxi provincial museum, and in the afternoon the Xi’an city museum. Both of these museums had the decided advantage of being free, as were many museums in China. (Apparently over the past few years, in the face of massive price increases at most tourist attractions, the communist party insisted that attractions lending themselves to patriotism and and national pride were to have theirs reduced or removed altogether.)
In each of the two museums there was a lot of stuff that, while nice, we’d already seen time and time again. But as with most of the museums we’d seen in China, there were also small parts of the collection that were superb and distinguished the museum from all the others. In the case of these two, it was the spectacularly delicate and ornate bronzes, the spectacular scale model of ancient Xi’an, and, of course, the terracotta burial companions of the ancient emperors who’d made Xi’an their capital. These encompassed not just a few of the universally known full-sized Terracotta Warriors, but also whole retinues of smaller scale musicians, cooks, soldiers and servants.
Detail on a bronze ding (massive 3 legged container.) I’ve always thought of bronze as a bit of a rough, difficult to work with material, especially using the tools and techniques they had 1500 years ago. So I was amazed by the delicacy of these.
Miniature terracotta burial retinue
I believe I’ve commented before that, as much as I like the gorgeously elegant Ming and Qing dynasty porcelain, I think I even prefer the wonderfully lifelike and evocative Tang dynasty glazed ceramic figures, like this hardworking camel who’s carrying an entire musical ensemble on its back
A small section of the scale model of imperial Changan (as Xi’an was known back then.)
Don’t mess with these guys!
Two delicately carved marble Buddha figures. (I really took a lot of photos in these museums, didn’t I? One nice feature of many Chinese museums is that they allow you to take non-flash, non-tripod photos.)
Also quite enjoyable was the park around the city museum, which was filled with ancient stone statuary, flower gardens, ponds and the 38m tall little Wild Goose Pagoda (we’d actually just caught a glimpse of the big Wild Goose Pagoda on the way out to the provincial museum, but given the hefty entry fee and the fact that the surroundings were pretty much a giant shopping mall we had decided to give it a miss.)
The big collection of hitching posts in the rose garden near the little Wild Goose Pagoda
My mom looking very energetic and powerful as she rings the giant bell in the gardens
That night back at our hotel was a repeat of an evening we’d spent not too long ago in Chengdu, though this time with my mom as company and my dad as the long awaited guest (I suppose it might not be quite correct to refer to him as “long-awaited,” but given that he had some minor dramas getting into town from the airport, and thus arrived a couple of hours later than we’d expected, it’s at least somewhat justified.)
We had a short stay in Xi’an, but my dad’s really was barely more than a quick glance, of less than 24 hours duration.
First thing the next morning we headed out for a visit to Xi’an’s main tourist draw: the famous and briefly aforementioned Terracotta Warriors. Their burial site is actually about 60km from the city itself. Or rather 60km from the centre of the city, as the explosive recent growth of Xi’an city means that they’re now pretty much just on its suburban fringes.
For those unfamiliar with the Terracotta Warriors, a brief introduction: they’re a series of several thousand (they haven’t all been excavated yet, so it’s still not quite certain exactly how many) life sized baked clay figurines that were buried with the first emperor of the Qin dynasty upon his death so that he’d have the requisite military power to continue his reign in the afterlife. Each of the figures came complete with terracotta armour, as well as the weapons (and in the case of cavalry, horses too!) needed for his role in the military.
We disembarked from our bus and I was somewhat shocked at the profusion of drink shops, souvenir shops, tour guides fancy entrance arches and walkways, and just people really. I’m not sure WHY this should have been a surprise, given what we’d seen at other major sights, that the Terracotta Warriors were one of the foremost tourist spots in China, and had been for almost 30 years. But I’d still imagined something more like a dusty barren field, with a huge tent giving cover to the excavations. Also a bit of a shock (once again, it shouldn’t have been, given that I knew about it in advance) was the 160 RMB (NZ$33) admission fee. I know you, gentle readers, are all probably getting tired of hearing me complain about admission fees to the sights in China, but before you get too frustrated, imagine what Sarah must have had to put up with! At least you can skip ahead when I go off on a rant! Anyhow, I was in a slightly irritable mood because of the entry fee, and explained to one of the many guides that we didn’t want to avail ourselves of her (admittedly reasonably priced) services as we’d already just spent a small fortune to enter the place. I the poor guides must have to deal with penny pinching whiners like me a lot, so I reckon everyone would be much better off if they’d increase the price of the entry fee by 20 kuai or so and include a tour in the language of your choice with your entry. The guides would get more work and wouldn’t have to nag the tourists for it, and visitors would feel as though they were getting something a bit more tangible for their money.
IF YOU STOPPED READING WHEN I STARTED RANTING, HERE’S WHERE YOU CAN START AGAIN.
The Terracotta Warriors Site includes a museum where a bit of context is given and other, non-warrior artifacts are displayed. I found the funnest bits of this to be the intricately detailed, 1/2 scale bronze chariots (complete with adjustable sun umbrellas) and the 1980s vintage 360 degree film (not, of course, for the stilted, awkwardly presented history lesson, but for the opportunity to see what the tourist attraction had looked like 25 years previously.
One of the two bronze chariots.
The warriors themselves were divided up into three “pits.” The first on our agenda was the smallest, the “command centre,” so called because it contained the highest number of warriors dressed in high-ranking officer’s uniforms. The hall was dusty with the excavations, but most of the figures here were still in good shape, all in one piece and still standing. As with all three halls, a walkway surrounded the 3m or so deep pit where all of the warriors had been covered, first with a timber and reed roof, then with a burial-layer of earth intended to secret them away. At first thought it seems laughable that such a huge collection of artifacts could be concealed in such a way. But consider that they remained lost for over 1000 years before being re-discovered in the late 1970s!
The second pit was considerably larger, perhaps 200m x 100m. This contained an independent group whose position was uncertain. Scouts? The emperor’s personal bodyguard? I’m making completely uninformed speculations here, but it’s fun to peer back into the past and wonder. The warriors here were in rather rougher shape, many of them toppled, and many shattered by the looting and wilful destruction that came in the Han dynasty after the collapse of the historically significant but short-lived Qin. A few glass cabinets allowed visitors to get a close up look at some of the warriors here. They were amazingly detailed, right down to the tread patterns on the soles of their boots.
I never go for these “have your photo taken in front of this set we’ve built” places, but I have to admit that this one is pretty cool.
The final pit was the granddaddy of them all. Perhaps 400m by 200m, it was a massive repository. Many sections of the roof remained, the warriors underneath still unexposed, but there were still row upon row upon row. Centuries. Whole Legions of them. It was here that one really got an appreciation for the utterly massive scale of the enterprise of their production. Paradoxically it was also where I got the best feel for their uniqueness as individuals. It was somewhat harder to see each one up close, but the sheer number available for comparison was what did it. Every face was different and wonderfully expressive. There were mustaches, beards and cleanshaven faces. Round and thin faces. Wide and narrow eyes. Big and small noses. Smiles, frowns and grimaces. Not only were the faces unique, but the bodies they were mated with matched them. A narrow, taut skinned head sat atop a tall, skinny body. The chubby-cheeked face was mated with a stout chest and limbs. While theories have been advanced it’s still something of a mystery how this many unique statues were created in the limited time before the emperor’s death.
I think this is the view most people imagine when they think of the Terracotta Warriors (why am I capitalizing that all the time?)
I was blown away by the individuality of the figures. They’re probably a more diverse lot than you’d see walkig the streets of Beijing these days!
Notw how these warriors hands are positioned to hold onto long ago decayed halberds and chariot reins.
Ranting aside, the Terracotta warriors were truly an awesome sight and deserve to be as popular as they are.
We finished our visit by doing a bit of negotiating for a small set of miniature warrior replicas (we eventually settled on 1/30th of the initial asking price… It seems ridiculous that anyone would accept the first offer, but I suppose its worth making. One such acceptance would be as good as a whole week’s sales!
Before heading back into town we made a stop at the Qin emperor’s tomb itself, a few km away from where his afterlife-army was buried. This was really a just a huge hill with a park around it. Not much to look at, but when you stopped to consider the amount of effort involved in creating a pyramid 600m or so a side on its base it was quite a feat.
Back in town we arrived at the train station and took a walk along the city walls back towards the Muslim quarter. The walls were modern reconstructions, and even those that they were reconstructions OF weren’t the walls of the imperial capital: Xi’an (or Changsha as it was known) remained the capital for three dynasties. When its reign finally ended with the Tang dynasty it still couldn’t be abandoned, so important was its strategic position as the gateway to the west. So it was turned into a comparatively modest city, covering 8 square kilometres (1/10th the size of the imperial city.)
The sun setting over Xi’an’s city walls. Outside the walls, extending perhaps 30m from the base was a beautiful park that encircled the walls as they themselves encircled the inner city. Featuring lots of greenery, nice walking trails, public exercise and games facilities, this belt of green space was very pleasant and very popular with locals in the evening
Given that we were approaching from a different direction than the day before, navigation was slightly problematic, but we still managed to find one of the Yangroupaomo restaurants we’d seen the day before. Technically it wasn’t quite Yangroupaomo, as Yangrou is lamb and our restaurant differed from the typical ones in that it used beef as the meat in question. The dish began with two small round loaves of bread which diners were meant to tear into tiny pieces and deposit in their bowls (my pieces were maybe 1/4 the size of the rest of the family’s, but were STILL about double the size of those prepared by most diners.) It was then finished off with a couple of big ladlefulls of lamb (or in our case beef) soup, which combined with the tiny bread morsels to form a hearty stew. With cloves of pickled garlic on the side. Yum!
My dad and mom tearing up bread for our stew. The salads at the bottom of the photo and the pickled garlic were soooo tasty. Thank goodness we all ate them, as we were sharing the same train cabin later that evening
Eating didn’t quite finish with dinner. We also had this wonderful pan-fried, crispy, filled crepe thing, stuffed with very tasty salty-spicy-sour pickled cabbage
We carried on with a bit more exploration of the Muslim quarter and some photography stops, but soon it was time to head back to the station for our overnight train trip. This was the first leg on our western route, heading out on the silk road towards the wilds of western China…
Red dates for sale along the Muslim quarter’s tourist street. Some of them were absolutely huge, maybe 8cm or more long. Also interesting was the fact that the prices for them varied by more than a factor of almost 20, the smallest, cheapest ones going for 10-12RMB/500g while the biggest, fanciest sold for 218!
Busy steet in the Muslim quarter. Oddly, this part of town reminded me more of a Chinatown in a Canadian city than it did of any other place we’d seen actually in China. Something about ethnic minority neighbourhoods perhaps? Or maybe it was just the profusion of LEDs and brightly lit signs.
The Xi’an Bell tower, essentially used as the city timekeeping device in ancient times (or half of it anyway. The Bell was rung at morning, the drum in a second tower not far away, at night.)
Tags: China, Shaanxi, Terracotta warriors, Travel, Xi'an