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Published: August 11th 2005
The term underground warfare takes on a new meaning in Xi'an, China's former and ancient capital. You may remember from my China Postcard 0: Problogue
, the story of Emperor Qin Shihuang or First Emperor who lent his name to the Qin Dynasty and to China itself. Qin was incredibly successful as an iron-fisted ruler in the 3rd Century BC but failed miserably in his quest for immortality. Xi'an is the place where farmers drilling a well in 1974 discovered one of the immense underground chambers containing battalions of Terracotta Warriors guarding Qin's tomb. There are thousands of life-size, individually hand-crafted ceramic soldiers, including infantrymen, archers, officers, generals and even horses. Most have yet to be excavated. The scale of this archeological site is mind boggling. Some of the swords found with the warriors were coated in chromium to prevent rust - 2000 years before chrome plating was re-invented in Europe.
During the Tang Dynasty, Xi'an was the largest city in the world and a centre of arts and commerce for the Orient but lost prominence after being sacked by the Tibetans in 783. Xi'an has been a walled city since 1370. The wall also encloses a vibrant Muslim district where street vendors
sell all manner of food and other items from black market North Face jackets to fake ID. I wandered these streets for a whole day. The Great Mosque is at the heart of the Muslim Quarter and looks more like a peaceful Asian garden than mosques I have seen in Arab countries. It is an oasis of calm amid the surrounding chaos of street markets.
I enjoyed Xi'an as much for the cooler weather as for the sights. Temperatures in the high 20's or low 30's were a welcome break, although I'm sure that Xi'an can be very hot too. Chengdu
The next stop, again by overnight train, is Chengdu in Sichuan Province. Sichuan conjures hot and spicy food, and it's true. It's also delicious! The region's capital Chengdu is also known for it's tea gardens and pandas. A must-see in Chengdu is the Giant Panda Breading Research Centre. I saw giant pandas eating, drinking and generally hanging out. The smaller and more lively red pandas are just as cute and have tails that look a bit like that of a raccoon.
For me, Chengdu was also the gateway to Tibet. I had planned to spend a
few days here waiting for my travel permit to Tibet. Foreigners cannot generally enter Tibet unless they are part of a tour group. It was surprisingly easy to find agencies offering a "virtual tour" including the precious entry permit but the "tour" dissolved the moment I got my boarding pass to Lhasa.
One last word this time on the great people I have met so far. In each city I have visited the sites, had more than a few cheap beers and plenty of laughs in the company of very interesting fellow travelers. Traveling alone rarely is. It's just that the friends usually change every few days.
I'm currently in Lhasa, Tibet and I can hardly wait to describe what I have seen here, but that will have to wait until next week - I'm off exploring for the next 6 days.
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