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Published: June 15th 2006
Since Xi'an was founded 3,100 years ago, it has served as China's capital during 13 dynasties; in total for over 1,000 years. It used to be the Eastern terminus of the ancient Silk Road trading route, which connected China to Central Asia and beyond. The result of the city's important role in the Orient's history is a staggering 35,000+ historical sites which can be found in Xi'an and the surrounding Shaanxi province. Most famous of all is the "Army of Terracotta Warriors", which was discovered in 1974 by local farmers, and which has helped Xi'an to refind some of its former glory, this time as a major tourist destination. After Shanghai we traveled back from the future to the cradle of Chinese civilisation...
We left Shanghai by train for Xi'an on Saturday evening. The journey was once again very comfortable. However, when we went to have dinner in the restaurant car we were for the first time confronted with a serious language barrier. The staff seemed unable to speak English, and the Chinese menu wasn't of much help either. We had the eyes of every other person in the carriage on us, and they were all Chinese! The attendant started
joking around, which led to everybody exploding with laughter, except us... Eventually she started imitating animals though, and we managed to order some beef and fish. When some Westerners walked in next, I was happy enough, hoping that it would demonstrate that we were not the only ignorant people on the train. But would you believe it, one of them appeared to speak perfect Chinese and ordered within a minute! We got a very smug look from the attendant. Our food was as presumably as average as everybody else's though, language barrier or no language barrier!
When we got to Xi'an on Sunday we first checked-in to the excellent Ludau Binguan Hotel. Afterwards, we went to discover the sights of Xi'an. The city, with a population of 6.6 million, has some interesting sights, but the key sights that draw tourists to Xi'an are in fact outside the city. First, we visited the Shaanxi History Museum. The huge museum is excellent, but it started to daunt on us that the collections of some of China's museums are somewhat similar. After seeing countless pieces of Tang dynasty tricolour-glazed pottery, bronzes, ceramics etc. in Hong Kong and Shanghai, the novelty value had
largely worn off by the time we saw some more in Xi'an. After the museum, we visited the Bell Tower and Drum Tower, which were used to inform the inhabitants of Xi'an of the time and important events. At the drum tower we caught one of the musical performances which are now given for the benefit of tourists. Next, we visited the Great Mosque in the Muslim Quarter. The 18th-century mosque is set in nice grounds, but perhaps most interesting is its attractive Chinese architectural style. Having seen enough sights for one afternoon, we went back to the hotel afterwards to arrange our sight-seeing for the next two days: the Lonely Planet describes day-long "Eastern and Western Tours" as a good way to see the sights around Xi'an, including the Terracotta Warriors. We booked the Eastern Tour for Monday and the Western Tour for Tuesday. While they aren't cheap (per person about EUR 26 each, including guide and admission to all the sights), they are far more time-efficient than trying to see everything on your own by public transport.
In the evening, Phil and I went for dinner with a Swedish girl, Minna, I had gotten chatting to in
the internet-café of the hotel. After dinner, we all had a drink in the bar of a hostel near the Bell Tower, where we got talking to Eddy, an English guy who has spent the last two years teaching English in China. Given that the night was still young, we decided to look for a club to party the night away. We found a place called MGM where entry was free, the beer was cheap, and the girls were pretty. At 3 o’clock in the morning we stumbled out of the club, tired but having had great fun. After eating some street-food nearby, we got to bed at 4 o’clock in the morning. It somehow felt like being back at university!
The next morning we left at 9am on the Eastern Tour we had booked. Our first stop was the Lintong Museum, where a couple of terracotta warriors on display gave us a taste of things to come. Apart from that we saw some beautiful bronze and clay burial objects. After the museum we visited the Huaqing Pools, a series of natural hot springs where Tang dynasty emperors and their concubines used to entertain each other. Nowadays though, little
of the hot springs’ former exclusivity remains and it is a very average tourist sight. More interestingly, it was the site of the Xi'an incident: in 1936 Chiang Kai-shek was seized by one of his generals close to the pools, in order to persuade Chiang to postpone his fight against the Chinese Communists until the Japanese invaders had been defeated in Manchuria. As a result, Chiang's Nationalists formed an alliance with the Communists which lasted until the end of the Second World War. After WWII, the civil war flared up again though, which resulted in Chiang fleeing to Taiwan and setting up a government-in-exile there in 1949. Next we visited the tomb of Qin Shi Huang, the emperor who united China in 221 BC and whose tomb is guarded by the Terracotta Warriors. Not a great deal can be seen of the tomb itself apart from a large mound which supposedly contains the emperor’s burial chambers. As the mound has not yet been excavated however, its contents will no doubt provide some future surprises for archaeologists.
After having lunch, the moment supreme had arrived: we were finally taken to see the Terracotta Warriors. The morning's quiet anticipation quickly turned
into sheer astonishment as we walked into the hall which houses Pit 1. As you walk into the hall, you are faced by 1,000 full-sized figures of warriors and their horses in rectangular battle formation. Each figure has its own distinct facial characteristics and expressions, and has a clearly identifiable rank. Apart from the restored figures, an estimated 7,000 similar figures are still buried towards the back of the hall, waiting to be excavated and restored by archaeologists. The sight is incredibly impressive now. It is hard to imagine what it must have looked like when all 8,000 soldiers, fully painted and equipped with weapons, were buried to protect Qin Shi Huang's tomb two thousand years ago. The army was buried 1.5 km away from the tomb as soldiers, even in death, are not supposed to be within the city walls, or in this case the palace buried within the mound. Apart from Pit 1, further excavations have yielded two further pits: Pit 2 contains an estimated 1,000 figures in an L-shaped battle formation, while the smaller Pit 3 contains 68 warriors. Even though not nearly as impressive as Pit 1, the other halls are still worth a visit. No-one
knows whether all the sites where warriors were buried have now been found. Who knows what still might turn up in the future... We eventually got back to the hotel at 17.30 and met up with Eddy for a drink in the evening.
On Tuesday, we left at 9am for the Western Tour, accompanied by a minibus-load of Chinese tourists and a guide who could speak no English. This was expected though, as we had been warned when we booked the tour. However, after having to listen to a guide rambling on the day before, we were happy enough find our own way around the sights for the day. After half an hour on the bus, we reached our first stop: yet another museum, this time in the nearby city of Xianyang. Its collection of 3,000 half-meter-tall Han dynasty terracotta soldiers, though not as spectacular as the famous Terracotta Army, was still quite impressive to see. The next stop was the Maoling Mausoleum, the final resting place of Western Han dynasty emperor Liu Che, before we continued on to the tomb of Tang dynasty princess Yong Tai. The must-see here is a series of tomb paintings, nicer and more
detailed than any I had seen in China thus far. After spending too short a time at the tomb, it was time to get back on the bus to go to the nearby Qian tomb, where emperor Gaozong and his wife are buried. It was not entirely clear to me where the burial chambers were supposed to be though. All we saw was a very wide ancient road, lined by sculptures of animals and imperial guards. Having quickly seen enough, we walked up the nearby Lian Shan mountain, from which the views of the surrounding countryside were very nice. Last but not least, we visited the Famen Temple. The original 1800 year-old foundation of the temple gave way during torrential rains in 1981, which led to half the tower collapsing. I'm sure the monks must have been gutted. As the restoration works got under way though, a crypt containing hundreds of offerings and sacrificial objects were discovered under the rubble. The temple was rebuilt, and the beautiful artifacts that were discovered are now on display, making it a nice sight to visit. After the Famen temple, we had finished sight-seeing for the day, but as we were by now 115
km northwest of Xi'an, we still had a long drive back ahead of us. 3 hours later, at 21:00, we finally got back to the hotel. The tour had packed out better than expected though: the places we visited on the Western Tour were generally far nicer than those we visited on the Eastern Tour, with the exception of the Terracotta Warriors of course...
On Thursday, the time had come to move on again. After an incredibly inefficient morning during which we achieved almost nothing, we caught a train to Beijing, where we arrived on Friday morning. I visited Beijing 10 years ago with my parents and brother, and was thus very interested to see how the city had changed, and whether its sights could still live up to my expectations. I would have to wait to find out though, as we left the same day for a short visit to Harbin, 1250 km northeast of Beijing...
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