Before I get into the Terra Cotta Warriors, let me briefly address a different kind of warrior: she who braves the Chinese public toilet. I swear, every single time I emerged from a public restroom in China, I had a new story to share. It’s amazing. From a little game of what’s behind Door #1, #2 and #3 (spoiler alert: it’s shit. the answer is shit. behind all of them), to extremely loud and unabashed grunters, to the fact that in many restrooms more women leave the stall door open than those who actually close the door…It’s fascinating really, the etiquette of the Chinese bathroom. And this despite all that Chinese signage. For example:

And, just for good measure, here are a few more entertaining examples of the excessive and often strange Chinese signage:

Now that I’ve sufficiently alienated half of you, let’s get to the good stuff. Xian is of course famous for its Terra Cotta Warriors, so we made the drive out to see these bad boys in person.

The meticulously detailed clay soldiers were built way back in the 3rd century BC, and sat underground until they were discovered in the mid-1970s by some local peasants. Imagine digging those up in your backyard, huh? In fact, the “first” guy to have found them is still living out his fifteen minutes (or forty years, whatever) of fame and signing autographs on sight.

These several thousand (larger than) life size soldiers were built by a whopping 700,000 workers under the direction of the then Emperor Qin Shi Huang to be buried with him as protection in the afterlife. Thankfully this decision was chosen in lieu of his first idea to just bury thousands of real live soldiers with him. Nearby is a large mound believed to cover the Emperor’s mausoleum, though it has not yet been excavated.

The soldiers are lined up in pits, with different areas for different military functions. Within the pits are corridors that helped to support a ceiling under which they were eventually buried. Nowadays there are large hangar-like buildings built above the pits to protect them from the elements. Within the corridors the warriors are lined up, mostly facing the same direction, save for the three rows on each edge that face outwards. Apparently, as in real life, these front-row soldiers had no armor. They were prisoners, told that they must fight sans apparati, and if they somehow were able to survive then they would have gained freedom.

All of the statues were destroyed and looted (many of the soldiers once held nice bronze weaponry) by Xiang Yu in an act of revenge not so long after the Emperor’s death, and so the scene you view today is that of the warriors that have already been reconstructed from the leftover fragments. Archeologists are still working to restore these, and you can see the entire process while meandering through the pits: archeologists digging for buried bits…rows of mixed up, mashed up body parts…soldiers pieced together but not yet completed…and, of course, the final product.

The detail is extraordinary, and they have displayed a few of the better-preserved warriors for up-close viewing. Each soldier is different, from facial expressions, to their hand positions, to their hairstyles. Many have curled hands now empty as their weapons were stolen. The differing clothes, shoes, and even waist sizes help you determine their rank.

Originally these were all painted colorfully, but the colors faded quickly once they met oxygen after all these years. Luckily, there were photos on display of what some of these colors looked like upon excavation.

In a slightly more miniature form, there are some unearthed horses and chariots made of bronze. Impressive. Also splendid is the Chinese claim that they were using chrome plating 2,200 years ago, while Germans and Americans only discovered this method in 1937 and 1950, respectively.

But the warriors aren’t all Xian has to offer, and we really enjoyed our time within the city walls, and on them. The old city is walled in, and the wall is so large (and wide) that you can rent bikes and literally ride atop them. All nine miles around. This was so much fun, and a wonderfully easy way to get some spectacular vantage points of the city itself. Please also note that we are the only people wearing helmets. We’re risk-takers enough to quit our jobs to travel the world, keep going after contracting a potentially fatal disease, and visit countries nobody’s heard of, but it’s all about calculated risk-taking folks. Helmets save lives 😉

In the center of town we visited the Big Wild Goose Pagoda, which has been standing a colossal 1300 years.

Within it are several ornately decorated rooms, including this particularly impressive one full of murals made entirely of carved jade.

We grabbed lunch at the Tangdi Boutique Hotel and our kung pao chicken and pork with potato noodles were absolutely scrumptious! We got to sample some ridiculously expensive tea. It was tasty, though I doubt I will ever know enough about tea to know when it’s worth a fistful of Benjamins. But the Chinese know their chai. I found it fascinating, too, that lots of locals walk around China with Nalgene bottles, but unlike in America, they are not filled with water but rather loaded up with tea. They even have strainers in them to keep the tealeaves separate.

Last but not least we visited the Muslim quarter, which felt a bit like going home after our three-week stint in Central Asia, with its usual assortment of dried fruits and nuts and goats’ feet. But it was all very rich with Chinese flavor; hence the area had far more neon than any other Muslim quarter we’ve seen. There was also a surfeit of souvenirs and knick-knacks.

A funny observation about Mandarin, or maybe this is just a cultural difference in how people address each other, but I can’t count the number of times we heard people talking, and turned around to see what all the fuss was about because it sounded like they were yelling or fighting with each other, but then… they’re just talking. They are so animated!

Practical Info 

Xian anchored the eastern end of the famous Silk Road and served as China’s capital for several dynasties. Today it is a mid-sized city with a mere eight million residents. In addition to tourism, I believe there is a bit of high tech and aerospace industry, plus some universities. We liked the vibe here.

Transportation: We arrived on a China Southern flight from Kashgar via Urumqi. I purchased two separate one-way flights (i.e. to Urumqi and then to Xian) on Ctrip’s English site and saved $500+ vs. the cheapest tickets I saw on several other websites over the course of several weeks. This meant we had to collect our luggage in Urumqi, but it could not have been a simpler nor smoother process. Because both legs were on China Southern, we simply had to move our bags about 15 feet from the baggage claim to the China Southern transfer desk, check in again and then go through a special security line. Which was not the only airport security in China where they put the metal detector wand to our bare feet.

Our hostel picked us up in a comfortable, private car for 150 CNY from the Xian airport to Han Tang Inn. The ride took about 45 minutes, starting at 8 pm. I think there is an airport shuttle bus to the middle of the city, which is probably a lot cheaper.

We had a private car to visit the Terra Cotta Warriors and other city sights. I’m pretty sure you could take public transportation.

We departed on a day-time high speed train to Beijing. A popular option is to take the sleeper, which is actually cheaper and saves you a night of accommodation. But we thought it’d be nice to see more of the country and get a better night of sleep. From our hostel we took the metro to Xian North train station (at Bei Ke Zhan). It was painless, and the tickets cost 3 CNY each. There is a machine in the metro station with an English language option. It took us about 45 minutes door to door. I think the sleeper trains leave from Xian central station, which would be more convenient.

I bought our high speed train tickets on the Travel China Guide website. I read that some trains fill up and thus wanted to buy tickets in advance. This is not so easy without a Chinese ID. Various agencies sell train tickets to foreigners for an additional fee. There is also no such thing as an e-ticket. So we paid $83/ticket plus $10/ticket service fee and $8 total for delivery. Then I couldn’t figure out an option for payment other than PayPal, which took the $194 total to $201. I also had to upload passport photos/copies to the website. It was neither easy nor cheap, but the tickets were delivered on time to our hostel. We had second class seats, which reclined and were fairly spacious with lots of legroom. I don’t recall having a choice, but our train car configuration was three seats on one side and two on the other. So if you are traveling as a twosome, you’d rather have the two side, which was seats D&F. The train departed Xian on time and arrived at Beijing West station exactly 4.5 hours later, at 5:45 pm.

A popular resource for train travel is http://www.seat61.com.

Accommodation: We stayed at Han Tang Inn, a hostel inside the old city walls. The location is great, and the staff speak English well and are helpful. Our en suite, private double was small and the shower was of your typical non-enclosed variety, but the AC worked well and the bed was pretty comfy. WiFi is good in the lobby and so-so in the room. Meals here were OK but not great, and breakfast is not included. We had also considered staying at the Citadines Apartment Hotel.

Food: Lunch at Tangdi Boutique Hotel next to the Big Wild Goose Pagoda was very good. The space is lovely and we enjoyed both entrees (45 CNY each). Breakfast at Hantang House was also very good. It cost 87 CNY for two large muffins and two iced coffee drinks. There are tons of options, including endless street food around our hostel and especially throughout the Muslim Quarter. We were excited to be back in the land of Starbucks, just note you may need a local mobile number to get a WiFi code.

Activities: Our full day tour was organized through Cycle China. We visited the Terra Cotta Warriors in the morning, followed by the Big Wild Goose Pagoda, cycling on the old city walls and then a tour of the Muslim Quarter. We chose this outfit, in part, because it was one of the only operators we found offering a one-day tour that included both the Terra Cotta Warriors and city highlights. It was quite expensive, but we were very pleased. We had a private vehicle, a great guide, and the pace allowed us to see lots of things without feeling rushed.

The drive from our hostel to the Terra Cotta Warriors took about an hour. We arrived around 9 am, when I think the sight opens. You are strongly advised to arrive early as the crowds increased massively during the two hours we were there (which we felt was a perfect amount of time).

Big Wild Goose Pagoda is a nice complex with various rooms housing jade or wood carvings etc. We opted not to enter the pagoda itself and climb to the top, which I think costs 30 CNY extra. There are water and light shows here.

Cycling the city walls was included in our tour, but you could very easily do it on your own. There are bike rental shops (mountain bikes since you’re riding on worn and uneven brick) atop the walls at each of the four (directional) gates. 120 minutes costs 45 CNY for a single or 90 CNY for a tandem, and helmets are included. It took us 1 hour 10 minutes to complete the nine mile square. Just about everyone goes in a clockwise direction.

The Muslim quarter has your typical narrow alleys and usual assortment of dried fruits and nuts plus souvenir knick knacks but all with a Chinese flavor, so the food includes items like goats’ feet and there is more neon than I’ve ever seen in a Muslim quarter.

A highly recommended attraction that we skipped is the Tomb of Emperor Jingdi. Some also visit the Bell Tower and/or Drum Tower.

May 19-21, 2014 (Monday-Wednesday)

4 thoughts on “Xian”

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