Day 21 - Xi'an Arrival

Friday, September 14th, 2007

Breakfast on the train consisted of a Styrofoam container with some (tasteless) steamed dumplings that were offered by a lady walking down the carriage aisle pushing a metal trolley. Of course, they cost us a bit of money as well…No extras here.

Xi'an (pronounced “she-anne”). The name was largely unknown outside of China until 34 years ago when a spectacular announcement was made to the world: An army of warriors made of terracotta had been found guarding the first emperor's tomb. This was to be one of the biggest archaeological finds of the 20th century. Xi'an is an ancient city pretty near about in the middle of China about 568 miles to the south west of Beijing.

The train trip from Beijing took us about 11 hours arriving at Xi'an at about 8:30 in the morning. Approaching the city we saw a lot of agriculture and low-lying mountains. Quite basic and not a lot of industry here.

Landscape Outside of Xi'an

The Xi'an train station is an incredible and overwhelming place which is not for the feint of heart (and not really for someone not use to such scenes). People were everywhere and it was very chaotic. Thankfully, our guide met us and escorted us to a car park where the driver picked us up.

Me and our Tour Guide (SW)

The walls of the city run right by the train station and struck us as being very impressive: High walls with massive arches to allow traffic to freely flow underneath. Made of brick they sure look solid to me considering they were built in 1370…Obviously, they are well maintained…

City Wall

The terracotta warrior excavation is about an hour's drive east out of Xi'an so, after putting our luggage in the back of the car, we were off down the road to pay it a visit. This whole visit to Xi'an is a bit rushed as we only have just over 24 hours here in the city before we are once again on a train to Shanghai. Driving down the streets it struck me as to how different Xi'an is to Beijing. Much more like what I would expect to see in Africa: Dust everywhere with small stalls alongside the road along with the street vendors (it is pomegranate season so there are many small tables set up beside the road with piles of pomegranates piled high and an umbrella to keep off the oppressive heat). We passed through the outskirts of the city quickly stopping only briefly for me to run into a shop to pick up some snacks.

Terracotta Shop (SW)

Though not on the agenda we had been given for our visit we stopped at a factory on the way to visit the warriors. Here they use the same earth used to make the original terracotta warriors to fashion replicas (full sized and more convenient souvenir-sizes). This factory was interesting in that it also makes very impressive lacquer furniture as well. It was a one-stop shop for many Chinese handicrafts/souvenirs (silk as well…). We picked up a few things including small terracotta figures and a tea pot that you tip upside down to fill with water then tip right side up and it does not spill (evidently this is a replica of a teapot found in the excavations). When we arrived at the factory we were handed off by our guide to a gentleman from the factory who showed us around and explained what they did. I was interested in talking to him about the history of the factory (it is not that old and really got into the terracotta only after they were uncovered – the factory originally just made furniture). He wanted sales, of course, and appeared a bit disappointed at our modest purchases. It was a big place with a number of large rooms showcasing their wares…“we can ship world-wide”…

As you approach the excavation the area immediately surrounding it is quite well built up now. We have bee told that this is because of the discovery and that previous to this the area was quite remote. Now there are roundabouts, hotels and tourists galore. The car park for the exhibition was crammed with tourist coaches and large numbers of cars. For preservation reasons the car park and tourist amenities (shopping areas and restaurants) are quite some distance away from the exhibition halls. After our guide picked up our tickets we passed through the very modern turnstiles into the fenced off park land surrounding the pits. It was about a 15 minute walk in the very hot sunshine before we got to the buildings that house the excavated pits containing the warriors. The main pit, pit 1, is the biggest building that looks very much like an aircraft hanger.

Me and My Mother Outside Pit 1

In the information centre we were told by our guide that we were very lucky – The farmer (Yang Zhifa) that first found the warriors was there and was signing autographs. Whether or not this is indeed true is debatable as several guidebooks I have read cast doubt on this claim – It could just be a money-making venture. According to our guide, Yang was digging a well in 1974 when he found fragments of terracotta. Little did he know that his land was hiding a priceless treasure and his land would never again be his own. To make a bit of money, he charges for his autograph. I stood in the queue and had him sign a book – He is a funny old guy that shouts whenever someone tries to take his photograph and evidently only knows how to write his own name but cannot read or write anything else. We watched a short “multimedia” presentation on the site and it's history in a small theatre (a movie projected on all sides of a round room) before we finally headed in to see pit (vault) one – The biggest of the three pits here.

Pit 1

I don't know if I can really explain what we saw here. It is truly one of the world's most priceless treasures. A massive roof covers the long rows of warriors only partly unearthed (they are preserving the ones still buried until they can safely excavate them) but even so, it is pretty impressive. Row upon row of clay men (and chariots) standing at attention facing east to Beijing. An army frozen in time. Each have their own expression and clothing. Warriors are arranged in battle formation according to their rank and role within the army.


A marker indicates where the old farmer dug his well at one end of a pit right near the entrance. It is clear to see where the other buried warriors remain hidden with the indentations in the surface quite visible. The warriors where buried in these long, slender, pits about 4 abreast then the pits were covered with timbers and grass matting. Over time this cover has rotted and the roofs have caved in. There has also been a bit of damage when sometime soon after the pits were sealed people broke into them and smashed some of the warriors.

The number of tourists is also pretty amazing with people pushing and shoving to get pictures of this awesome sight as we made our way around the walkway leading around the outside of the excavations. Seeing pictures does not do the place justice. Trust me: It is big. It is awesome.

Leaving the first pit we continued to an adjacent building where pit (vault) two is located. Though smaller it is said that this pit contains even more figures than pit 1 but it is still under excavation. It is a funny shaped building with the surrounding walkways jutting out here and there to follow the contours of the excavations beneath. Here are charioteers, crossbowmen, cavalry and infantrymen in the L-shaped pit. Off to the side they have a small display area where there are samples of the different figures that have been found. It is surprising to see that they even have some of the original paint on them. Pit three is much smaller again with a few chariots and horses along with some senior army figures.

What I found incredible to comprehend is the scale of the site. The exposed pits are incredible enough but are only a small part of the whole of the burial site – occupying only a small corner. It is unclear as to what remains hidden in these other areas. They are keeping these secrets for now until technology and money is available to excavate and protect what is found properly.

Another building houses a small museum of the site itself telling the story of the various groups involved in it's excavation. It also houses a magnificent scaled-down bronze chariot drawn by four horses. To see the detail after all of these years – the craftsmanship.


It was disappointing after leaving the site and walking back to the car park we came across the tourist trap that surrounds it. A number of, granted, newer buildings housing all sorts of souvenir shops. Our lunch was in a restaurant that supposedly served “hand-pulled noodles” but this turned out to be an extra cost – What we got with the tour was a buffet serving not a lot of authentic Chinese food at all in a large room reminiscent of an airport lobby (with red carpet). Not impressed at all.

Leaving in the car we had the guide stop so we could pick up some pomegranates (yum – fresh!). We picked up a few red and a few “white” ones after a bit of bickering between our guide and the stall owner. It was worth it, they are really very good.


It was getting well into the afternoon as we returned to the city. The city appears to be quite thriving. The buildings are much smaller than Beijing though the traffic here seems pretty bad as well.

City Wall

We stopped to visit the city wall and this was to be another exercise in retail therapy as we were taken to a building on the wall (probably an old watch tower or sentry dormitory) that housed a Feng Shui “museum” where we were led into a room and told about how Feng Shui works, specifically (wait for it), how carved animals can bring “good Feng Shui” to those that use them. Conveniently they were selling some jade carvings of very auspicious animals for a reasonable price (complete with authentication certificate, wow!). Yeah, ok, we picked up a few things. I am just getting a bit tired of this whole thing – Go somewhere interesting and end up in a shopping complex with someone trying to foist something on you…It gets old fast. Having said that, some of what the gentleman had to say was quite interesting – I was not aware of the Feng Shui used in some building design (though the examples from Hong Kong – The sharp edges of the Bank of China pointing at some British government buildings is not very good for the British…) and in the animals that guard the entrances.

Feng Shui Shop

I was much more interested in the impressive wall. It is 11.9 km in circumference and is largely intact throughout. I was amazed at how wide it is and how it stretches into the distance. There is nothing like this in the UK. It was good to see many people taking a stroll along it (though would not want to walk the length of it in this heat…).

Big Goose Pagoda

Being hurried along (evidently we were behind schedule, oh dear!) we dropped by the Big Goose Pagoda complex to the south of the city walls. As you can tell by the name, this is a big pagoda but attached to it is the Ci'an temple which has a fascinating set of displays and tableaux devoted to displaying the life of the Tang dynasty monk Xuan Zang who was very famous for fostering communication with India and, in particular, translating various important religious works. A number of his books are on display along with the interesting carved murals showing his life (he got around, I tell you…). The temple itself is quiet and very pretty. The whole area is being refurbished so everything is quite shiny and new. It makes me wonder what it really looked like before they started splashing paint around…

Ci'an Temple

Our guide informed us that we did not have enough time to complete our tour so we have made arrangements to continue tomorrow morning. This is fine by us. We are very tired. But, we do want to make the most out of our tour so we agreed to a “cultural” show this evening.

Out hotel is down a back alley right off the main road that runs north-south through the city (with gates at the north and south where the road hits the wall and the bell tower smack in the middle of the city – only about 100 m from our hotel). The hotel is a bit of a dive (what the guidebooks call a “Chinese businessman-class hotel”) and nothing like we have seen in Japan nor even in Beijing. A disappointment, yes. Particularly when we were given a room with only one bed (up and down the elevator to get that sorted). Being rushed to get to the show we only had a short period of time to drop our luggage in the room before heading out again. Did I mention we were tired? Did I mention what we had been doing so far today? The day was not yet over…(sigh)

We were late. The theatre, just outside of the southern city wall, is quite impressive – What I would consider a classical theatre with several balconies and a large stage. All, of course, decorated with the gold and red that we would associate with China. It is set up as a sort-of dinner theatre with tables everywhere and tourists (believe me, only tourists) sitting, eating, drinking and enjoying the show. We missed the meal that was before the show and arrived a bit into the 2nd or 3rd number (embarrassingly sneaking in while the concert was in progress to the prodding of our guide). It was a bit of a variety act with singing, dancing and (more) kung fu acts on the stage. Nothing that we had not seen before but quite enjoyable. During the remaining part of the show we sipped our free water (bottled – all we are drinking here in China) at our table as the show was in progress and looked over, hungrily, to see the remains of the meals for those all around us. We had wanted to visit partly for the meal that was promised along with the show – A “dumpling feast”. Xi'an and other areas in China, we were told, are well known for their (steamed) dumplings so we wanted to try them. We were a bit disappointed to have missed them at the theatre.

Our disappointment was soon done away with as we were whisked away by our guide after the show to the restaurant next door (no doubt where the theatre “orders in” their food) and seated off to the side to be given the feast we had been promised. Obviously this was not according to the script so it did take some time before the food arrived but when it did we really did quite enjoy it. The restaurant is much like any Chinese restaurant in the world – A number of round tables, a lot of noise and red carpets. It was populated with several large groups of Chinese tourists being given completely different types of meals to the one we had been promised (they had much more elaborate dishes to enjoy and the alcohol also seemed to be flowing quite freely for them as well).

Me and Dumplings (SW)

Our meal started with a plate full of standard pork dumplings much like we have seen before when eating dim sum. After that we were each given a steamer tray full of a variety of dumplings – About one each of all sorts of different varieties. I thought the walnut one (shaped like the nut and filled with it too) was the most interesting of the lot. They were both savoury and sweet which made it a bit of a surprise with every mouthful. Mother was grateful to have been given one that had only vegetarian dumplings but did manage to try some of the pork dumplings (I honestly could not have eaten the whole plate myself anyway). The stacks of steamers around the restaurant testified to the popularity of the dumplings which made us feel a bit better about the whole experience.

Not too bad though now we were full as well as tired…And another half day to go…

Day 22 - Xi'an Departure

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