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Xi'an - City Walls and the Terracotta Army


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Forgive me Father for it's been 17 days since my last blog.

So I left Yangshuo at around noon on the 2nd of January for another one and a half hour bus journey back to Guilin where I was catching a train to Xi'an. Once again I sat right at the back of the bus so I could have a corner to keep my pack and pockets away from idle hands (it's amazing how aware I've become of every pocket and bag that I carry). I seemed to give the other foreigners on the bus the same idea because when they saw me, they headed straight for the back of the bus and sat right next to me. Everyone on board was Chinese except for me, a couple from India and a couple from Australia.

By the time we reached my stop in Guilin, everyone except the Australian couple had gotten off and I noticed two lone unclaimed backpacks sitting on the footpath beside the bus. I realised immediately that they belonged to the Australian couple and that the driver had taken them off the bus without checking who they belonged to. I quickly jumped back inside as the driver was about to close the doors and I yelled out to them to warn them of what had happened. Looking rather shocked, the Aussie guy quickly jumped out and shoved the packs back into the luggage compartment. Needless to say, he was extremely thankful towards me, and not too happy with the driver. It felt nice to have done a good deed for some fellow travellers, because out here it sometimes feels a like it's us against them - a harsh generalization perhaps, but that's what it feels like.

Later that evening I embarked on yet another long haul train journey, this time for 27 hours to Xi'an in the Shaanxi Province. Once again I didn't encounter any other English speakers on my carridge and I resorted to sleeping and listening to my iPod for the entire journey but it didn't really bother me because I wasn't in a particularly talkative mood. The windows on this train were just as dirty as the last and I couldn't really get any good views let alone photos, but I did get one that encapsulated the general mood of the views outside my window.

A typical sight outside my train window along the route from Guilin to Xi'an, I actually liked that the window was dirty for this photo

I arrived in Xi'an late in the evening to a chaotic scene outside the train station. It's one thing to turn up in a strange city during the day, but when you're alone, it's dark and there are hoardes of people everywhere, it can be quite intimidating. Luckily I knew which bus to catch to my hostel and after a quick search I found the bus stop which was through one of the city wall gates and over the road from the railway station, so it all went pretty smoothly considering.

My first day in Xi'an involved a meandering walk around the city center. The center of Xi'an is surrounded by a huge city wall about 12 meters high, 12-14 meters wide and with a circumference of 13.74 kilometers. It is the longest, most intact and best preserved ancient city wall in China and it does look impressive, especially at night when it's all lit up.

One of the towers along the southern end of Xi'an's city wall

The South Gate of the Xi'an city wall, it is the main gate and my hostel was only about 50 meters away

There are a few lone towers dotted around the center of the city within the city walls, the most important of these would be the Bell Tower, which lies at the very center of the city. The next one is the Drum Tower which is larger and about 2 kms to the west of the Bell tower. I wasn't much in the mood for paying expensive entry fees so I skipped actually going inside them.

The Bell Tower at the center of Xi'an

The Drum Tower in Xi'an

The next day I went shopping for a scarf at the markets in the Muslim quarter located near the drum tower. Just before entering the Muslim quarter, I stopped by a cafe for a much needed dose of caffeine. As I exited, an old woman pan handler hoveled over to me and pushed her empty tin cup in my face. I figured this was the perfect time to get rid of my Jiao notes which I had separated and put in my back pocket for an occasion such as this. A Jiao is a fraction of a Yuan, that is, 1 Jiao is one tenth of a Yuan (so currently 1 Jiao is around NZ$0.02). To me they are a pain to carry around in my wallet so I thought at least I could give them away instead of throwing them out. As soon as I dumped a few of the notes in her cup, the woman gave me a big smile which quickly turned in to a frown as she looked in to her cup. Then she extended her arm towards me once again while saying something in Chinese. Who could blame her for not being particularly satisfied with what I had given her, but for her to insist on more money and then proceed to grab my arm quite forcefully was a bit too much so I just walked away. Obviously the phrase "Beggars can't be choosers" doesn't apply in China.

Anyway, once in the Muslim quarter markets, shopping for the scarf turned out to be fun and a headache at the same time. I quite liked haggling prices with the stall merchants, but as soon as you show a hint of interest in one of their products, they don't shut up and they insist on showing you every item they have for sale instead of leaving you in peace to choose colours/sizes/etc. In a couple of the stalls, the person running it would call out to a colleague from another stall to come and stand in the narrow exit so that you'd be trapped inside. After a while, I got sick of being trapped in their stalls so I returned to the very first stall where the young guy running it simply said, "Take a look, if you see one you like we can discuss prices". He won for being the least pushy, not to mention that he had the nicest scarf. I felt satisfied haggling the price down by only 20 Yuan which was still a bargain.

It's quite strange haggling for prices in a cheap country. You know the prices are cheap compared to the West, but they begin with what would be hugely overinflated prices for the locals. So you are torn between not wanting to rip them off because most of them are obviously just barely scraping by, and also not wanting to look like a silly tourist mug for paying what they would consider to be ridiculously high prices.

The next day, I finally decided to visit Xi'an's main tourist attraction, the Terracotta Army. The Terracotta Army, dating from 210 BC, was created to guard the tomb of the first Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang and they were discovered by local farmers in 1974 while they were digging for a water well. For this excursion, I teamed up with two Aussie girls, Jill and Michaela, that I met at the hostel a couple of nights before. Jill works in Beijing and Michaela was visiting a mutual friend there and they themselves had only known eachother for about a week. They were very nice and down to earth and I think going with them made the trip much more enjoyable. The archeological site is about 50 kilometers from Xi'an and we all decided to skip the expensive tours offered by the hostel and do it on our own by taking the regular buses without a guide (none of us are fans of tour guides).

Once we reached the site, we had to walk through a mini concrete and bricks village full of souvenir shops, restaurants and people offering to be our guides before we finally got to the actual entrance to the archeological site. Although it was really cold that morning (around -5 C), this meant that there were very few other tourists there and for once in China at a tourist location, it didn't feel crowded. Since we were doing it without a guide, we ended up walking through the buildings in a not so intended route but by the end our opinion was that we had done things in the perfect order.

We started by turning to the right and entering the museum which only contained scaled down models of some of the statues, and although they were impressive, with the real thing only a few buildings away we skipped through it rather quickly.

A model displayed in the museum of one of the war chariots. The actual chariots were made out of wood and only a few small fragments have survived

The next building we entered was Pit 2 which is the second largest pit. The statues in this building were mostly in pieces and scattered all over the ancient tiled floors.

Some smashed Terracotta statues in Pit 2

All of the statues in each of the pits were arranged in proper battle formations along corridors separated by thick compressed earth walls. Each corridor is lined with brick tile floors and covered by wooden ceilings. Many of Pit 2's corridors remain unexcavated and were still covered by these sagging wooden ceilings.

The unexcavated corridors of Pit 2 with the sagging wooden ceilings.

The next building we entered was Pit 3 which is thought to be the command post containing high ranking officers, horses and a war chariot. This pit was quite small but the figures here were more intact and quite impressive (obviously after some restoration efforts).

Me with some high ranking officers and horse statues in Pit 3

The final building we entered was Pit 1 which is the biggest measuring 230 meters long by 62 meters wide. Most of this pit also remains unexcavated with only around 2,000 out of the estimated 6,000 statues having been uncovered. We entered through a side door right at the back of the building which was actually an exit, but it was actually good this way because most of the statues are right at the front and we got to see them in gradually increasing numbers. For me it was one big "Wow" after another. What can I say, it's one of those sights that photos cannot justify. It is truly an amazing sight especially if you consider that it was all created over 2,200 years ago.

Michaela and Jill and the view of Pit 1 as seen from around mid way through the side of the pit

Jill, me and Michaela with the huge Pit 1 in the background

The front lines of the Terracotta Army in Pit 1

Me at the very front of Pit 1

After exiting Pit 1, we had a late lunch at the village before hopping on the bus back to Xi'an. I don't know how, but just before we left, Michaela somehow persuaded me to buy a small box of Terracotta Soldier figurines from one of the souvenier shops, at the time it all made sense because the price was so incredibly low. So much for my "No Souveniers Rule". She became a bit of a souvenier addict in China and was already carrying large bags full of stuff back to Australia. I'm obviously not carrying it around with me for the rest of my journey and a small package should be on its way to New Zealand at this very moment.

Michaela and I doing the "Kneeling Archer" and "Standing Soldier" poses near the exit to the village, a small crowd of amused Chinese tourists gathered to watch our antics.

We had a couple of beers back at the hostel in Xi'an before Jill and Michaela caught a flight back to Beijing. They almost missed their plane because they wanted to stay in Xi'an another night to have a few more drinks and also walk along the city walls with me the next day, but they were unable to reschedule their flight without it costing as much as they had already paid.

Alas, the next day I ventured on a tour along the top of the city walls on my own. The entrance was near the South Gate wich was thankfully only about 50 meters away from the hostel. It was a fine day but it was very hazy and freezing so I put on several layers and set off on my journey. Once on the wall I realised even a stroll to the east or west sides of the walls was going to take forever, so I hired a bicycle and decided I could then do the entire 13.74 kilometer circumference in perhaps just a couple of hours. Actually the sign at the bike hire place said one could do it comfortably in 100 minutes and in fact would they start charging extra for every minute over this time limit. Now, normally it probably would be easy to ride 13.74 kms in 1 hr and 40 minutes but this is an ancient wall. The floor bricks are uneven with large chips taken off them not to mention that my bike had no gears and about 1 km into the trip, when it really got bumpy, I discovered the tyres were a little flat.

The view along the south side of the ancient Xi'an city wall, I think even without the haze you could not have seen the end

My hostel as seen from the south side of the city wall

One of the Towers along the wall taken from another tower

One of the corner towers on the city wall

Once I reached a quarter of the way, I looked at the time and realised I was already 5 minutes over what I should have been. Now I had to not only do the next 3 quarters in the remaining time but also make up for what I had already lost. I thought those cheeky people at the bike rentals must make quite a bit of money in extra charges because I was cycling at a reasonable pace, only stopping very briefly to take photos and I was still running late. Even though the extra charges weren't that much, I somehow became determined to get back within the 100 minutes.

This was the view I had while cycling along the wall. I was quite proud of my special effects.

The Xi'an Railway Station as seen from the north side of the city wall

The main intersection within the city walls just opposite the Railway station, that was about as quiet as I'd seen it.

A large smoke stack as seen from the east side of the city wall, it's this kind of thing (as well as the heavy traffic) that makes China so hazy and polluted

Overall, the sights from the wall weren't that impressive, mostly because the walls are quite far away from most of the attractions in Xi'an and also because there was a heavy haze in the air that day.

By my watch, I reached the bicycle hire stand only 3 minutes over the allowed time but this was only after a mammoth effort over the last quarter of the journey which left my legs a little sore. They didn't charge me anything extra which was good because I would have been quite mad at them for their extremely deliberate journey-time underestimates. At least I got some excercise, though for once in my life I don't really need it with all the walking I've been doing during my trip.

Some guards posted at the entrance of the wall, they are of course just for show.

I was quite glad to have finished my bone shattering bike ride so I decided to head back to the hostel and reward myself with a cold beer before heading to the Railway station and on to my next destination in China.

So that was Xi'an, my favourite large city in China thus far. Somehow, even though it is still crowded it seems much more ordered and less chaotic. Crossing major roads in Xi'an isn't as much of a life and death situation because of the frequent pedestrian underpasses. Also, the streets are much much cleaner and people tended to not toot their car horns as much there. You can also tell there's plenty of money floating around the city. Lots of flash cars along the neat avenues as well as countless shopping complexes selling all the top brands and labels.

Anyway, that's it for now. My next destination is coming up very shortly because I got so far behind...

So until next time, that's me signing out.

Posted by joshuag 06:41 Archived in China Tagged backpacking

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Hey Josh, thanks for a great post. It was very enjoyable reading your blog as always. Funny how China and vacation days feel like a million light years away for me now. To think it's really less than a month ago that I returned to the real world, back into the rat race. Have fun on the way and take good care! I'm looking forward to your next post - a little "beacon of light" in the grind of daily life :-)

by Angeline

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