CHINA: Xi’an (西安)

福 (fú): the “good fortune” mooncake.

We only had a chance to spend one day/night in Xi’an, but overall I am very glad we managed to squeeze it into the end of our trip. From Beijing the high speed train took us to Xi’an in about 5.5 hours and we had to take the subway another 45 minutes to our destination. We exited the subway right outside the city walls and got a very cool view of them lit up at night. There was a show that was starting soon too, but it was raining a little so we made our way to the colorful little backpacker hotel where we had booked the family suite for the 5 of us. Fortunately we made it to the city center just in time to indulge in my favorite aspect of this trip: eating. We were strongly advised by a friend to pay a visit to the Muslim Quarter located near the Xi’an drum and bell towers and it did not dissapoint. Co-workers and friends had advised trying three specific dishes in Xi’an that are specialties of Shaanxi [province] cuisine:

  1. 肉夹馍 (ròujiāmó): literally translated as “meat wedged in steamed bun” or commonly called a chinese burger.
  2. 羊肉泡馍 (yángròu pàomó): meat and hard bread soup, can include some small noodles and veg.
  3. biángbiáng miàn: a broad “belt-shaped” noodle dish for which I do not know the characters (it may actually go by another name in Chinese characters…).

We managed to partake in the first two, but were too full the first night to eat the noodle dish. When we tried to get some the next day we found out the restaurant nearby had just started cooking and would not have any made up before we had to catch the subway to our return train. Bummer.

Xi’an Bell Tower, located very near the drum tower and Muslim quarter.
The Muslim quarter by night really comes alive.
Breaking up our bread (super hard rolls) and then following another person around to figure out in what order one prepares this dish themselves when they speak only remedial Chinese.

Next stop: becoming a local spectacle for the better part of 10 minutes when there was a lull at this particular vendors’ shop.

Pat Attack.
Davids arcade skills finally pay off when he finds the real life opportunity for “whack-a-mole.”

At this point we had attracted a sizeable crowd and it was time to escape for some icecream and make our way back to our family apartment.

Of course, the real purpose of going to Xi’an was to see the terracotta warriors, but since we did not plan this part of the trip out as strategically as Beijing, we were at the mercy of whichever tour option our hotel (or one nearby) could recommend. We booked one option and ended up getting an unexpected tour of Banpo Village thrown in, which was kind of interesting, and a welcome alternative to any outdoor activities as it was cold and rainy for our one day in Xi’an.

The foundation of a hybrid tepee/lean-to structure likely belonging to a more prominent member of the village as it is larger than many others. Also note the double ring where posts were inserted suggesting it burned down and was rebuild in the same location.

The entire museum presented this culture as matriarchal society, but as the relics were dated to between 5.5-6.7 thousand years ago, we had a hard time understanding how this connection was made. A quick wikipedia search will suggest that prevailing political movements around the time this discovery was made may have had more to do with that determination than any physical evidence that was found at the dig site, but I digress…

Also included in our group tour was a visit to a factory where they make replicas of the terracotta warriors (and part of the reason I wish we had done a bit more research on tour groups). It was interesting to see the replicas up close in person, but it was your standard Chinese “here foreigners, come here and buy inexpensive things for too much money because you’re stuck here for a half hour” type trap, so I felt we wasted some time on this tour.

I think the high-ranking officers (or generals) are my favorite. They have the double top knot and “larger belly”; since they got to command they had time to eat and drink more.
I was quite fond of these ladies as well. The symbol of wealth and decadence has surely changed a bit through the ages…

After our first two stops and a so-so lunch, we finally made it to the site of the terracotta warriors! Before we get to the pictures I would like to provide a little bit of background (as I understand it) for those who may not be familiar. These warriors were created to guard the tomb of China’s first Emperor (from the Qin dynasty). Their construction started while the emperor was still alive, took some 30 or so years to complete, and was never intended to be found (hence being buried underground in the middle of a farming community in a rural part of Xi’an). This particular location was chosen as a burial location by several emperors, in fact, because of it’s natural balance consisting of an important river on one side and a large mountain nearby. (Sorry, I am bad with poetry and remembering everything the tour guide tells us, you will just have to deal with my crude utilitarian explanations at this point.) Each of the warriors has a unique face that can be easily removed from the body, and their intent was to be guardians of the emperor’s mausoleum and possibly to guard him in the afterlife. There are three pits that are actively being excavated at the moment (or at least only three that they will let you see), and pit 1 is the largest of the three with the most warriors. The walls in-between the warriors used to support wooden rafters to protect the army once it was buried, and the dark discoloration leads into a mind blowing discovery that I made while on this trip: I think Disney’s “Mulan” was actually loosely based on Chinese history!

Toward the end of the Qin dynasty a warlord named XiangYu managed to find his way into this tomb and smash a good portion of the warriors before setting the entire tomb on fire. One will recall that the villain in Mulan was named Shan Yu, and as I still have difficulty hearing the difference between Xi and Sh (combined with the fact that most of China does not audibly pronounce the g at the end of Chinese words) I was able to immediately make the connection between the two. Our guide also noted that the Qin dynasty was fairly short lived and ended up falling to the Han dynasty. One will recall that the Hun’s were the ones who were “invading China” in the Disney version. Further digging will reveal that XiangYu was defeated by the general who ultimately formed the Han empire, but I was still surprised to make these two connections to the terracotta warriors in Xi’an!

As a result of the damage done by XiangYu, we were told that almost every single warrior in this pit had to be reconstructed from broken pieces found all over. Only a handful survived in [mostly] one piece, and they were of the kneeling archer variety. They even have a “warrior hospital” at the back end of the pit where they have several soldiers in various states of disrepair while archaeologists work on one of the most difficult jigsaw puzzles you have ever seen (mostly because the pieces have been scattered about like a tornado just blew through). Overall it was cool to see, but I think we were underwhelmed with the site itself after learning that every piece had to be repaired and having to fight through tenacious Chinese people to get close enough to the railing to get a photo in some spots. It also did not help that the weather was so poor and our tour was just so-so. We were also unable to see any chariots, acrobats, or other whimsical statues that we were told had been found. My husband and I left with the feeling that this was one of the few experiences where we think the photos could really could do the scene justice (especially those done by a professional with special permission to get up close and personal)…unfortunately we are not professionals and were not afforded special permission…On that note, please enjoy the following photos!

Pit 1: the bulk of the army.
To get a feel for the size of the first pit.
Complete with horses and headless horsemen? You can only see this detail through a zoom lens, we could not get close enough to see this much detail with our own eyes.
Pit 3, the smaller high ranking officers quarters located closer to the actual tomb I believe.
More horses down here too!
An example of how a majority of the warriors were found. And some lady’s hat.
A third large pit (I believe this one is pit #2) where we could really only begin to conceptualize how large this mausoleum truly is. I think this pit was the main reason we were underwhelmed. Somehow we were lead to believe a majority of the work had already been done, but this is very much a work in progress!
Kneeling Archer
One very cool fact: these warriors were actually all vibrantly painted at one time! This kneeling archer still has some coloring left on the back of his armor, but a majority of the other warriors armor lost the color upon air exposure/oxidation. They are currently working on better color preservation techniques for future digs I believe. Maybe we will have to go back in 30 years.

Two things we would have liked to have explored in Xi’an include the city walls and one of the nearby mountains which is counted among the seven sacred mountains. The mountain in question also includes some pretty perilous hiking, so with the weather as it was, I was perfectly OK passing up that opportunity…for now.

Sleeper Train.png
The soft sleepers on the night train back to Suzhou were actually pretty comfortable and made the 10 hour train ride go by much quicker. We also made a new friend we may try to visit in Tibet one day…

6 thoughts on “CHINA: Xi’an (西安)

  1. wonderful trip…. so educational…. glad you fit in the train back…. ha ha….
    Won’t be long now…. Enjoyed your story…


  2. The city walls you saw are new-built ones which made in 1985, they are just in the original place. The old city walls were yellow, since they were made of soil. There were lots of gaps in the old city wall because of their age. They old ones were all covered by new ones made of dark bricks.


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