Last updated: 11th February 2022
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China’s Ancient Capital – Xi’an
After Beijing the second stop on our, as Phil called it, ‘Grand Tour of China’ was Xi’an, China’s former capital and where the country’s origins began. It’s also where The Silk Road started. Today Xi’an is one of China’s biggest cities.
Getting there was a great adventure as we left the unbelievably huge Beijing West Railway Station about to board an overnight sleeper train. We did struggle for a while finding our platform and waiting room, as everything was in Chinese with very little translation, and no-one spoke English. We were also starving so figured we would grab something quick as we didn’t want to miss our train. Because of the language barrier we thought we’d try KFC, that way we could just point at what we wanted. All we can say is a KFC chicken burger in China tastes nothing like the ones in Europe!
On board the train it was great, we booked the tickets in advance and upgraded to a 2 berth cabin. It was surprisingly roomy with a table, armchair and a compact and bijou bathroom. Garth was disappointed he couldn’t really see anything out of the window as it was dark. After a ticket check and ordering some coffee for the next morning we went to bed armed with our earplugs soon nodded off, although we only got 20 minute cat naps all night long with the noise and motion of the carriage.
Next morning Garth was really excited to open the curtains, our coffee arrived, very simple instant coffee with powdered milk! and we stared out the window watching the world of Shaanxi province whizz by. What struck us was the sheer number of power stations we passed and getting closer to Xian, there were dozens of austere looking residential tower blocks, these were what we imagined communist architecture might look like. FYI – the journey time was 12 hours.
On arrival we met our guide we’d booked in advance, who wasn’t particually expensive and quickly made our way to the hotel as we we’re only in Xi’an for one night, and knew we wouldn’t get to see much of the city as our trip to Xi’an was all about seeing the world famous army of Terracotta Warriors.
Qin’s Army of Terracotta Warriors
Our guide drove us, and it took us about an hour to reach the Museum of Qin Terracotta Warriors and Horses. Armed with her expert knowledge we spent around 4 hours exploring the museum and its buildings.
OK now get ready for the crowds, the car park here gives you a clue what’s to come – enormous bays upon bays for coaches and cars. But you have to remember this is one of the ancient wonders of the world, and therefore a major tourist attraction. We went low season in March which was still busy with large numbers of Chinese tourists, but not as mad at the summer can get. Garth who must be the only person that loves tourist tat, loved all pushy stall vendors and trinkets that lined the pavements along the way to the museum, but resisted and saved himself for the way back.
There were 3 ‘pits’ plus a exhibition hall. Before we went into the Pit number 1, our guide took us into a shop to meet an elderly gentleman. He turned out to be one the farmers who accidentally discovered the warriors in 1974 after digging for a well. We shook hands, and there was an opportunity to purchase a book and get him to autograph it, but we passed on the offer. Our guide told us the farmers were paid hardly anything for their discovery by the government, possibly because they own all of China’s agricultural land? Phil was a little sceptical if the farmer was genuine or not.
Terracotta Warriors Pit#1
Pit 1 was the largest, like a giant aircraft hanger which covered the main excavation site. Our intial reaction to seeing the warriors was just jaw dropping and really does take your breath away. Seeing rows upon rows of lifeless but lifelike stautes – soldiers, generals and horses and thinking they’ve been there for 2,200 years in all splendour was just mind boggling. They surely must be the most major discovery of the 20th century?
Built in 246BC by China’s first Emperor Qin Si Huang who ruled 259BC – 210BC. The army were buried as a form of funerary art, their purpose was to protect Emperor Qin in the afterlife. The site is close Qin’s mausoleum which is under a hill – a burial mound about 1 mile away and stays unexcavated. We couldn’t help thinking about the similarities the concept the Chinese Emperors had about their after life to the Egyptian Pharaohs ideas of buried tombs.
As we wandered further into Pit 1 we got closer and closer to different statues, which was great as we started to see more of the detail. We didn’t expect there to be staff going about their archaeological and conservation work as we walked around the perimiter of the pit. Some of the archaeologists appeared to be numbering and catalouging items of pottery in baskets.
We learnt the statues were assembled in parts – the head, torsos and arms were all made in separate clay moulds. They were finished and painted in bright colours, but soil erosion and humidity means their colour has long gone. Remarkably only a fraction have been excavated, about 2,000 of the estimated 8,000 statues. It’s also estimated there’s over 130 chariots, 520 horses, 150 cavalry horses and 30,000 weapons still buried.
Every solider was unique each with different gestures and facial designs, all incredibly life like. They varied in height too, the tallest being the General and were positioned according to their rank.
Terracotta Warriors Pit#2
Pit 2 was also interesting as it’s not as excavated as Pit 1, so we could see how the pit was constructed with wooden roofs and got a better idea how the statues were buried. There were also hundreds of dismembered heads, arms and legs all scattered around, this was when we began to appreciate what a monumental and painstaking task it must be putting these statues back together again.
The best thing here were the glass cases housing a General and a Kneeling Archer, as we could get really close up and see the craftsmanship and such attention to detail, like the moustache. Garth loved seeing these works of art up close.
We also got to see some of the original colours painted to the clay statues like bright red. Archaeologists discovered the coloured paint would peel away or turn pink as soon as it came into contact with air, so that it is why excavation work has halted in some areas as they figure out a better way to unearth them with the least exposure to preserve these artworks.
Terracotta Warriors Pit#3
The third pit contained the Generals, which were the biggest and tallest statues. Our guide said to Phil “this is where you would be because you’re fat like the Generals” which Garth found hilarious, and still quotes to this day!
We also had a look in the exhibition hall which contained various artefacts discovered plus an impressive bronze chariot and horses, the biggest ever bronze work found in the world. Also here was an example of chrome plating on a sword which was a technique believed to have been invented in the 1950s, but actually first done by the Chinese over 2,000 years ago!
Exit through the gift shop, of course! and if you are feeling flush then you can buy a lifesize replica warrior and have it shipped back to the UK, they were around £400 from memory, we settled for a fridge magnet. You could also become your own Terracotta Warrior and get your photo taken with some lifesize statues.
We took a different route back to the car park and exited the site through a massive ‘tourist village’ like a giant high street full of more souvenir shops and cafes, really quite tacky. But we found a nice Chinese tea shop, and Phil sampled some of the teas on offer.
We loved The Terracotta Army, a true archaeological wonder of the world, and for us ranks up there with The Pyramids and the Grand Canyon, bucket list stuff. An extraordinary place, that was never supposed to be revealed. Even though we’re both not big into museums, it really gave us an insight into Chinese history and Dynasties.
Xi’an Tang Dynasty Theatre
After a great day of history, back in Xi’an we immersed ourselves in more Dynasty history this time in the form of the theatre at the Tang Dynasty Show. They told us the story of the Tang Dynasty (618–907) though 10 different dance and music routines with both Chinese and English presenters. We also had a pre-theatre dumplings meal here with lots of other Chinese tourists which was tasted quite good and came with fermented rice wine, from memory the cost was quite reasonable.
Phil loved the show, the storytelling, costume design, acrobatics and the traditional music. Garth thought the place was a little touristy but the show really well produced.
After the show finished we decided to walk back to our hotel along the city wall, which looked beautiful all lit up with red lanterns. The Xi’an city walls are most preserved in China (sorry no pics!) We were surprised just how many families there were out late at night enjoying themselves in a park beneath the wall. Our hotel was near Huimin Street more commonly known as ‘Muslim Street’ so we checked out all the the food stalls there too, highly recommended, but not if your a veggie!
Underground Hanyangling Mausoleum
The next day on the way to the airport we stopped for a few hours at the Hanyangling Museum. It’s the burial place of Emperor Jingdi of Han who ruled from 188BC to 141BC. Outside we saw the two burial mounds containing the Emperor’s tomb and his wife’s which are separated a mile apart.
Inside we put on some shoe covers and walked over the burial pits via glass floors and walkways. There are ten pits on view containing hundreds of miniature terracotta figures including armed warriors, palace maids, servants, cooks, animals like sheep and cows. Emperor Han was a people person, he wanted to take village life, including everything he would need to live and eat well to his after-life.
This museum was no where near as crowded as the Terracotta Army, a much more intimate experience with dim lighting which created a nice ambience, fine for viewing but a little difficult to take clear photos.
The mini figures were far more modest than that of prosperous Emperor Qin. Unlike the Qin terracotta army statues, these are much smaller about 3 feet tall and naked in appearance. They used to have silk clothes on with wooden arms, but over the years these have rotted away.
We’d recommend visiting here if you are flying out of Xi’an and have some time to spare.
It was a shame our itinerary was so tight and we didn’t get to explore more of Xi’an, but seeing two mausoleums, particularly the ancient Terracotta Army will always be one of our life highlights and was a huge bucket list tick.
Phil and Garth’s Top 5 Xi’an Tips
- Tip #1: Try avoiding the Terracotta Army in summer, crowds are HUGE, temperatures are HOT with high humidity.
- Tip #2: Toilets at the museums are those squat style ones – so you might consider taking hand sanitiser.
- Tip #3: As with the rest of China, tipping is not expected, service charges are generally included in the bill.
- Tip #4: If we had more time we would have hired a bike along Xi’an’s City Walls – people said it was the best way to see them.
- Tip #5: If Facebook and Twitter are important to you, get a VPN before you travel to China.
How We Did It
- We paid for a self-guided tour of China with The China Travel Company.