Mix together Tianjingers, city walls, 1 water show, 2 goose pagodas and a sprinkling of terracotta.
October the 1st is a public holiday to celebrate the founding of the PRC on October 1st, 1949. It heralds the start of ‘golden week’ where work schedules are re-arranged so that a whole 7-day period is allowed for travelling. Alas like all Chinese holiday periods, it is the worst time to travel around China! Oh well, I still had an awesome week nonetheless
After teaching a re-arranged morning class on the 30th of September, I was off on a sleeper train to Xi’an! Although this was a journey taking more than 20 hours (!!), it actually flew past. Me and Natasha got on at Qingdao at 13:47 and arrived around 11.30am the next day. I really do like travelling on trains, especially on one’s in China – you get to view landscape panoramas which is impossible on a plane. We had luckily got hold of ‘hard-sleeper’ tickets which gave us some bunk beds to sleep in – veritable gold-dust during holiday season.
October the 1st
After finally pulling into Xi’an train station just before noon (the train had been delayed), we were greeted by enormous crowds of people (thankfully held back by barriers) awaiting their loved ones and holding up placards with names scrawled onto them. All we needed was to look out for the ‘westerners’. It was like a quasi-racist version of ‘Where’s Wally?’. Luckily, we picked out Natalia and her friend Kevin (who was a tall American) fairly easily and greeted them with enthusiasm. It was the first time I had seen Natalia since our days in Beijing so I was pretty happy.
This first day in Xi’an wasn’t particularly eventful as the four of us tried to go visit less obvious sites which we would obviously see when the rest of the Tianjiners arrived tomorrow. Thus we went to sites such as the ‘Temple of the Eight Immortals’ whilst taking shelter from the rain which had picked up since noon. I really hoped it wasn’t representative of the week to come.
L: The temple of Eight Immortals
R: A shrine to Mao (?!) - a reminder that I am living in a (nominally) communist country!
After wondering around a public park as well as a food market, we retired early back to our hostel which was the Lonely Planet mentioned ‘7 Sages hostel’ (Qi Xian hostel). I can add my own recommendation as this was a great lil’ place near the train station with bags of character. It even put on a magic show in the evening which was funny for all the wrong reasons. His strong South American English was a hard sell to the lodgers at the 7 Sages and even harder for the English translator to understand. Nonetheless, he was a great entertainer to be sure.
Pictures of our traditional-looking yet quirky hostel.
October the 2nd
I woke up still pretty tired having had a bad night’s sleep as we had been placed in a dorm with a man whose snoring could only be likened to a washing machine. I ordered myself a coffee and a ‘full English Breakfast’ to perk myself up.
Unfortunately, the English Breakfast weren't that 'full' or 'English' - where are the the sausages, black pudding and baked beans? There were also (admittedly adorable) kittens trying to nick my breakfast!
Today was the day that the rest of the Tianjin folk were arriving. Unfortunately, due to the holiday rush, they could not get tickets for yesterday and even the tickets for today were only ‘seating’ tickets. As I had anticipated, they all arrived looking like they hadn’t got any sleep at all – this turned out to be a pretty accurate estimation. However, I’d like to think I cheered them up by going round and giving them all a hearty hug and some fruit-pastel like sweets for energy
After this short reunion, 5 of the Tianjingers unfortunately had to go to a different hostel (the Shuyuan hostel) whilst we led the other 6 Tianjiners back to the 7 Sages hostel so they could unpack and shower. I didn’t particularly mind waiting around for every else to do this because it was almost like being back in Beijing again. Good times!
We decided to do something fairly unstrenuous for the rest of the day as they were all truly shattered from their train journey. After a quick lunch, where my newly improved mandarin skills were noticed much to my delight, we headed off to see the bell and drum towers – both at the heart of Xi’an. There we saw performances at both towers and took photos of the city night scenes below as it grew dark.
Although it wasn’t exactly a jammed-packed day and much of it had been waiting around, it was just nice (I know that’s a boring word but no other way to describe it) to see everyone again. The weather has a funny way of mirroring my mood sometimes – it was startlingly sunny today with blue skies all around.
October the 3rd
Now today WAS a jammed-packed day. We had heard from the other group (at the Shuyuan hostel) that getting to the Terracotta Armies today was a nightmare so we decided to book our own private tour and postpone the armies for tomorrow. Instead, for today we decided to explore some other key sites which Xi’an had to offer. First up, the city walls!
The walls of Xian are one of most complete city walls still standing in China and they are a reminder of the golden days when Xian was an imperial capital during some of the most important dynasties in Chinese history, including the Zhou, Qin, Han, Sui, and Tang dynasties. Nowadays, it serves not as a defensive structure but one in which tourists walk, cycle or ride around on to get a unique view of the city.
Having spent 2 hours having fun racing around on the city walls, we took taxis to the Little Goose Pagoda (小雁塔 Xiǎoyàn Tǎ), built around 707-709 AD to house sacred Buddhist writings. Unfortunately, the top of the Little Goose Pagoda was lopped off by a 16th century earthquake though the existing 15 tiers were still a considerable climb.
We also had time to explore the peaceful grounds surrounding the pagoda. It’s places like these that make the otherwise hectic Chinese cities more liveable and they are a literal breath of fresh air (though actually, Xi’an wasn’t smoggy at all whilst we were there).
There was, however, a rather unusual fountain:
Look mummy, I can make a rainbow!
We then travelled to Little Goose’s big brother, aptly called the ‘Big Goose Pagoda’ (大雁塔 Dàyàn Tǎ), to climb up yet more stairs though the views of the city as the sun set were fantastic. The surrounding grounds were filled with Buddhist temples and we explored the golden-lit buildings, with the waft of incense in the air, as night closed in.
Finally to close off what had been a very busy day of sightseeing, we grabbed some street food and headed towards the square outside the Big Pagoda grounds where Asia’s largest water show was about to start at 9pm.
The harmonious mixture of lights, music and huge jets of water were truly a marvel to see. Whether the water pulsed to the beat of a fast tango tune or slowly rose and twirled to the gentle chords of balletic numbers, we were all dazzled by the show in front of us though of course, having front row seats has its drawbacks…
Note: the video only shows part of the water show. Behind us, there were also many, many more areas where fountains were dancing in time to the music!
And YES, I do know that it was a total over-reaction to some plain old H2O. Then again, I've always been prone to bouts of hyperbole.
Having been duly soaked, and clearly in a moment of madness, myself and Scott were egged on to see the fountains even closer up…
Retiring to our hostel, we chatted away into the night enjoying each other’s company and a few bottles of cold, crisp beer. No better way to end a day’s worth of sightseeing!
October the 4th
Today was the day we planned to see the crème de la crème of Xi’an’s sights – I am of course talking about the Terracotta Warriors (兵马俑 – bing ma yong).
However this being a tourist tour meant that we first had to visit an obligatory workshop where they made the terracotta replicas. Whilst it was interesting to see the tourist economy in action, our guide was no doubt disappointed when interest did not translate to purchases. I wouldn’t have minded a 6 ft tall terracotta soldier though…if I weren’t a cash-strapped (ex-) student.
On the way to the Terracotta Warriors (which were around 20 miles east of the city), we also stopped off at Huaqing Hot Springs though there wasn’t much to see apart from the backs of countless Chinese tourists – the curse of the golden week I call it.
Huaqing Hot Springs: not what I had in mind...
However, it’s worth pointing out that the (modern) historical context of this place was fascinating – indeed some could say that the events that took place here changed the fate of China. If you want a brief 188-word summary of the ‘Xi’an incident’, click the picture below…
Finally we were off to see the Terracotta Army where we would be for the whole of the afternoon. Arriving there, we were all very excited about the star attraction in Xi’an and listened intently as our guide explained the context of it all (which, trust me, is necessary to appreciate the archaeological find!). Now for some ancient history…
The Terracotta Army is a huge subterranean life-size army that has been standing guard over Qin Shi Huang tomb for over two millennia. Qin Shi Huang is certainly a polemic figure – some stress his tyrannical enslaving of thousands of people and the burying of people alive whereas others highlight the fact that he was the first to unify China’s warring kingdoms under one banner and standardise measurements, currency and most importantly, writing. Regardless, this first emperor of China believed that his rule would continue in death as it had in life hence why he built such an impressive mausoleum. Interestingly, his actual tomb has yet to be opened but remote analyses have shown that rivers of mercury continue to flow around Qin Shi Huang’s final resting place. Ironically, Qin Shi Huang died from drinking too much mercury which he believed would lead to immortality (that forever goal of textbook villains).
He remains an (in)famous person in Chinese history and still pops up in video games, literature, TV shows and films – most notably Zhang Yimou’s breathtaking ‘Hero’ (trailer) and the less breathtaking (i.e. rubbish) ‘The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor’ (trailer) – oh how it spoiled my much-loved Mummy memories.
Now that the impromptu history lesson is over, here’s some pics in reverse pit order (as the Lonely Planet suggests and we agree) from the smallest pit to the largest pit.
There are still many broken soldiers waiting to be meticulously put back together again
The Terracotta Army is famous for having each of its terracotta soldiers having different facial characteristics and expressions. You can also tell the difference between low-ranking and high-ranking soldiers as well as what division they are in depending on their attire and hairstyle (no seriously!)
Above: Pit number 2 is completely covered which was initially a disappointment though it was explained to us that it was done to preserve the original colours of the soldiers which would be lost in a matter of days after uncovering due to oxidation processes.
Below: A photo of what the soldiers originally looked like straight after unearthing (no wonder the farmers who originally discovered the site in 1974 ran away thinking they had unearthed an army of the undead!)
Ongoing excavation work in the largest pit (the body bags are still creepy despite only having terracotta in them!)
Overall, we were definitely glad to have seen it though it was spoilt by the huge crowds which meant a lot of pushing and shoving. We didn’t even have time to explore the museum properly such was the crowd crush, I simply had time to see one of the famous bronze chariots albeit from afar (God bless camera zoom) and a few other artefacts unearthed at the site.
My impressions? Well, I can’t help but feel that if such a magnificent archaeological site had been found in another country, the presentation of it would be so much cooler – we all half expected to go underground and see the Terracotta Warriors that way. Instead, we got what looked like aeroplane hangers. Moreover, we also half-expected that in the 36 years since it was discovered (in 1974) that most of the excavation would have been finished by now though I guess this is a rather naïve view of archaeological digs – so perhaps its a good thing that there’s active research still ongoing on site.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a worthwhile site to visit (and the Chinese historical context is fascinating) but perhaps it’ll be better in a few years/decades time when they’ve unearthed even more (will his tomb ever be opened I wonder?) and when domestic tourists are bored with the sight (though I doubt this will ever happen!).
On a random note, how on earth did locals not notice a couple of thousand terracotta warriors when burying their loved ones???
To end the day, when we got back into the city we explored the Muslim Quarter and ate street snacks before heading out to the bar district (no pictures there!):
October the 5th
Today was a rather chilled out day in the city though we still had a lot of fun. First up was a more extensive exploration of the Muslim Quarter which we had hitherto just frequented for food! We picked our way through the narrow streets and bazaars and bargained for various knick-knacks including some designer bags which the girls were thrilled with.
We eventually found the well hidden Great Mosque – a fascinating fusion of Chinese and Islamic architecture. It is a fully active Mosque calling the city’s sizeable Hui muslim population to prayer 5 times a day.
We then wondered through one of Xi’an bigger public parks and found a fairground within it (?!) where we had good ol’ fashioned fun on the rides including a spinning up-and-down one and dodgems. Finally, we had dinner at a really posh Chinese place (you normally have to book but after we left, they ran after us saying that could accommodate us!) to finish off a great day.
Particular special was hearing ‘Tian Mi Mi’ (甜蜜蜜*) – a song that we all had learnt back in Beijing – playing as we left the restaurant and said our farewells (only after dancing outside the restaurant to the amusement of onlookers). Man I’m gunna miss those Tianjin guys but alas, I had leave to catch the train onwards to Pingyao that night for the second part of my ‘golden week’.
- coincidently Tian Mi Mi, sung by the famous Deng LiJung, is one of my mum’s favourite songs.
Have a listen to her hypnotic voice here.
Here are the Chinese lyrics (with, of course, pinyin) and translation if you want to sing along.