Xi’an, China, home to the Terracotta Warriors

by Dave from The Longest Way Home ~ March 18th, 2008. Updated on August 5th, 2009. Published in: Travel blog » China.

Travel Journal Overview: China is home to the Terracotta army. A world heritage site that’s steeped in history, mystery and intrigue. Surely sounds like my kinda place … then again, expectations are rarely lived up to in travel.

In Xi'an, The Terracotta Army stands (click to enlarge)

In Xi'an, The Terracotta Army stands (click to enlarge)

Unlike Tibet, Xi’an was like being back in the western world. Albeit in Asia. While Lhasa was fast becoming a modern and built up city , it still had a magnificent mountain backdrop. Xi’an’s claim to city fame was an old red bricked wall standing over 30ft that surrounded its former city boundaries. It wasn’t that it was all that impressive architecturally, plain and rounded. But it did give the city a distinctly ancient feel. That coupled with the fact Xi’an was one of the four ancient cities in china’s past.

If you wanted to listen, it was a place that spoke in whispers to you of past civilisations. The five hundred thousand to one million year old Lantian Man was discovered here. The silk road originated here during the Han Dynasty that first linked the Roman empire to Asia. It is where the famous terracotta warriors were discovered and still stand. It is also a place where some say there is evidence of a past linked to Egypt.

Our first day was spent familiarizing ourselves with Xi’an city, China and Chinese people. Chris, Stefan and Quinnell were under pressure for time. They wanted to move soon, and it soon became apparent that I wouldn’t be heading to Beijing with Chris. China and an ancient history did not mean as much to him as catching a flight to a dive site in Thailand. Mara and Natashka on the other hand were up for a longer time in Xi’an to explore the sites.

Number one on list, thanks to Chris, was McDonald’s. Anyone that knows me will tell you I have aversion to McDonald’s due to a ‘Green’ report I had read over ten years ago. But Xi’an was limited when it came to eat in the morning. While the others dined on Mc’something’s I chewed heavily on a steamed pastry of containing the unrecognizable meant of some long dead animal. It gave me a chance to read over one of our hostel owners print outs on laptops.

It was something I had decided I needed for quite some time. Since selling my old one in Turkey due to the weight problem and lack of use I was suffering. Not due to any writing or photographic needs as was the original purpose of bringing it. But more to do with financial security, and life in general for a man on the road like me. There wasn’t a time when I sat at public internet café and dreaded logging into my bank account. Key loggers, spy ware and all manner of security issues had me driven crazy with paranoia. Then there was Kathmandu and Lhasa. I had fought for a day with the guest house’s pc to upload the first riot photograph’s, and then in Lhasa I had nothing. Even uploading was not enough, in Lhasa I would have needed software to blur out the Tibetans faces before uploading. Even uploading itself was impossible without a laptop, my photographs are over 5 megabytes and I have two memory cards infected due to having no anti virus. It was worth the risk any more. I was in the land that seemed to produce ninety percent of the worlds cheap electronics, so where better to buy.

While I enjoyed their company the most, I was also aware that Natashka spoke Chinese quite well. Having her come along on a shopping spree would be a huge asset once it came to bartering. Bill had given us a list of places to visit that were thankfully all located together. Both a new and old computer market.

“It’s like Wal-mart on steroids.”

That was the last we saw of Chris as he disappeared off into the I-pod section of X-division mega PC mall. It was 9 floors of wall to wall computers. Three of which were dedicated to laptops. The air hummed with electronic gadgetry, a computer nerds wet dream. By contrast the old computer market across the road was as close as a nerd could get to being involved in shady Mafia style computer dealings. The old market had only two floors, but in comparisons anything electronic, working or not, was put on display for sale.

There were no neon signs here. No centralised air conditioning. Instead lone air conditioning units stood beside a few vendors stalls. Blowing cool air onto the owner while on the other side of the unit hot air billowed out onto his neighbour. No one grabbed at us. Perhaps because few spoke no more than a few words of English.

For some reason everyone had wanted to come along. The lure of Xi’an or perhaps just because we now shared some kind of bond. At night we spoke of how Lhasa would live with us forever, it didn’t mean we would stay together forever. But the feelings and memories of those few days were a part of us now. In a way I think we were trying to make it last out a bit longer; the feeling of that unique once in a life time experience.

My bank account was not happy to hear laptop prices were not so cheap. Worse still was the fact that it was not possible to pay by credit card. Harder again was the fact I had spotted the ideal machine, it weighed in at under 1kg. A travellers delight.

After spending the rest of the day catching up on international news on China and the growing Tibet situation we located the bus that would take us to the Terracotta Army the next day.

“Whoa, their like real dude!”

And that was the last we saw of Chris as he tore off from our mandatory guide at the armies site. ‘8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots with 520 horses and 150 cavalry horses’. Well that’s what the brochure said. We followed LP’s instructions and started at the smallest pit where the warriors stood. Unlike the Taj or Everest I had once experienced a 3D movie about the army. It was better.

8,000 soldiers in my mind is quite a number. What was laid out in the largest of the pits, number 1, was not so impressive. If no one had mentioned 8,000 soldiers or world heritage site then it would have been impressive. Like a maze of drainage ditches the soldiers were lined up in formation or various lengths below us. We stood on the viewing platform and attempted some shaky dark photographs. The lighting was poor. Yet somehow the nearby shop selling photographs was lit up like it was New Years eve. A little know fact about the soldiers is that they are actually all reconstructed. A large portion of the pits were filled with broken and smashed up parts of terracotta soldiers. One got the feeling you did as a child when you broke a vase or a pot. The temptation for super glue and a super sized jigsaw puzzle was quite strange.

Chris wanted out after and hour. The rest of us continued to try in vain and find something impressive. It came as we were leaving pit number one. The site people were moving some soldiers for some reason. It allowed us a close up look at about six of them. The original paint work was still quite visible and to see it so close made the trip worth while.

Stefan was next to lose interest, and although the rest of us were hanging on to every shred of hope. We too soon departed. Not after our, up until then nice, guide decided to take us on a huge detour into the market shops for all things terracotta. If only she had just taken us to our bus stop. She could have gained more on a tip that way then being told to ‘Get lost’ by the Slovenians.

It was on the way back on the local bus that I saw a pyramid. Not a giant Giza, or mysterious Mayan temple. But a brand new looking perfect four sided pyramid that stood about 30 feet into the air. ‘Museum of Art’ was the sign outside. My heart rate rose a little. Such temptation for my real reason in coming all the way to Xi’an. The Slovenians saw my excitement and had to admit it looked interesting. Why was there a newly built Egyptian style Pyramid in Xi’an? The answer to me was that it was some clever business man that new what I did, something was about to happen to Xi’an that would do more to boost it’s reputation as a tourist destination than the terracotta warriors could ever hope too.

It had taken a long sit down with Bill at the hostel to finally explain where and what I wanted to see when I said ‘Pyramids’. It took me several months in Asia to figure out that unlike in Africa or Europe it’s not just the pronunciation of a world that can send confusion into the eyes of your conversation counterpart. One had to guess the right word as well. Pyramid meant nothing to Bill. Nothing at all, yet educated pride meant that he had to agree to know what a Pyramid was. Yet in reality we just knew what one looked like. So it made little sense to him about what I was going on about. It was only when I asked him to print out a leaflet of information I had stored on my email 5 years previously did he click. Tombs. That was the magic word made us both smiles as he pointed out the location of these mysterious burial sites dotted around Xi’an. What’s more, there was bus he knew that could take me there.

Mara and Natashka were the only ones that wanted to some with me. I don’t know why. Maybe my train side stories with Mara about searching for the Knights Templar Well in Portugal and Morocco had her inspired. Either way the dark clouds that morning did little to inspire her thereafter. A little Chinese taxi man Bill had called showed up to take us to the bus. He came in,looked at us, spoke to the receptionist, and then left. I asked the girl what was wrong and she shrugged. I called Bill on his mobile and chased after the taxi man as he got into the car. Handing the my phone to the man I waited for the conversation to finish before Bill explained to me the problem.

“He no speak English”

“Well that’s fine Bill,” I said trying to make sense of the logic. “He’s just taking us to the bus, not explaining anything to us.”

“Yes he do this now.” Replied Bill, “I explain. You go with him now. He just worry about the bus. But I say you be fine. You go now. He hurry for bus.”

Some related links on this website that  you might like: (including a lot more photographs from Tibet)

Stories: Surviving the Riots in Tibet

Stories: Watching the Chinese Army Move into Lhasa

Resources: All about getting a Tibet Permit / Visa

Resources: How to Guide – Nepal to Tibet Overland

Tibet Travel Guide

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