After being in the country for over a week travelling independently with my friend who spoke Mandarin, it was time for me to go it alone for a couple of days. I could not visit China and miss the Terracotta Army, which I remember learning about at school, all those many years ago, and had dreamed of seeing in real life ever since.
I was travelling there from Chengdu and with limited flight options to Xi’an, which didn’t fit into my packed schedule, and the fact that I wanted to travel overland as much as possible, I decided to book onto an overnight sleeper, taking just over 15 hours. Loaded up with snacks, podcast’s and a good book, I managed to find my carriage and bed with help from what seemed to be the only other English speaking person on the train (a Chinese-American from Seattle) and got settled in for my journey.
Taking the vacant top bunk, I met the family I was sharing the cabin with, my plans to rest and read on hold as it became apparent my young neighbour on the opposite bunk, wanted to play and wave for pretty much the entire trip. I’m not complaining, he was lovely and enjoyed watching the scenery and sharing snacks as much as I did.
I caught the train mid afternoon, and as well as playtime with my young companion, I sat out in the carriageway on one of the little drop down seats to watch the incredible landscape pass me by. Tiny little villages flew past, then miles and miles of nothing but countryside, bridges, rivers and mountains. It was a part of China I wouldn’t get to see on this journey, I was only sticking to the big cities, but it made me day dream of a future trip where I could get off the beaten path a little bit more.
Then came the night time, and although I had a broken sleep, I luckily wasn’t sharing my cabin with a snorer and managed to get some rest. It was still dark when I arrived at Xi’an station in the Shaanxi Province, and with my hostel name and address written down, I waved it in front of a taxi driver and within a few minutes he pulled up outside the Hangtang Inn Hostel door. Had I been more awake and arriving in proper daylight I may had figured my way there on foot, but the taxi wasn’t expensive and it was my first full day travelling alone in the country so getting a taxi felt the safer and more sensible option.
I had a lazy sleep in, and with 2 days to spend in the city, I decided to spend a quiet day wandering around the ancient city, with day two earmarked for my trip to the giant terracotta warriors.
Xi’an is one of the oldest cities in China, and so its overflowing with history and culture so I was happy to just wander around aimlessly soaking it all in. The centre of the old city is enclosed by old city walls and right in the centre is the Bell Tower which made a good navigational point so I didn’t get too lost.
The bell tower was lit up bright red in preparation for the New Year definitely making up for the cold grey, smoky skyline. There was two levels to explore, a spiral staircase to climb and of course the huge bell, although the original is now on display in a museum, There are many legends associated with the tower, one being that there used to be a powerful dragon in the river who was always causing earthquakes in the region. A strong iron chain was attached to the dragon from the bell tower and was used to restrain him under the water so he could never cause trouble again, and to this day there haven’t been any more earthquakes!
For lunch I explored the many food stalls and markets in the area, full of dumplings, noodles and tofu sizzling away, it all smelt delicious. I was surprised to find a Muslim quarter too, selling kebabs, cakes and breads, I was really spoilt for choice and just grazed my way through the small passageways.
The rest of the afternoon was spend exploring the the city walls and the Daci’en Temple complex, specifically to see the Wild Goose Pagoda. The Pagoda was built during the Tang Dynasty (618 to 907 AD), it’s full of Buddhist artefacts, including golden statues, figurines and artwork. From the top you have a great panorama of the city around you, whilst down below at the entrance, buckets of incense burn slowly, giving the air a scented, smoky feel.
That evening, I wandered far longer than I should have, trying to find a place to eat. Many places didn’t have any menu’s translated into English, and after my recent fail with the spicy Sechuan food, I fancied something simple, veggie and none spicy, but still traditional. I eventually found a menu with pictures and had written down the word for ‘vegetarian or vegetables’ and I succeeded in ordering a huge pile of stir fried greens with plain rice and lots of green tea – a total success!
The next morning I was up early to catch the tourist bus from Xi’an train station to the Terracotta Army, bus 306 had an English sign in the window, making it plain and easy to board the correct one. It’s also the bus where all the tourist looking people were hanging around (i.e holding camera bags, bottles of water and bulky rucksacks) all of us wanting the same destination. It takes about 90 minutes to get there and the journey costs just under £1 each way. Although there are many options for private tours, the public bus was clean, easy and dropped you right off outside the world heritage site, and at such a tiny cost, there was no way I could justify spending a lot more for basically the same ride.
The terracotta army is indeed one of China’s most famous and renowned sites, but it is also one of the most famous archeological sites in the entire world. I remember being fascinated at a young age learning about the thousands of life sized statues buried underground but still standing to attention, as they guarded China’s 1st ever Emperor in his vast tomb. Discovered only in the 1970’s, the site is still a working excavation area, and even now, more of the army is continuing to be uncovered. There are 3 main pits you can visit, and I had been advised to visit them in reverse order, as Pit 1, is the largest and most impressive of the 3 and makes for a great finale.
So far over 8000 warriors have been excavated and the number is growing, so basically this UNESCO site is not only an historic museum, but also a working archeological site and you can see workers painstakingly dusting off new discoveries during your visit. Each of the thousands of warriors has its own unique face, along with chariots, weapons and horses, its absolutely fascinating to see, as you start to notice different hairstyles, clothing, footwear as well as their individual facial expressions.
Pit 3, which I left till the end was incredible, housed inside a building the size of an aircraft hanger, 2000 warriors all stand to attention facing east, with another 6000 potentially still to be uncovered. As I walked around the perimeter trying to take it all in, I noticed everyone just like me, peering down open mouthed at the sheer vastness of this historic discovery. Yet another day in China that will stay with me forever.
It was mid afternoon as I caught the bus back into Xi’an and then another short walk via the hostel to collect my bags and I was back to the main train station. I had a late afternoon train to catch onward to Beijing, taking about 5 hours on the incredibly futuristic looking bullet train. I even opted for 1st class, it being a luxury I can’t afford back home in the UK, it was worth it, I got a reclining window seat, snacks and unlimited green tea.
The views started off nice and clear, and I got to witness more small countryside villages, rivers and mountains in the distance, but the closer we got to Beijing the harder it became to see much at all. The hazy polluted air became thicker all around and I had to almost rely on the train guard to let me know when we had arrived.
Beijing was unlike any place I had visited before, and so I was glad that I had been in the country for a couple of weeks before my arrival to this loud, frenetic, serious capital city. Those first 2 weeks had given me time to adapt to the pace of Chinese city life and familiarise myself with certain words and signs, so I was able to figure out enough to get myself to the hostel without getting too lost. There I was reunited with my friend who had flown in from Wuhan, our final leg of this Chinese trip was about to commence. . .
Eats – I ended up eating at a food court, there was so much choice, and although all the menus were only in Chinese, all the food is on display, so you can look and point at the food that looks the most appetising to you.
Coffee and Cake – As well as delicious savoury foods, the Muslim Quarter had stalls full of cakes and fruits, it was a sheer delight to wander though.
Top Tip – If you are doing the Terracotta Warriors independently, don’t bother with the audio guide, I had been told its not great quality and hard to understand. Just get a map, wear your most comfy shoes and head off on your own, its all you need.
Always be polite – bù xiè xie！ “No thank you” (if the audio guide sellers get a bit pushy!)