Our second stop in China was the capital of Shaanxi, Xi’an. We arrived on the very clean, very exciting, 300Km/h high speed train from Beijing. It was one of the best trains we’ve ever been on! The only downside is that it arrives at Xi’an North, which is a fair way out of the city, but the Metro (of which there are only 2 lines) took us straight to our hostel.
We spent most of the first day eating, as by luck our hostel was within metres of loads of dirt cheap restaurants so we filled up on noodles, fried buns and a strange spicy jelly which I came to love in China. Food was seriously good in Xi’an.
Our first full day was spent walking and sightseeing in the city. We visited the bell and drum towers, which were a nice slice of history but completely surrounded by the modern city – cars and pollution. They were definitely worth seeing though.
We also spent some time walking around the Muslim quarter which is absolutely fascinating – alley after alley of delicious (and some bizarre) food. We were planning to visit the Mosque but honestly we were a bit underwhelmed with it when we found it so didn’t bother.
Xi’an is unusual as it still has its city walls intact – they are apparently the world’s largest! While the modern city obviously has expanded beyond them, they have been restored and are in great condition. As they’re over 8 miles long it would have taken a bit long to walk, so thankfully it was easy and cheap to hire some bikes! Being China, they weren’t old rickety bikes, oh no, they were brand new mountain bikes! It was a lovely relaxing ride, though we had to speed up at the end as you only get 90 minutes and that time soon flies by. It’s a great way to see more of the city, get some exercise, and get away from the pollution and traffic for a while.
Although the city itself is great, and has some interesting sites, Xi’an is mostly famous for one thing – the Terracotta Warriors. They were buried to protect the tomb of the first emperor of China, and discovered by farmers digging a well back in 1974, which prompted an enormous excavation where eventually 6,000+ figures were discovered. Of them, only a portion has so far been excavated.
Again taking advantage of the fact that most sites in China are accessible by public transport, probably because Chinese visitors vastly outnumber foreigners, we took a public bus to the warriors. The bus is #306 and you catch it from the main train station parking lot, I think it cost all of about 7 yuan (70p) each. After about an hour we made it to the site, bought tickets, and started the long walk through a vast complex of new buildings housing shops and fast food outlets. The Chinese have certainly taken every opportunity to commercialise the site.
Ten minutes later we reached the pits. They are all housed in vast hangars, with a museum and visitor centre also. Theres certainly no indication of what is inside at first. We had been advised to visit the smaller 2 pits first, as the largest is the most famous and contains the bulk of the warriors, and the others could be a disappointment in comparison. Unfortunately there was no indication which pit was which, and the first one we entered, you guessed it, was the huge one.
It really is as amazing as the pictures, even more so in fact. However you can of course only see the warriors from the sides, you can’t get in the pit itself, but it’s still a very impressive sight. What I hadn’t realised before visiting was that it is still very much an excavation site – although the front of the hangar has rows and rows of soldiers, the rear has large unexcavated and partially excavated sections, which are guarded and pictures are not allowed to be taken.
After the main pit we moved onto the other two, which as mentioned are far smaller and in some areas are unexcavated or only contain fragments of warriors – some have been pieced back together but seeing all the fragments brings home what a mammoth job it is. We quite enjoyed the other pits, especially as they were a lot quieter than the main one. At the side of one of them is a small museum section with full figures, horses and weapons in glass cases. The only downside was that we couldn’t find the famous bronze horses and chariot.
Overall, it was a fascinating, if quite expensive experience, which is an absolute must see if you come to Xi’an. However the sights in and around the city shouldn’t be missed either. It’s a great place to simply stroll around and enjoy the Chinese culture.
Where we stayed
In Xi’an we stayed in probably the best place so far, Ancient City Youth Hostel. The room was large, spotlessly clean and recently furnished. The hostel had helpful staff, a bar (which was a tad expensive), free pool and table tennis, good WiFi, and cheap self service washing machines. For £10 a night in a double room! It is right next to a Metro station, as mentioned there are countless cheap places to eat nearby, and it is walkable to most of the city (if not there are very cheap buses)