03.-04.06.2014: Xi'an

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Xi'an is the capital of Shaanxi province, located in the northwest of the People's Republic of China, and home to more than 8 million people. Xi'an is one of the Four Great Ancient Capitals of China, having held the position under several of the most important dynasties in Chinese history,including Zhou, Qin, Han, Sui, and Tang. Xi'an is the starting point of the Silk Road and home to the Terracotta Army of Emperor Qin Shi Huang.

Terracotta Army

The Terracotta Army is one of the most famous archaeological finds in the world that remained buried for 2,200 years until 1974. Peasants who were drilling a well got a very big surprise when they uncovered an underground vault containing thousands of terracotta soldiers and horses in battle formation.

The vault was built in 221 BC to guard the soul of Qin Shi Huang, the man who fought wars to unify China. He came to power at the early age of 13 and became renowned as a tyrant. He outlawed Confucianism and had all texts burned. According to legend, he also buried 460 top scholars alive! But it is hard to overstate the magnitude of his accomplishments.

During his 36 year reign he created an efficient, centralised government, standardised measurements, currency and, most importantly, writing, built over 6,400 km of new roads and canals, conquered 6 major kingdoms and unified China, all before turning 40. However, he did this by enslaving hundreds of thousands of people so his reputation is very dark!

The First Emperor of China

Of course, such a man wanted the largest vault and historians say that over 700,000 workers were drafted in to build the 56 square kilometre tomb. It is still only partially excavated (it takes two archaeologists one year to excavate one soldier) as it is such painstaking work to put damaged soldiers and artefacts back together. It took 30 years just to build the current centre to display the three pits and the whole tomb will not be fully excavated within our lifetimes.

Documentary: China's Terracotta Army

Tue, 03.06.2014: Xi'an, sunny/cloudy/rain, 34°C

My first job in the morning was to go around the corner to the 7/11 shop we'd seen as we passed in the taxi in the early hours of this morning. We needed drinking water and some sugar so we could make a cup of tea. Vitally important!

On my way back to our room I checked out the hostel restaurant. They were about to finish serving breakfast so I dashed upstairs to fetch Kirsten and we had an omelette and odd tasting sausages wrapped in bacon. At least it was something that we recognised so we can't complain!

After using the hostels coin operated washing machines to get all of our washing done and hanging it out on lines on the third floor terrace, we spent 4 hours wandering around Xi'an. It is a large city with several modern shopping malls and food courts.

The China we saw 17 years ago was very different. That trip took us over the Kunjerab Pass from Pakistan and along the silk route, then through central China heading south via Hong Kong and then west into Vietnam. The only major city we saw was Chengdu and we didn't go over to the eastern side of the country.

This trip would take us to three major cities - Xi'an, Shanghai and the capital Beijing - but we would not be seeing rural China. We realised that things had changed a great deal in 17 years. The China of today is very modern and it is obvious that the ordinary person on the street has money.

We have just spent months in the Himalayas trekking and then a whirlwind trip through Tibet, so being in a huge city again felt almost alien. We had a map from the hostel and went to see various sights - the Bell Tower, Drum Tower and a mosque, and trying to get used to the noise level, traffic and crowds.

We wandered around a pedestrian area staring at weird-looking cakes and other food items, and watched as some kind of dough was stretched, mixed with sesame seeds, rolled out and chopped into small pieces. It actually didn't taste too bad!

It was quite a lively outdoor market with lots going on. We saw pigs trotters and kidneys ready to eat or on skewers about to be cooked. There was some kind of cake soaked in a liquid which we didn't try. It's not that we aren't adventurous, just careful after India especially as I still have problems!

We braved the metro during rush hour for one stop back to our hostel. We had to get coins for the machines to get a metro card. You can get rechargeable cards but we worked out that it wouldn't be worth it for us and we'd just use coins. Our journey cost us 30 US cents each. We also made a quick stop into KFC - I know it's hardly authentic Chinese and it wasn't very good either.

Xi'an Sightseeing

By the time we had fetched our washing in and I had written my diary it was already 9pm. Where did the day go?

The real reason we had come to Xi'an was to see the famous Terracotta Army which we did the next day.

Wed, 04.06.2014: Xi'an, sunny/cloudy, 28°C

When planning this whole trip it was my idea to include a visit to the Terracotta Army as it had been too far away from our trip route 18 years ago when we were travelling through China. Back then there wouldn't have been much to see. In fact even recent reports showed that most people were disappointed because the viewing areas were too far away from the terracotta soldiers and horses. So we weren't sure what to expect.

We caught a bus which took over an hour to get to a car park where we were told to get off. There were no signs or anything to tell us we were in the right place and we got harassed by people constantly asking us if we wanted a guide. That's the reason there are no signs and no information.

We managed to find where to go and walked quite a distance past numerous shops and stalls selling terracotta souvenirs etc. and finally got to the barriers only to be told we had to get tickets from the ticket office which was a 15 minute walk back where we'd come from!! No signs for it but we could get tickets at a higher price without having to go back - yet another trick to get tourists to part with more money.

We finally made it to the ticket office but were already losing patience with the lack of information and constant persistence of guides to get us to pay them for their services. At one point Kirsten reverted back to her "Indian alter ego" and shouted "shut up" to one badgering guide who kept interrupting us.

It was not a good introduction but we got our tickets, walked back to the barriers to get through into the visitor complex and went to the information centre which we dubbed the "No Information Centre." All of this had taken us over an hour since we had arrived!

After watching a movie (made in the 70s and therefore quality deficient) played on a 360 degree set of screens, we finally walked into Pit 1 which is the largest of the three pits and were totally awestruck and amazed! It must have recently changed because we felt like we had front row seats.

It really was incredible to see rows and rows of terracotta soldiers interspersed with chariots and horses that were over 2,200 years old. We spent 3 hours wandering through the three pits housing the main areas of the vault and various museum rooms.

All the soldiers had different faces and hairstyles. Their weapons had been removed for protection against the elements. There were even chrome plated bronze weapons - a remarkable fact seeing as chrome plating wasn't "discovered" until 1937 and 1950 in Germany and the US! Yet here it was thousands of years before that being used in China!

The famous Terracotta Army in Xi'an

Despite the initial problems we were so impressed that we were both extremely happy that we'd had this destination on our list and that we'd got here. It really was worth it!

We were very tired when we left the visitor centre and only had enough time to wolf down a couple of Subway sandwiches before everywhere closed. We got the bus back to Xi'an and then the metro to our hotel and didn't get back to our room until 7-20pm and had to do our packing. It had been a very long and tiring day but one of the many highlights of this trip.