Some say that the Terracotta Warriors are the 8th Wonder of the World. We were in Beijing, just an overnight train ride away, so we decided to give them a visit. We ended up staying in the Xian area nearly a week. Although I don’t agree with the grand proclamations about the Terracotta Warriors being a “must see,” it was a good stop.
There is a high-speed train from Beijing to Xian (sometimes spelled Xi’an, pronounced Chee-ahn). It takes about 5 hours, and costs a bit more than the overnight train. We opted to go on the much slower, overnight train. By going overnight, we got a night’s lodging and lost minimal daylight hours traveling. The train was cleaner and newer than our Chinese-run trains on the Trans-Mongolian route. We ended up in the “hard sleeper” class, which was an open floor plan (no compartments) similar to the Russian third-class carriages, but it worked fine. With longer beds only on one side of the aisle, I recommend it.
Getting to the Terracotta Warriors from Xian is another hour by bus, so we did that the next day. There are various buses, but they are numbered so fairly easy to figure out. We picked the bus we wanted, not the one that a salesperson in the bus lot near the train station tried to steer us to.
The story of their discovery is pretty amazing: a farmer digging a well found the terracotta warriors in the 70’s. Now they are a huge tourist attraction. As usual for China, the vast majority of the tourists are Chinese.
I enjoyed visiting all three excavated pits, though pits two and three have very few upright and complete statues. I hadn’t realized that the site had been largely destroyed shortly after it’s creation, so most of the warrior figures were not buried intact. Restoration is ongoing.
Pit one houses a large number of upright figures. They are all unique. It’s impressive. However, the photo below is somewhat misleading. The photo suggests that the line-up of terracotta warriors fills the entire hanger area. In fact, I’d estimate that only about 20% of the area is filled with intact warriors, the rest of the area is still under excavation or is being used as a staging ground for restoration work.
A visit to the Terracotta Warriors is a good half day trip. I wouldn’t advise flying to China from the US or Europe just to see them. But if you’re in Northern China it’s worth a visit, especially since you can also visit Xian and Mt. Huashan.
Xian’s Muslim Street
Xian is was the ancient capital of China and the end of the Silk Road. Old (refurbished) city walls still encircle the city center, though the inside is filled with mostly modern buildings. We enjoyed staying on the “Muslim Street,” a lively tree-lined avenue with food vendors along the sidewalks. It’s easy to enjoy many small dishes on a stroll, like fried spiced tofu, deep fried squid (or crab on a stick — which I advise against… so messy), or interesting deserts.
Note: deep fried squid: eat as is. Deep fried crab is not soft shell. Annoying to eat. Get the squid.
But the big tasty surprise was the Biang Biang noodles, a thick noodle served with spices, vegetables, and if you like, meat. A good place, like the one across the street from our hotel, keeps the “noodles” as uncooked dough until you place an order, then cook it in hot water just before serving it. We returned to the same shop to eat these delicious noodles at least four times. It was worth it.
Most of Xian’s Muslims are Hui Muslims, meaning they are ethnic Chinese who practice Islam (as distinguished from Uighurs, whose language has Turkic origins and many of whom reside in Xinjiang, China’s westernmost province). Islam reached China in the 700s, and the mosque in Xian, though rebuilt, dates from that era. Also the mosque looks less like a Moroccan/Bosnian mosque and more like a traditional Chinese temple. I don’t pretend to understand the (often-criticized) relationship between the state and religious authorities in China, but it’s clear that religious minorities persist in China.
Other Xian City Attractions
After several months of travel, we aren’t really interested in museums or most sights. But Xian had a few that we enjoyed. The Drum Tower had live music, with more than just drums. It was free with admission to the tower, and also had good views. Elizabeth took a video of part of the performance.
We didn’t go up the Bell Tower, but we saw it often. It is in the middle of a traffic circle, on top of a subway station, and there is a pedestrian concourse below it (though the escalators don’t work — none of the many escalators that we saw in Xian worked).
Xian also has 14 kilometers of intact city wall. You can rent a bicycle and it’s flat enough to ride (fixed gear only — Chinese hipsters I guess) but it seemed to have too many pedestrians for biking so we walked half way around instead. Of course after a few minutes of walking we were away from most pedestrians, so biking would have been fine, but we just kept going on foot. You get a good sense of the city from the wall. While the city center inside the wall is mostly modern buildings, there are taller buildings on the outside of the walls.
We only made one overnight excursion from Xian, to Huashan. We climbed the mountain during a snowstorm, which Elizabeth previously described. This and other excursions are served by buses and trains. High speed trains here are nice, smooth, and fast. They travel on elevated platforms so they never have road crossings. But their stations are often outside the city center. Going from Xian to Huashan, we took the subway for what felt like an hour to the station, then a long taxi ride from the Huashan station to town. Our return trip, on a bus, took about the same net time, starting next door to our hotel in Huashan and dropping us inside the city wall in Xian.
On our trips in and out of the city center, we noticed a lot of high-rise buildings. And a lot of them are unfinished. We don’t really know why — China seems to build stuff without having a clear purpose for its immediate. It is strange to realize that whole complexes of buildings are unfinished. It’s not an exaggeration to say that we probably saw 50 or more unfinished towers.
After about a week, lengthened because we didn’t know where to go next, we decided that we were tired of cold weather. We had planned on visiting Yunnan province in Southern China, but the extended weather forecast there was calling for two weeks of cold and rain. After dealing with snow on Huashan Mountain and rain most of our time in Xian city, we decided to head for warmer weather instead.
So we booked tickets and flew to Hong Kong!
[This blog post describes our visit to Xian, China from October 25-30, 2016.]