In China, the most important holidays of the year are the Chinese New Year and the Spring Festival, for which everyone gets a lengthy vacation to celebrate with their families and to perform the ritual of spring cleaning. All the English teachers at our school were granted six weeks of holiday leave and a travel stipend of 3,000 RMB each, or about $500US. For our holiday, Kelly and I decided to do a whirlwind tour of Southeast Asia, including short stops in Xi’an, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Cambodia. Fortunately, our stipends paid for all of our airfare. In this entry, we will describe our visit to Xi’an.
Once we had finished teaching and submitted our grades we packed our bags and took off the next day for the train station. The train ride was a 13-hour affair during which we could admire the countryside, with its picturesque rice paddies beside factories beside hillside mining operations beside small family landholdings, from the comfort of our “soft sleeper” beds. Chinese trains have the option of “hard seat,” “soft seat,” “hard sleeper,” and “soft sleeper.” For such a long ride, the choice of soft sleeper was obvious because not only do you have a bed but also there are only four beds to a compartment with a door for privacy and to protect your belongings. We each traveled with a mostly empty (to make room for souvenirs) backpacking backpack.
We set off at around 4 PM and arrived in Xi’an at around 5:30 AM on January 17th. It was still dark outside and the car we had arranged to take us to our hostel wouldn’t be arriving until 6, so we killed time by wandering around the bustling train station. There was some confusion with the taxi, though at this point neither of us were surprised, but after a few phone calls we met with the driver who took us to our hostel, the Han Tang House. The hostel was a very nice place, one of the best we have ever stayed in, with a helpful staff, western food (!), and elegant dark wood interior. Our room was an 8-bed room with comfortable bunk beds. We claimed our bunks, had breakfast, left our bags in the secured luggage area, and set off to wander.
With map in hand, we struck out with a few destinations in mind: The Bell and Drum Towers, the muslim district, the city wall and the Wild Goose Pagoda. Unfortunately the Towers were closed for renovation for the Chinese New Year festivities so they were each covered in a green mesh screen.We stumbled upon the residential part of the muslim district where we found apartments, community mosques, and shops where the ingredients were sold to restaurants.
We saw a fair amount of the city within the 1,500-year-old walls, which are the most complete in China. Built during the Ming dynasty, this wall is one of the largest ancient defensive military structures in the world, standing 40-feet tall, 40-46 feet wide at the top, and 50-60 feet wide at the bottom. The city has a gate on either side and each gate has three towers. The wall is surrounded by a moat which is crossed by bridges that were once suspension bridges that were raised and lowered from the towers. There are 98 ramparts that rise from the wall complete with sentry towers. Not only is it an impressive structure, but it makes navigating this large city a little easier.
Once we left the city walls we quickly became lost. We walked for hours and learned that our map was tremendously out of scale, and inaccurate. Tired of walking, we caught a cab to the Big Wild Goose Pagoda. This is a Buddhist temple that was built in 652, during the Tang dynasty. Over the years it has suffered through various collapses due to its original dirt construction and an earthquake in 1556. It has been extensively reconstructed a number of times and now stands at a height of 210 feet.
After we walked around this impressive structure, we decided to take the bus back to the center of town to our hostel. We waited for a long time, then inadvertently got on a bus going the wrong direction but everyone else on the bus was kind enough to communicate our error by gesturing and pointing. Once we had righted ourselves, we went back to the city center to try to find the famous muslim commercial quarter. Foreigners and muslims have been a part of Xi’an’s population since the 8th century. Xi’an is the starting point of the Silk Road so it has long been home to foreign traders.
Today, the muslim district is a bustling commercial area with a myriad of traditional snacks, souvenirs, and family-operated stores. This soon became our favorite area and we came back for every meal. The narrow streets are lined with vendors and packed with people during any hour of the day. It is a place full of vitality: with people shouting, steam billowing from pots, a frenzy of smells, rows of bright colored food and wares, the beep and whir of electric motorcycles inching their way through the crowd, and hundreds upon hundreds of people. It felt like being inside the veins of some colossal beast, each person a cell weaving through a tide of other cells. Every inch is teeming with life.
The next day, we got up early to take the bus to Xi’an’s most famous attraction, Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s Terracotta Army. The discovery of the army of warriors and horses was announced in March of 1974, but actually it was discovered before that by farmers who were so terrified by the lifelike appearance of the painted figures that they didn’t share their discovery. Before they were exposed to light and air, each of the figures was elaborately painted, giving it the appearance of being a real person, so when the farmers first saw the army locked in their underground chamber they were convinced that they were ghosts.
This is one of China’s most famous cultural treasures and seeing them in person was incredible. The three unearthed pits containing the army are estimated to contain 8,000 soldiers and 670 horses. Archeologists are still excavating and piecing together the broken soldiers. Many of them were broken when the original wooden ceiling collapsed, but also during the construction of some of the museum halls. They are waiting until x-ray technology improves to ensure that no more artifacts are damaged during excavation.
Each warrior is different and is based on a real soldier from Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s army.They all have armor, different facial features, and mustaches (all men had mustaches except criminals who were forced to shave). After the terracotta army was completed, every worker and artisan was killed in order to keep the army for the afterlife a secret. Our view from the bus on the way to the Terracotta museum.
Kneeling archer with a crossbowMiddle ranking officer. He tummy is visible, but not like the high ranking officer. High Ranking Officer. He has the biggest belly and fullest cheeks because he is fed more and drinks more.Calvary man with his saddled war horse.
Notice all of the warriors have different layers of armor. Young, and ‘expendable’ warriors have little to no armor. The longer a soldier lived and the more battles he survived, the more armor and rank he was awarded.This is a photo taken of some warriors moments after they were unearthed. Moments later, the paint disintegrated due to the exposure to sun and oxygen. Now we can see why the farmers were terrified when first they discovered these statues.Restorative artists have no shortage of work, as some of the pits are full of pieces they first label then put back together like a 3D jigsaw puzzle. Eventually, they return the artifacts to their original pit.
The next day, we visited another museum about 12 miles outside the city. The Yangling Mausoleum of the Han Dynasty contains artifacts from the joint tombs of Emperor Liu Qi and Empress Wang. It is an underground museum on a large complex which includes a central mausoleum and 86 outside pits. There were more artifacts found at this site than at the Terracotta Army but the figures are 1/10th the size. The figures represent a wider range of characters also, including females, servants, concubines, eunuchs, villagers, and animals.
After the museum, we went back to the city to see the Temple of the Eight Immortals, the largest Taoist temple in Xi’an. It is a beautiful place with brightly painted walls and statues. It is said to have been built during the Song Dynasty (960-1279).
Then, we went back to the muslim quarter to feast again. One of our favorite snacks is this rice thing on a stick called Jing Gao or eight treasure rose mirror cake. It is steamed and then dipped in sugar syrup and nuts. Yum! Mi is eating the rice cake and Kelly is eating zongzi, a traditional rice snack for the dragon boat festival.
We had a wonderful 4 days in Xi’an. We ate exotic foods, visited cultural landmarks, and met some cool people at our hostel. Stay tuned for our next entry! The next stop on our vacation is Bangkok, Thailand.