Before the 1970s, not many people in the western world had heard of the ancient Chinese city of Xi'an. That all changed in 1974, when a local farmer and a few of his friends were digging a well and stumbled upon one of the most extraordinary finds of recent times: the now famed Terracotta Warriors. Today, Xi'an is a world-renowned city that attracts million of tourists annually, including both domestic Chinese and international visitors. And while it's true that people come for the warriors, they also find that there is so much more to this city. After all, the warriors were placed here because over 2,000 years ago the Emperor Qin Shihuang made Xi'an his capital of Qin Dynasty China. His reason for doing so? Apparently Xi'an has the perfect combination of Feng Shui, the right level of wind and water balanced with the surrounding hills and rivers.
My girlfriend and I decided that, being in China, we should take advantage of the chance to see the warriors, which are now listed both as a UNESCO World Heritage site and, if you believe the Xi'an tourism board, the 'unofficial' eighth wonder of the ancient world. We flew into Xi'an and caught the bus that would take us into the city centre. The jaunt was rather straightforward, as it was all helpfully signposted in English, which you can’t take for granted in China. The journey on the airport shuttle bus takes about an hour and drops you off outside one of Xi'an’s attractions: the ancient bell tower. Our hostel was within walking distance from there, so we set off to find it and, after dumping our bags, we were both keen to explore the place.
Xi'an’s history goes back over 3,000 years. As well as being an ancient capital, it also served as the easternmost point on the Silk Road that linked China with the Arab world, trading everything from silk and spices to porcelain. This trade had obviously attracted Muslim traders to Xi'an, some of whom stayed and whose descendents remain. As a result, Xi'an has a substantial Muslim quarter, which, among other things, is home to the oldest mosque in China. This area of Xi'an was first on our list.
Today the mosque is surrounded by the small compact streets that make it a squeeze to pass another person with stores on either side. If you can handle the constant harassment of the hawkers who, when seeing a foreign face see dollar signs, then the Muslim quarter is definitely worth seeing. It’s not only the mosque but also the distinctive food that is sold here. It’s a combination of Arabic and Chinese, so there is a lot of lamb and also lots of delicious breads which is all, of course, cooked with plenty of oil.
We decided to end the day with a stroll around the city wall. Finding it is no problem; you just walk straight until you can't anymore! Finding your way up to the top proves more difficult, as the entrance is not obviously marked. We realized that in order to get to the ticket office and the steps up we first had to cross four lanes of traffic with no lights to help. The wall itself offered up a great perspective from which to see the city both inside and outside the fortification. The city within was marked by shorter buildings no more than five or six storeys tall, most of which had traditional facades giving the impression of an old style Chinese city. The city without, however, was completely different. Modern skyscrapers and apartment blocks, which are in keeping with every other big city in China, dominate Xi'an’s skyline. It was pretty obvious to me which was the nicest way to look.
After maybe an hour's walking, we made it from the west gate to the south gate and came off the wall. It was a nice relaxing stroll, but having walked on a quarter of the way around we figured it would take about four hours to do the whole thing. If this doesn't sounds particularly appealing but you'd still like to take advantage of the views, there are options of rending bikes from several places on top of the walls. And for an additional expense, worth it some might say, you can drop your rented bike off at any point when you're done.
The next day we got up early with a plan to visit the warriors. My girlfriend speaks enough Chinese that we felt we could wing it there on our own without paying the price the hostel charged for their tour. We'd heard that there was local transport, bus 309 that left just outside the city wall's north gate and went all the way to the warriors' home. Upon arrival at the gate, we were immediately harassed by people trying to sell us maps, tours, souvenirs and the like. As we approached the bus we were stopped several times by people who claimed their tour was the best and by far the cheapest deal you could get, with some even adding that bus #309 didn't exist!
Eventually we made it through the peddlers and the mass of people at the bus terminal, and made it to the 309 ticket office. Just outside the office there was a table with a sign and two women, in uniforms, selling tickets for the bus. We paid our 15RMB each (about US $2.50), and started to make our way towards the big bus with the 309 sign in the window. One of the women said no, adding that the bus we were going on was parked around the corner. This was the first red flag of suspicion. The second was when we saw we weren’t taking a bus but a minibus. As we’d paid, we thought we may as well get on but agreed that if they asked for more money we would refuse and just buy our own tickets to get in to see the warriors.
As expected, as soon as we were clear of the city, the 'guide' came on the microphone and let us all know about the places we were going and how they were a once in a lifetime experience so we shouldn’t worry about the cost. This was another surprise as we thought we were going on a direct trip to the warriors. She talked for a long time about these places then she, along with a couple of helpers placed around the bus started asking everyone for money. At this request the two of us refused. Their argument was that we would be going to four places and if we didn’t pay we would just have to wait all day. We told them we were more than happy to do this as we were only here for the warriors and didn’t want to see anything else. After a while they gave up and went to find easier money.
Just as the woman announced we were only moments away from the first destination, the bus started to slow down and pulled in to a resting stop on the side of the road. We were reassured that nothing was wrong and we would be on the way again shortly. Ten, 15, 20 minutes went by. Eventually it was confirmed that what we suspected was indeed true: this was a scam bus and the local police were making an effort to stop this sort of business. After a long delay, lots of standing about and several cross words, we eventually got our money back and the bus drove off back to Xi'an with the phony tour guide and her two helpers as her only passengers. Leaving us stranded at the side of the highway, the police were not especially helpful in suggesting what we were supposed to do next as they were too concerned with catching the next scam bus. Luckily as we stood around wondering what on earth we were meant to do next the trusty 309 came into view. We flagged it down and after another 15 minutes got to our destination: the Terracotta Warriors.
The ticket prices for the warriors were 300RMB, about $45, which seems expensive though prices are rising almost every year; if you are planning to go, it would make sense to go sooner rather than later. They are, without a doubt however, well worth the visit. The scale of them is just enormous, and they are more made more phenomenal by the thought that they were made around the same time that the Romans were coming to prominence in the West. Each warriors face and hairstyle is different and, as there are three massive halls filled with the warriors, the sheer scale of this project is enormous. And for China to just forget that the existed for over 2,000 years is simply mind blowing. It makes you wonder what other extraordinary things from past the country has simply been forgotten about!
The next day we enjoyed some of the city's other attractions, including the ancient Big Goose Pagoda. The surrounding area has been turned into a park with the pagoda and a Buddhist temple the star attractions. This area used to be well outside the city limits, but has now been swallowed up by the urban sprawl, skyscrapers and all. The park area itself was full of blooming flowers and green trees, so it was well worth the visit. Entry to the park itself is free, though to visit the temple or climb the pagoda costs 30 RMB each.
Though it was soon time to go, we felt the three days we'd been in Xi'an was long enough to get a real feel for the place and its people and history. I would most definitely recommend a visit to this city of contrasts, but I would also recommend going on the official trip run by your hostel or hotel to see the sights, particularly the warriors, rather than trying to do it yourself. It's just a lot less hassle and you'll leave with plenty of pleasant memories to share.
About the Author
Stuart is from Crewe, Cheshire in England. He has travelled extensively around the UK before heading to South Korea to teach English after finishing university. From there he moved to Shanghai, China and will shortly be relocating once again, this time to Melbourne, Australia.