When planning a visit to China, before you even pick up a guidebook, I imagine there are 3 or 4 attractions on your ‘must visit’ list; those places of cultural and historical significance that are so familiar that you almost feel you’ve been! I bet the Terracotta Army is pretty high up on that list, right? And it’s the ‘Terracotta Army’, you think of when you hear ‘Xī’ān’?
Xī’ān (西安) – the capital of Shaanxi province – is a place so inextricably linked with Emperor Qin ShiHuang’s subterranian Army of Warriors that I’d never actually considered the city in it’s own right, that is, until I arrived there earlier this year and discovered that there was much more to Xī’ān than first meets the eye.
A developing city
It was late on a Monday evening when our train arrived into Xī’ān, but the subway was still running so we clambered aboard and got off at a stop close to the Bell Tower, which was then a 10 minute walk to our hotel.
At the time of our visit (April 2017) there were only two subway lines in full operation, bisecting the city from North to South and East to West. However, a further 5 were under construction (part of Line 3 opened to the public in November 2016), and plans show that there will be 17 lines by 2030. This subway strategy paints a clear picture of how Xī’ān, along with many of China’s thriving Tier 2 cities*, is lunging from the ancient into the modern world at breakneck speed.
The same pace of development is apparent above-ground in the myriad of modern buildings and lively leisure and retail areas (our hotel, for example, was the epitome of modern; clean lines, mood lighting and an oversized lobby), yet evidence of ancient Xī’ān still surrounds (literally) the city; the Ming-Era architecture and dynastic elements clearly surviving in the face of creeping modernity.
Xī’ān is said to be one of the birthplaces of ancient Chinese civilisation; then known as Cháng’ān, meaning ‘eternal city’. It was the Eastern terminus of the Silk Road (a network of trade routes established during the Han Dynasty linking regions of the ancient world – from China to Europe – in commerce) and was crowned as the cultural and political capital city during some of the most important important dynasties during China’s history.
* This website has the best explanation of China’s tiered city system that I have come across.
Day 1: Xī’ān City Walls
Built over 600 years ago to protect the city (and it’s merchants and money!), Xī’ān’s rectangular city walls (西安城墙) remain intact, stretching 13.7km around the city centre. Along the top of the wall is a wide stone-paved walkway and if you like you can walk the entire circumference. You can also rent a bike near the South Gate, which is probably a better idea if you want to go the whole way around – it’s quite a way! We walked for about an hour before getting hungry and heading off to find some lunch.
The hazy atmosphere obscured the horizon in every direction, which in a surreal way seemed to enhance the colours and features at the point where I stood – particularly the pops of bright red; fluttering flags, classic lanterns, and the blooming full skirt of a wedding dress. The houses and buildings which bordered the wall were beautiful; very traditional and elegant.
The Muslim Quarter & Bei Yuan Men Street
Warning: don't read this if you're hungry!
During my research for our trip I came across a blogger who had written a three-part ‘Gourmet Guide to Xī’ān’, describing in detail his favourite street-foods and where to find them. His blog warned that some of the food, however delicious, could be challenging for Westerners due to the lack of English (or even pinyin) signage and menus, and so helpfully included step-by-step guides of how to order and eat the dishes. The more I read the more excited I became about this sublime clash of Chinese and Middle Eastern cuisine, cooked and served up on the side of the street. I started to obsess over one dish in particular; Yang Rou Pao Mo (羊肉泡馍) – a steaming hot mutton broth ladled over hand-crumbled unleavened bread. Our lunch target was set.
Entering BeiYuanMen street was a fairground for the senses! Hungry crowds hustled and bustled past street stalls and restaurants which steamed, sizzled and hissed, releasing mouth-watering aromas of char-grilled lamb, freshly baked bread and earthy spices. Large signs painted red or blue brandished orderly rows of Chinese characters, which we had no chance to understand; however, we soon came across a friendly-looking place boasting row upon row of skewered meats ready for the grill; after a quick check that they served Pao Mo, we took a seat inside.
Thanks to the blog I mentioned earlier, when the fúwùyuán (waiter) presented me with an empty bowl and a piece of hard dry white bread, I didn’t start sobbing like a hungry Dickensian workhouse orphan. Instead, I crumbled the piece of bread into my bowl like a pro (harder than it sounds by the way!) and handed it back to our fúwùyuán who submerged it in a clear broth which contained the lamb, veggies, and glass noodles. Soaked in the broth, the bread transformed into little gnocchi-like dough balls – just the right side of chewy – which we ate with sweet pickled garlic and spicy chilli paste.
In addition to the Pao Mo we ordered a few BBQ lamb skewers marinated in cumin and chilli, crisp, a slightly chewy disc of bread and some cartons of plum juice to wash it down (pics below).
The Muslim quarter has two main streets which together form an ‘L’ shape, and splinter off into a myriad of smaller interconnected alleyways which are dominated by street-food or souvenir vendors. It would guess it takes around an hour to meander up and down the main streets (hard to say exactly, what with all the stopping to eat!), but you could easily spend the best part of a day wandering around this place, cursing the feeble and finite capacity of your stomach.
After gorging on Yang Rou Pao Mo I was well and truly stuffed, so had to make do with taking photos of the cornucopia of other foods on offer. One of the most popular snacks we came across was Rou Jia Mo (肉夹馍) or ‘Chinese burger’: slow-cooked mutton or lamb stuffed into a fluffy wheat pitta and slathered with spicy gravy… if you want to get your hands on one of these, be prepared to queue!
A special shout-out to the drinkable yoghurt, which you slurp through a straw – yum.
Wandering past the food stalls in the Muslim Quarter, tasting things here and there, I felt a strong sense of contentment, similar to that which I felt at the Mercato San Lorenzo in Florence and La Boqueria in Barcelona. Despite the throngs of tourists, these places manage to maintain an authentic character and true passion for good food. You seriously can’t beat it.
Some more pics below; I love the ones of my mum absorbed into the crowd. And see if you can spot Matt!
The Great Mosque of Xī’ān
After lunch we decided to take a look around the Great Mosque (西安大清真寺), also located in the Muslim Quarter. Originally built in the early Ming Dynasty, the mosque is a walled complex of five interlinked courtyards which is still used as a place of worship by Xī’ān’s Chinese Muslim population. After the chaotic street-food area, the mosque was an delicious pocket of calm – although the fusion of traditional China and the Middle East which we experienced in BeiYuanMen street was also present here, for example in the Chinese and Arabic calligraphy which appears throughout the complex.
I’m a sucker for cherry blossom, and the blossom trees in the grounds of the mosque with their juicy pink petals were the most beautiful I have ever seen. The bees seemed to agree with me!
The mosque was our final stop on our first day in Xī’ān, and we then made our way back to the hotel picking up a few souvenirs on the way.
Day 2: That Army
Imagine it’s spring in 1974 and you are a local peasant farmer digging a well deep into the dry suburban earth of your hometown, 40km outside of the city of Xī’ān. Now, imagine your tools hit an object that doesn’t sound or feel like either earth or rock so you carefully excavate around it, feeding your curiosity, until you expose the statue of a life-size soldier, poised for battle in his full armor. Then imagine being told that you’ve uncovered the burial place of Qin ShiHuang, China’s first emperor – one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of the 20th Century, later to be classed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. If you weren’t popular with the ladies before, you are now, right?!
The Terracotta Army (兵马俑 – literally: “Soldier-and-horse funerary statues”) are a collection of more than 6,000 life-size clay soldiers, along with numerous horses and chariots, built to protect the tomb of Emperor Qin, and accompany him into the afterlife. The mausoleum remained hidden, interred for more than 2,200 years after his death, until that chance finding just over 40 years ago.
The Museum of the Terracotta Army, constructed around the discovery site, was opened in 1979. We initially planned to DIY the visit and catch a local bus from the city centre to the Museum, but bumped into a tour group in the foyer of our hotel and were seduced by a good price and transfer of responsibility for logistics! So hopped into a mini-bus for the hour-or-so drive. At the Museum our guide distributed headsets so we could hear her over the dense, chattering crowds, then we entered the first pit – a huge airport-hanger style building. As you can see in the picture below, the warriors are arranges in trench-like, underground corridors.
In addition to the first pit discovered by the farmers, a second pit was found containing cavalry and infantry units and a third containing non-military high-ranking officers and horse-drawn chariots. These latter pits give a sense of how the clay pieces appear when first uncovered; some fully composed and standing upright, others deconstructed, with heads and torsos lay alongside cracked clay horses. Apparently they were all originally painted in vivid colours (evident when new pieces are excavated) however, the exposed colour lasts only a few hours in the atmosphere before fading away.
The excavation work at the site continues today – a painstaking commitment to uncovering and then carefully piecing parts of the statues back together, like a mammoth jigsaw puzzle.
Historians now believe that some 700,000 workers toiled for nearly three decades on the army and tomb complex, and that many lost their lives in the process. It’s believed that those laborers and artisans who continued to work on the tomb at the time of the Emperor’s death were buried alive with the Terracotta Army, to achieve the emperor’s wish to preserve the secrecy of the tomb’s location (although other sources dispute this, claiming that the clay soldiers were a substitute for actual human sacrifice). If you think about it, there’s a tragic irony in this; due to this spectacularly extravagant and morose tomb accompaniment, this is probably the least secret and most visited burial locations on the planet.
There is loads of info on the Terracotta Army available on the internet, so I’m not going to replicate any more of it here. If you’re interested, some good sites that I’ve come across include the Smithsonian (very detailed) and History.com (shorter article).
Shaking Mr Yang’s hand
On leaving the airport-style hangars which house the warriors, we were led down a commercial street lined with Chinese restaurants, souvenier shops (of course!) and a small building plastered with a large poster exclaiming: ‘Shake the Mr Yang’s Hand!’. We were skeptical at first – “what?! He sits there all day?! No!” – but it seems that, yes, he really does sit there all day. So we shook his hand – of course.
We spent total less than two days in Xī’ān, and there is a lot more to see if you have more time (I could have spent 2 days in the Muslim Quarter, although I may have needed to buy some larger trousers afterwards!).
The fourth and final stop on our North China tour with my parents was to Zhāngjiājiè in Northwestern Hunan Province – better known as the place that inspired the Hallelujah Mountains in James Cameron’s movie Avatar… blog to come soon!