China - Xi'an

Trip Start Dec 05, 2005
Trip End Ongoing

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Sunday, June 3, 2007

The overnight train from Beijing to Xi'an was fairly luxurious, comfortable and surprisingly quiet, but for some reason we still didn't get much sleep. In fact, Verdi didn't get a wink!
Regardless of this fact, when we arrived in Xi'an the first thing we did was book our return journey on the same overnight train. We hoped that the return journey would provide a better nights sleep and the good price meant that we simply couldn't justify paying for a flight and an additional nights accommodation in Beijing.
Outside the station we met a representative from the hostel we had booked. They provided a free pickup, but what they didn't tell us was that we would have to walk for about 10 minutes (with our heavy bags) to get to this pickup! We weren't best pleased!
The hostel was a bit like a converted school but was a reasonable price and fairly clean and comfortable. It had a decent café / restaurant with views down the main street, a book exchange and free WIFI. We especially liked the poster of Wayne Rooney - or 'Roonry' as the Chinese obviously know him! (PIC)
Having had very little sleep we had a cheeky nap once we had checked in and didn't see anything else of that morning. Once we had freshened up we then decided to see what Xi'an town centre had to offer. We were only in Xi'an for 3 days so needed to make the most of our time there.
As already mentioned, our hostel was on the main street that runs through the centre of the walled part of Xi'an. Further along this street are the Drum and Bell Towers, a couple of the main tourists attractions in the town. The towers are impressive structures, if slightly out of place in what is otherwise a fairly modern, cosmopolitan looking town. The drum tower was the first structure we came across; a multi-layered building flanked on either side by a long row of huge drums. We decided that the tower would be more interesting from the outside so we didn't bother paying the fee to actually climb up inside the building (PICS).
We popped into a nearby teashop (PICS) and bought a couple of the teas we had enjoyed in Beijing and a couple of special teacups to brew the teas. The teashop was on the edge of the Muslim Market, a permanent market and a popular feature in Xi'an. We wandered through the market and began to get pretty hungry looking at all the delicacies cooking away on the outdoor stoves.
After finding some food we continued to the Bell Tower, which is set in the centre of a huge roundabout at the junction of several busy roads. Again we opted to take in the views of the exterior rather than the interior (PICS).
That evening we took a local bus to the Big Wild Goose Pagoda; a seven-storey pagoda that comes to life at night. There is a light and fountain show every night and the locals are big fans. It was a Friday night and the whole of Xi'an had seemingly decided to take in the show. We strolled around the gardens for a while until the music began and the fountains started up. Many people were standing in the areas between the fountains so we made our way through the crowds and took up our position to get some good views of the fountains and the pagoda in the background.
No sooner did the fountains kick into action then we noticed a considerable downpour of spray. We realised that everyone in the central part of the grounds was perfectly willing to get soaked and proceeded to run in and out of the fountains getting drenched. We weren't quite so willing, especially with our camera in hand so we tried to get out quick - not easy when there are a few thousand people between you and dry land!
The show was a beautiful arrangement of lights and fountains and went on for ages. We stuck around for almost an hour and it was still going when we left. One huge fountain at the end of the garden would spray about 100 feet in the air and every time the wind blew it would saturate the surrounding area, making it particularly treacherous for Verdi's slippery sandals!
Having got the knack of the local buses we decided to take the public transport to the Terracotta Army the following day. This was the main reason for our visit to Xi'an and we couldn't wait to see the famous ancient sculptures. We had agonized over how to get to the site of the Terracotta Army; whether to take the easy option of an organized tour, simply pay for a driver, or take the cheaper and slightly more adventurous route of using local transport.
We decided on the latter but had been given mixed information regarding how and where to get the bus. In case you are thinking of doing it yourself, let us clear things up.
You take the green no.306 bus from just outside the train station. As you stand facing the station entrance the bus park is on your right. It is not on the other side of the wall. Just get on the bus and a person will come around to collect the money, which is about 7 Yuan (50p) per person one way. Stay on the bus until the very last stop, the other stops are just for locals or a couple of naff touristy attractions. You can even buy drinks on the bus for 2 Yuan!
Arriving at the Terracotta Army, there is a short walk to the gardens at which point you can decide whether to take the mile-long walk to the entrance or get an electric car to do the legwork for you. You'll never guess which option we took!
Getting out of the electric car we bought our tickets (entry is 90 Yuan or 6 GBP) and moved into the large open courtyard. The whole complex surprised us somewhat as it was much more modern and well kept than we had anticipated. We were expecting a dusty tin-roofed archeological site with the warriors set behind railings and crowds of people to squeeze through to get a view.
We couldn't have been more wrong. There are three concrete buildings covering the 'pits' where the warriors are located. A number of other buildings contain a cinema, exhibitions and a museum and the entire place was very quiet.
We had previously been advised that it was best to start with pit 3 and work backwards. We did just that. Pit 3 was a small site with a selection of crumbling statues and a few horses sandwiched in between the rubble.
Pit 2 was an enormous site with plenty of evidence of digging but not much else to see. There were very few warriors present let alone well-preserved ones.
We were beginning to become a bit disappointed with what we were seeing.
Pit 1 was the one to change our mind. Again the site was massive but this time it was crammed full of wonderfully preserved and restored statues. Thousands of warriors and horses were arranged amongst the open tombs, each with individual and unique features (apparently each face was modeled on a different member of the emperors private army).
Despite the signs saying 'no photography' (PIC!), everyone in the building was snapping away like there was no tomorrow. Even the guards dotted around the pit were completely unbothered about the use of cameras.
The warriors were amazing. The scale was so vast and the detail so intricate; the statues even had fingerprints sculpted onto them! We were able to get much better photos than we had expected and in some cases we could get level with the warriors, rather than just looking down on them from a raised mezzanine (PICS).
After a couple of hours of wandering around we caught the no.306 back to Xi'an and popped into a nearby supermarket for some supplies. The supermarket was simply gigantic and it took us nearly as long to find a few provisions as it did to see the entire Terracotta Army!
Wandering back through the centre of Xi'an Andrew began to get some chest pains every time he breathed in deeply. We couldn't work out why at first; after all we hadn't done anything strenuous - for weeks! We finally worked out that it was the pollution in the city. Xi'an is probably the most polluted city we had been to on our travels, in terms of air pollution. Even though the weather was fine and warm there wasn't a glimpse of blue sky. The sky was continually a bright grey, caused by the shear volume of pollution from vehicles and industry.
Air pollution is a huge problem in China, with the Chinese government opting to sacrifice the environment in favour of economic development. It is only recently that the government have been trying to do something but they are still of the opinion that the growth of the countries wealth is far more important than the air we breathe!
We felt we had seen everything we wanted to in Xi'an and Andrews's lungs were glad to be back on the train to Beijing. Hopefully we would get a bit more sleep on the return trip. The double ensuite cabin was certainly comfortable enough!
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