Ancient Cities and Terracotta Warriors

Trip Start Aug 22, 2005
Trip End Jul 17, 2006

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Friday, December 16, 2005

Pingyao is like the less developed little brother of its neighbour to the south, Xi'an. It is one of the few Chinese cities with a fully intact city wall, and many of its buildings have been preserved in the traditional Ming style with charming courtyards within. The whole city feels like a living museum, or at least like you've stumbled onto the set of a kung-fu movie, and the hostel I stayed in was no exception. Given that the icy winter wind blows with a vengeance through Pingyao's narrow streets, sightseeing was strictly limited to a few hours a day, and the rest of the time was spent in the warmth of the hostel drinking with my fellow travellers. These included a lovely couple from Perth, a volunteer teacher from the US and a miner from Whitby who was travelling to Australia overland to find work. In its day, Pingyao was the banking capital of China (though ironically the old city doesn't now have a bank), and many of the museums are finance-themed, which did get a little dull after a while. Much more exciting was the dubiously titled "escort service museum", which was actually about the armed militia who protected people's investments from bandits on the road. The museum was full of nasty looking weapons, which they seemed happy to let us play around with, and paintings of the agents, with names such as "Iron-fist Wang", kicking ass.

Took an overnight train south to Xi'an. Train travel in China is, like most things, cleaner and more efficient than in India. In a hard sleeper carriage (the cheapest option) you are provided with hot water, blankets and a pillow, and they have a guard who prevents people getting on without a ticket, meaning that you are less scared of being robbed. Xi'an is a city of contrasts. Like Pingyao, it possesses a city wall, but this seems redundant given that most of the skyscrapers inside the city dwarf the wall itself. In the heart of the city, the ancient city Bell Tower and Drum Tower are juxtaposed with modern shopping malls and art installations. The city's Muslim quarter, home to the oldest mosque in China, is great for filling and tasty street food, especially the lamb kebabs and the date and nut rice pudding.

The sightseeing highlight of a trip to Xi'an, and one of the most important archaeological discoveries of the last century, is the 2000-year-old army of Terracotta Warriors 50km east of the city. So the story goes, Emperor Qin Shi Huang was a bit of a paranoid old chap and ordered the construction of a vast underground vault containing thousands of life-sized terracotta soldiers and horses to stand guard over his tomb. In 1974 a group of peasants digging a well got more than they bargained for when they sunk the hole. The complex is in the middle of nowhere and with its vast hangars you could be forgiven for thinking you had stumbled upon the Chinese "Area 51". Beneath the surface, the hangars cover 3 vaults, 2 of which are very much works in progress with excavation ongoing and many of the statues lying in pieces. The main vault is an awesome sight, as you enter the vast hangar you are met by the sight of thousands of soldiers and horses lined up in battle formation. Impressively, each of the 6000 soldiers discovered so far is facially unique and it is thought may have been modelled on actual members of the imperial guard. Less impressive was the tomb itself which hasn't been excavated yet and is therefore just a hill, although it is rumoured to contain jewelled palaces and rivers flowing with mercury, with ingenious Indiana Jones-style booby traps to keep intruders out. Unfortunately, no-one will know for sure until excavation begins as all the artisans who worked on it were killed after its completion (I hope they were paid well and had time to spend it!).

When I arrived in China I invested in a Hostelling International card, and it turned out to be a great move. They have a network of good hostels all over China, the card gets you discounts on rooms (as if they weren't cheap enough already) and they act as bar, restaurant, internet cafe and laundrette all rolled into one. The "social scene" at the hostel I stayed at in Xi'an is still very much in the developing stage, though you can't fault the Chinese for trying. The night I arrived there was a "disco party" due to start at 10pm, despite the fact that there were fewer than 10 of us in residence. Sure enough, at the appointed hour, my conversation with some Aussies over a few beers was broken up and we were informed that it was time to start dancing. Nothing like a bit of "enforced fun" to enliven the collective spirit eh comrades?

P.S. I have learned that nobody calls each other "comrade" any more. It is now used only in the gay community. I had better stop calling people comrade from now on.
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