With smog so thick in Beijing you could spoon it over yoghurt, I was looking forward to getting out to clearer climes. How naive. Getting the train to the ancient walled city of Xian from Beijing allows you to experience the narrow end of China’s explosive development and how it is embracing technology as quickly as possible. The bullet train is every bit as sleek and clean as its Japanese cousin and is by far the simplest way to get to the central western city of a thousand stone soldiers. Five hours in a comfortable clean train or thirteen hours in a rickety old sleeper berth. It’s not really a choice is it?
As the train accelerated to its full speed of 300kph I was looking forward to the brown air clearing and seeing the blue sky for the first time in several days. This hope proved to be ill-founded as not only did the air stay brown, but it actually got worse. As it turns out, Xian is one of the worst offenders for air quality in China. I had to put up with the sore throat for just a little while longer.
With a population of 7 million or so people, Xian is nearly as populous as London but I bet most of you haven’t heard of it. As befitting its size, the city centre is building upwards as much as it is building outwards and the urbanites are dressed to impress with the latest phones in their hands. The city maintains a traditional dining scene albeit with a touristy twist. The Muslim quarter in the city centre is a series of semi-pedestrianised streets lined with local eateries and street food hawkers, many of whom speak enough English to entice western tourists to their smoking grills and bubbling cauldrons of oil. The food here is very different to that of the China to the east, with a very strong central asian influence running throughout. It’s not unusual either to see ethnic Kazakhs manning the grills while nattering in Mandarin as fluently as everyone else. Filled deep fried pancakes, lamb kebabs and many central asian spices abound. With so much delicious fare on offer, the KFCs and McDonald’s that are so common seem almost more incongruous here but they remain popular with locals and visitors with no sense of culinary excitement.
Impressive though the food is, this is not why I came to Xian. The biggest attraction is one you have all seen many times before: the Terracotta Warriors. These are situated about an hour away from the city, but while it is one of the top five attractions in all of China, getting there is not quite as clear as you might expect. Still, it’s not so hard to ask your hostel reception how to do it and there really is no need to go with an organised tour. The warrior complex itself is very clear and easy to navigate.
There are three main pits that are available to visit, that increase in scale provided you go from pit three to one in that order, thus saving the best for last. Some trenches have scattered remnants of the soldiers laying in disarray, not yet separated from the mud in which they were found.
Others have been excavated and reconstructed, standing in long lines, waiting for their emperor’s commands from the afterlife. It is estimated that there are a total of 8000 soldiers, with hundreds of auxiliary figures and horses. The emperor Qin Shi Huang, incidentally, is buried in a separate complex nearby that is known of but not yet excavated (and thus not really worth a visit, although it is included with the entry cost) which brings me to what almost impressed me the most about the whole place.
After 1800 years in the dirt, once the soldiers are excavated, the paint they are covered in degrades very quickly. Oh yes, they are painted warriors! Because of this rapid decomposition, many soldiers are not due to be dug up any time soon – possibly ever – and this remarkable sensitivity (very un-Chinese) extends to the tomb of the emperor. Enticingly, this tomb is a real Indiana Jones tempter with stories of rivers of Mercury being installed, not to mention the riches that an emperor is likely to be buried with. Early probes have indeed detected very elevated levels of the metal, giving credence to the legends. In an extra twist, the tomb is supposed to be riddled with traps, and since the designers of the tomb were killed upon its completion (which is why the location of the whole place was lost in the first place), who is to say this isn’t true….
Seeing is believing though, and to see the endless rows of the soldiers next to the untouched furrows of their buried brethren is quite the experience, even if you do have to share it with countless other people (approaching 3 million people a year). It’s not just soldiers either. There are acrobats, dancers and servants. An archer can’t entertain the emperor can he? There is also a remarkable bronze chariot, 2/3 life size, with horses and a driver. In short, plenty to keep you entertained for an afternoon, although the earlier you arrive the better.
Xian itself can keep you entertained also – hire a bike and cycle the city walls. It’ll take you an hour, or four hours to walk it. The Big Goose Pagoda is worth a look as well. The food as I have mentioned is great, and the nightspots are world class, and since this is still China, it won’t break the bank. Next – to Chengdu. By slow train this time. Oh well. You can’t have high speed railway everywhere. Not yet anyway.