Xi’an – An Ancient City

Posted by on June 7, 2012

“Everyone loves the sound of a train in the distance” – Paul Simon

Morning on the Night Train

We’ve taken the fast train to Nanjing but we’d yet to take a night train. Knowing our time in China was short we planned a long weekend trip to Xi’an and booked our tickets on the sleeper train from Beijing to Xi’an. We’d leave Friday night at 8pm and arrive in Xi’an at 8am. Xi’an is the second most popular destination in China, the Terra Cotta Army reknowned as an 8th wonder of the world. The week was crazy and hectic as usual. I left work at 4:30 on Friday and had an hour to pack before I attempted to search for a taxi at 6 pm, a full two hours before our train departed. I was lucky to find a taxi quickly and he pulled around outside our apartment building, we loaded up and headed to the west Beijing train station.


A scant 25km across town, the journey took an hour due to traffic. You can drive from Logan to Salt Lake City in the same time a distance over four times as far and through as many towns, we’d never even left the city of Beijing. You forget how big the place is sometimes until you drive for an hour and watch the unending row of high rise apartments and office buildings. The Beijing West station is huge rising four stories above the street, you wind up huge cork screw entryways to exit the taxi amid a sea of humanity all carrying huge bundles and loads coming and going in an hurried scurry of activity. We walked to platform 8 and then down to the platform where we had to walk the entire length of the train to our car. The soft sleeper cars have a series of probably 15 4 bunk rooms. With a family of four we neatly filled up one sleeper room. The kids immediately climbed to the top bunk as we settled in for the night, what they had been complaining about before was now suddenly a fun adventure. We pulled out of the train and before long I was sound asleep, worn out from the week.

I woke up at 2am on my side unsure of where I was, my left arm asleep from being underneath me. I felt the comfortable trundle of the train as we rolled along the tracks. The use of the term soft sleeper must be relative because the narrow bed was pretty hard, though that is par for the course when it comes to Chinese beds and there preferences for firmness. I fell back asleep as we moved through the night ever closer to Xi’an.

I awoke around 4:50 am with grand visions of sunrise from the train. I was greeted with gray clouds and blackness as we raced through tunnel after tunnel. I suppose there are plenty of other examples where countries have bored their way through mountains (Switzerland) and tunnel to build railways but I was struck by what seemed for quite a while, more track in tunnel than out.

We pulled into Xi’an train station at 8 am. We packed up our bags and stepped of the train. Almost immediately Stacey was approached by a guy offering us a ride in his van to our hotel. He kept walking beside us as I incredulously inquired about how much, 15 rmb. “Each?”, “No together”. “Each?” “No, no, together”. So we decided to go. We walked to his van, he gave me his card : David was his English name. He worked for a travel agency. After loading up he asked if we wanted to go see the Terra Cotta Warriors. I said “maybe”, not wanting to commit. David told us that he would take our entire family for 400 rmb and that would include a visit to BanPo as well as the Terra Cotta Warriors. He also suggested we ask at the hotel how much it would cost for a driver. We drove to Sofitel at Remin Square and inquired after our room. We couldn’t check in until 1:30 but we could drop our bags off. I asked at the front desk about a car to Terra Cotta and they quoted me 850 rmb. So we decided to take up David on his offer. In the end his persistence ended up being nothing more than entrepreneurship hustle, if he didn’t find work he didn’t get paid.

Among the Soldiers

The Terra Cotta soldiers are 30km east of the city. You could take public transportation but its a ways out there, first it takes a while to get out of the city and then it’s a bit of a haul with traffic and such. I am glad we had a car and driver to take us directly there. Our first stop was beside the road where Stac ran out of the van and threw up in the street planner in front a military installation. The military guard came out and got after David for stopping. Stac thought she might be experiencing her early morning-no-food-nasuea so we bought some dumplings from across the street and carried on. We stopped at BanPo, which are the remains of the oldest discovered civilization in China, dating back some 6000 years. Before entering we stopped at a local noodle shop and Miles and Sofi got a bowl of noodles each. (I’d filled up on dumplings and tea hard boiled eggs). We walked around the BanPo exhibit, the exhibit consisted of covered pits that had remains of buildings, fires, pottery and burials from the ancient ancestors of the Chinese.

Along our journey David apologized but explained that he’d get in trouble with his boss if he didn’t visit either a jade factory or a silk factor for a tour. There was no pressure to buy anything but just going would get him credit. We asked which one was shorter and decided to visit the Jade factory. After a short 15 minute tour where Miles and I looked at swords and Stac bought her a ring we left again before stopping one more time for a very interesting tour of a factory that made “high quality” replicas of the Terra Cotta soldiers that we could buy at half the price of those at the museum. So we toured again and bought a set of warriors to bring back.

Terra Cotta Warriors - Pit 3

From there we drove and drove and drove until we passed the big low mound where the first emperor Qin Shi Huang Di was buried (200 BC). His tomb has never been unearthed due to Chinese respect (fear?) for the dead and disturbing fengshui. Around 1.5 kilometers from his tomb we came to the site of the Terra Cotta Army. In 1974 four farmers were digging a deep well when then ran into some broken pieces of terra cotta, unsure what they found they showed local government officials. From there the site was developed first opening to the public in 1978. There are three pits that have been excavated. The first is the largest over 20,000 square meters covered by a massive roof there are estimated to be over 6000 terra cotta soldiers and horses, of which only a few have been uncovered. The soldiers were posed in four basic forms but their faces each are distinct. They were then stood up with horses in pits that were covered with beams of wooden roofs which were then covered by mats and then mud. These roofs later collapsed and consequently the figures are all toppled and broken. Of the thousand figures uncovered only one was found intact unbroken. Countless hours of work has gone into painstakingly piecing the soldiers and horses to their restored condition.

The Unbroken Soldier

Pit two and three are smaller, one shows the pits largely still covered by the mud and crumpled wooden beams. The other shows more pits uncovered with soldiers and some close up glass inclosed exhibits that show the basic soldier poses and the general figures. This is the only time that you can really get close to the figures, in the other open pits you are either above them or far way from the figures and you can’t really get up close. I regretted not bringing my big 70-200mm lens, but it was cool to walk around the pits and consider the 2000 years of history. We had a long walk back out the exit through the usual shops hawking goods; lots of guys carrying replicas of the warriors in silk boxes.

Back in the car we drove the long ride back to our hotel. By the time we got back it was around 5:30 and every was tired from a long day that had started early. We were all too beat to go back out for dinner and plopped down in our room and ordered room service before falling asleep.

Xi'an City Wall and Moat

The next morning I woke at 4:30 and made my way south towards the city wall. I had grand visions of a glorious sunrise that was muted and mostly gray either clouds or smog, though when in China its always so easy to chalk it up to pollution. The wall wasn’t open yet and so I exited the south gate and walked west around the park outside the wall. I meandered back on the inside of the wall for a while. Xi’an has the largest intact city wall in the world, 15 km in lenght, its over 12 meters high and 15 meters wide. Its huge, any contemplation of trying to climb its very steep but slightly ever so slightly graduated bricks is quickly turned aside as you see how really steep the wall is. I made my way through a narrow gate back outside and turned the on the south west corner of the rounded junction to the north-west wall. Around 6:30 am I came up on a small park that was full of people exercising. There was a series of 20 or so ping pong tables and I paused to watch an elderly lady playing a man in his late 40s. Suddenly the lady was insisting I play her in ping pong and for the next 45 minutes her and her partner proceeded to beat me into ping pong submission. I was happy that toward the end my rust game had returned enough that I could volley with them a bit. I took a bunch of pictures of them playing and of course they wanted copies of the photos. I managed to get her address and hopefully I’ll be able to get a couple of prints made and mail them to her.

Riding the Wall

From there I walked back inside the city wall toward the drum and bell tower (also closed) before walking back to our hotel for a round trip of 10k. I showered and went down to breakfast while the family started waking up. Stac was pretty sure her nausea episode from yesterday was a stomach bug and so she stayed home in the morning. The kids and I grabbed a taxi to the southern gate of the wall where we purchased tickets to enter the wall. You walk through a large tunnel into a square where you can ascend steps to the top of the Wall. We rented bikes for 40rmb and set off riding west on the Wall. Luckily it was slightly overcast so it wasn’t burning hot though I was soon sweating with the backpack on. Miles and Sofi would race ahead initially while I paced myself. Each tower they would stop and buy a drink or an ice cream. By the time we reached east gate (one more gate to go to get back to our starting point) Miles was lagging big time. I distracted him by talking to him about the different kinds of bows and arrows, different kinds of swords and then the story about how when I was 11 I convinced my little brother Jon to attempt a jump over a creek pond and he fell in. We made it, a long way around, but very cool to ride on such a large Wall, it was awesome to see the city from so high up. Xi’an gives you the impression that it’s a Chinese city, it’s managed to maintain a sense of its history, even many of the new buildings are built using traditional motifs.

The Bike Wall Gang

We took a tuk-tuk taxi back to our hote; Stac still wasn’t feeling well haven’t spent some time hugging the porcelain throne. Miles stayed home, tired from the bike ride and Sofi and I freshened up and went back out to see the muslim quarter and the Great Mosque. Xi’an is the starting point for the famed Silk Road and has a large Muslim contingent. The district around the mosque is full of Chinese wearing white shirts, covered heads, men sporting beards and here and there you can see the middle eastern influence in their physical appearance. The area around the mosque is directly “behind” (north) of the Bell Tower, the streets are blocked from car traffic and restricted to foot traffic or tuk-tuk’s, motorcycles and bicycles. This main road north of the Bell Tower running north and south is wide and full of people on foot, either side with crowded shops full mostly of restaurants offering a variety of Muslim food : lamb, bbq, fried dumplings and pancakes and the soup Paomo which looked a little bit like slimy soup so we didn’t try it. Sofi and I ate some dumplings and bbq lamb skewers for dinner.

The Grand Mosque

West of this main road north of the Bell Tower are a series of small lanes that are crammed with shops and food stalls. We wandered down these until I came to a rather innocuous junction that roughly corresponded with the location of the mosque on my map application and I asked a lady where the mosque was located and she pointed behind me. There was a rather unassuming looking ticket entrance to the Great Mosque. We bought our ticket and proceeded through the entrance. Inside was a very large complex of buildings, impressive in their size and preservation. The typical central corridor with garden and pavilions with inscribed stele with buildings on either side is very Chinese in design and layout, but close examination reveals the inscriptions are in Arabic instead of Chinese. At the end of the compound is a large courtyard and a large Chinese style grand hall that is the prayer hall. The outside is adorned with Arabic inscriptions and there are a series of entrance ways into the hall, unlike most traditional Chinese buildings which have a single entrance way. There is a fence 10-15 feet in front of the doorways with signs asking you to not enter the prayer hall, so you can really only peer into the interior though the doorways from 15 feet away at the fence. When Sofi and I arrived late in the evening the place was empty except for a single caretaker, when he us talking and looking he invited us to come into the gate and look into the interior of the hallway. The interior was large with prayer rugs covering the floor. After asking several questions I asked if I could photograph the inside, he agreed and we went on our way back towards the main gate, grateful for the experience of something so Chinese and yet so different from typical Buddhist or Daoist designs.

Bumper Miles

The next morning I slept in and Stac still felt very sick to her stomach, the kids and I went out after breakfast to XingQing Park just outside the city wall on the south side. This a local park that has a large lake and is full of amusement rides. I was surprised that all the rides where at least 30 rmb per ticket (quite expensive, since lunch costs 10 rmb), this explained why there was no one riding them. So we proceeded to buy tickets for many of the rides which Sofi and Miles enjoyed and the locals watched intrigued by their skin color and their screams of glee. One of the rides was a reverse bungee which threw them up in the air over 50 feet, this is the one they screamed the loudest on. We ended our time in the park by the kids playing in the lake in the big overside plastic ball they can run around in like hamsters in the wheel except they are tethered to shore by a rope. We went back to the Muslim district for some delicious food before heading back to the hotel where we met Stac and caught a taxi to the airport. This was another lesson in distance, the airport is seemingly forever outside Xi’an. Getting out of the city takes a while until you final reach the airport expressway where we zipped along alone on the four lane freeway. The taxi driver didn’t use the meter (too late to negotiate after your already moving down the road) and we ended up paying 200 for the fare, but he covered the costs of the two toll roads, but I felt ripped off. The airport is big, airy, modern and new like everything else in China that’s been built during the building boom. We ate a donut at Dunkin Donuts (a let down) and waited at our gate only to be delayed once and then twice before being moved to a new gate and finally taking off a full two hours after our scheduled departure. Tired we landed late in Beijing after a short two hour flight and arrived home after 10 pm.

We loved Xi’an. We wish Stac had felt better while we were there, but we got to see the Terra Cotta Army together. We are glad we squeezed in a visit before leaving China.

3 Responses to Xi’an – An Ancient City

  1. Adrian Berzenji

    Hey, love the blog and the pictures! My wife and I are in the process of trying to move the family to China too. We’ve adopted twice internationally from China, and would love for our family of 7 to experience life there for a while. Do you mind answering a few questions? We’ve been trying to gather as much info as possible, and actually came across your blog while researching BCIS… if you have time for some questions, please drop me an email. Thanks. 🙂

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