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The Terracotta Warriors of Xian and More

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Great Wall of China
Modern Beijing
Dali Yunnan
Yangtze River trip
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Angkor Wat temples
Lake Baikal, Siberia
Sapa Valley, Vietnam
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Luang Prabang, Laos
Tana Toraja, Indonesia

The Terracotta Warriors of Xian lined up for battle
The terracotta warriors of Xian are the main attraction of this former capital of China. In the 1970’s enormous armies of terracotta soldiers were found under the ground. But there are more places of interest in this city. Unfortunately, upon arrival at the train station the smog already hits us in the face.

We share the night train to Xian with a large number of Chinese. A hard sleeper in Chinese trains means that the compartments are open. Each compartment consists of two times 3 beds above each other. It is possible to sit on the lowest bed, but not on the other two (at least we can’t). On the other side of the aisle are two tip-up seats and a mini-table. The beds have soft mattresses (although it’s a hard sleeper), a quilt and pillow, but no sheets. So everybody keeps their clothes on while sleeping and so do we. It is a lot more crowded than we are used in the Russian trains, and food comes by regularly.

The arrival in Xian is massive. Despite the early hour the train station is crowded. We are searching for a sign with out names since we would be picked-up here by someone from the hotel. As we don’t find him, we stand still and become prey to numerous taxi-drivers, beggars, and touts, offering hotel rooms and guided tours. We decline and search for a quiet spot as we discuss our strategy. One man follows us and tells us it’s too early for the van of our hotel. He promises us he will bring us for 8 yuan. Since we have no other options we follow him to a taxi…

The taxi brings us to our hotel, where we book the cheapest beds in a dorm. Good choice, since there are no others travelers so in facts it’s a private room. Apparently, the Terracotta Warriors of Xian are not very popular this time of year.

The hotel reception can also arrange train tickets and tours, and urges us to decide upon them quickly. Apparently we are not quick enough since the man we met at the train station visits us in our room. He appears to run the travel agency in front of the hotel, arranging everything. We will not be rushed and tell him we will inform the reception of our choice later.


As we are heading for the city center later that morning, we see how filthy the city is. We already announced smog alert phase 7 at the train station, but there is also a lot of dirt and garbage on the streets. There are vendors on the cold streets, keeping warm by burning coal in rusty barrels, generating a lot of smoke. And then there’s the traffic. Not exactly the most modern and clean trucks and automobiles are stuck in a continuous traffic jam. The smoke and diesel fumes mix with dirt and fog, and leave a gray gloom on the buildings. We are already imagining the Terracotta Warriors of Xian with mouth caps on, as most of the Chinese here.

Arriving by bus in the city center, we walk the main shopping street to find the bank of China. There are a lot of luxurious shops and malls offering the newest gadgets. In between them are more traditional stores, where employees are luring you in. Services are also offered on the street, like mending clothes. Add in some food stalls and there you have the image of a Chinese city in the new millennium.

Xian Muslim quarter

At the end of the main street is the Bell Tower, in Chinese style. Unfortunately, the smog is blocking the sun, leaving the tower a bit gray. A little further is the smaller Drum Tower, but it can barely be seen. Behind the gate of this tower we enter the Muslim quarter of Xian. Many small souvenir shops are lined up in narrow alleys. Obviously, they sell little versions of the terracotta warriors of Xian, but also numerous other souvenirs. We walk around and get lured in everywhere. Once again, we are the only foreigners here.

In the center of the quarter is the great mosque of Xian. Supposedly the largest mosque in China, it is tucked away behind the buildings. We would have missed it all together if we weren’t guide by our guide and some signs to the entrance. Inside, it almost looks just like any other temple complex in China: buildings in Chinese style with several courtyards in between. But there are many Chinese with Muslim hats on, and there are prayer and rinsing rooms, where we are not allowed to enter. And when the howling calls for prayer sounds from the speakers, we are sure to be at a mosque.

Terracotta Warriors of Xian

Getting to the Terracotta Warriors of Xian

A lot of tours offer a trip to the Terracotta Warriors of Xian, most of them including stops at some other places of interest. But we are told these are not very interesting and it would be much easier to take the local bus.

Take the big local bus 301 from the train station. People will tell you to take the smaller vans, also number 301, but these will stop at several tourist shops along the route. Just take the big bus, and you’ll be fine.

Our second day in Xian we head for the second largest attraction of China. The terracotta warriors of Xian were found by a peasant in 1974 and probably consists of over 10,000 man sized clay soldiers and horses, lined up in combat formation. The statues are probably over 2000 years old and it is suspected that they served to defend the grave of emperor Qin Shihuang. Since the grave of this emperor is located several kilometers away, some archeologists argue that the soldiers found until today are just a small set of the complete underground army.

We take the advice of an earlier visitor and visit the four halls in opposite order. First, we enter the museum, with pictures and memorials of several VIPs. The dug-up bronze horse and carriage from the grave of emperor Qin Shihuang are also on display here. Then we enter pit number 3, featuring the command post of the terracotta army, completely excavated. We move on to pit number 2, where very little is excavated. They wait with further excavating for a technique to prevent the bright colors on the terracotta soldiers from disappearing. The disappearing of colors happens in just a few minutes, so all the dug up figures are now gray. At the side of pit 2, we admire several excavated soldiers in close-up before we move on to pit number 1.

The huge Pit 1 at the Terracotta Warriors of XianThe enormous pit 1 shows an overview of a complete army in clay. Rows and rows of terracotta warriors, all similar but different in detail. Every facial expression differs from the others. It is amazing that someone ordered to build this. The emperor must have suffered from megalomania.

Leaving the complex, we are attacked by numerous souvenir vendors. Competition among them is killing because of the low season and prices drop as we walk on. Boxes with 4 terracotta soldiers are offered for 10 via 5, 3, 2 to only 1 yuan. It is dirt cheap, but we think they’re ugly, so we walk on.

But there is a jade ship that draws our attention. We admired those ships before but they are very expensive and in fact too large to carry with us. But as the price drops we start thinking. What if we send it home, together with the books and other stuff we don’t need anymore? To make a long story short, we negotiate a price of 160 yuan (25 Euro, 30 US dollars) and buy it. Later on we learn that shipping is more expensive (200 yuan), but that’s still worth it. More frustrating is that we cannot ship it in the well-protected wooden box. Instead, we have to pack it in a standard cardboard box. As a result, the jade ship is broken in pieces upon arrival in Holland…

Xian City Wall

The next day, we following some fellow travelers advice and visit the southern stretch of the Xian City Wall. There is also an authentic Chinese street here. Although authentic…. At least it is a Chinese street as the tourists like to see one, with a lot of souvenir shops.

The city wall is impressive. Twelve meters high and fifteen meters thick it used to offer protection to the city, together with the moat around it. For 10 yuan, we can walk on top of it, but it is even more fun to walk along the wall through a park and along the moat for only 1 yuan.

Big goose pagoda

Statue and Big Goose Pagoda XianAnother attraction we would like to visit is the big goose pagoda. We take the bus south where this pagoda rises 64 meters above the ground. There is a park around it, which costs 20 yuan to enter. At additional costs it is possible to climb the pagoda, but because of the smog, there is little to be seen from above. Instead of entering, we decide to walk around the walled park.

Buddha Cave

Halfway around the park, we find a remarkable site. A big Buddha marks a cave, which can be visited. Blurry pictures and texts in Chinese mean to clarify what it is inside, but we do not understand. Our guidebook doesn’t mention a word about this place, but we are curious enough to go inside.

The cave leads to a long lit tunnel with Chinese murals. Happy music comes from the speakers but since we are alone, an eerie feeling comes upon us. At the end of the long tunnel there are three golden Buddha’s, with 18 more statues. It is certainly worth it, but the tunnel moves on to the left of the Buddha’s.

Niche with puppets in Buddha cave XianEvery 15 meters of the tunnel there is a niche on the side. Most of them are dark, but there is one with strange grinning puppets. Then, suddenly, we have to pay to enter another niche. This one shows several Chinese (emperor?) dolls. Then a niche with iron, scary 6-armed figures. And finally, we reaches something that looks like a tomb. Is this somebody’s grave? We leave the cave with more questions than answers. But we wouldn’t want to miss this strange experience.

Chinese Food

Today, we dine at a Chinese food mall. In the middle are tables to sit, and around it are many stalls selling all kinds of food. Chinese food, that is. It is a good place for budget travelers, but also for the Chinese, judged by the number of people here.

At night, we enjoy a beer at Kane’s restaurant near our hotel. Kane is a friendly guy who tells us more about the city of Xian and tourism here. It appears that visitors are shortening their stay here as the city becomes more polluted. Industry is changing the woodlands around the city into dust planes, doing the city no good either. It is a pity because this old former capital has a lot of nice attractions and is a must visit in China, if only for the Terracotta Warriors of Xian.

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