The first experience of Xian is an airport very similar in design to Pudong International, if not quite the same scale. We’re collected by our local guide Cynthia, and led to our people mover for the hour-long drive into Xian. On a vast plain, bisected by a number of lowflowing rivers, Xian presents as an unremarkable and quite unattractive metropolis sprawling under a thick layer of smog. The fiery red sun, observed each evening in Shanghai, is a permanent fixture in the sky and adds a muted sepia hue to the ramshackle jumble of power stations, factories and rundown communist-era apartment complexes lining the dusty highway.
Cynthia explained that once China’s capital for many centuries, Xian has an industrial and educational economy augmented by tourism since the opening of the terracotta warriors’ site in 1979. It’s also generally accepted that the city was the beginning (or ending, depending on your perspective) of the Silk Road and consequently of great significance to Muslims, and, since it’s the home of the Big Wild Goose Pagoda, Xian also has strong meaning with Buddhists.
Arriving at the Xian Gloria Plaza Hotel, conveniently located adjacent to the exquisitely named “Friend making clubhouse at half past eight” nightclub, we’re a little dismayed by the overall unattractiveness we’ve seen so far, but 2 hours later our guide returns and we are squired off to lunch at a local restaurant. Our first meal in Xian, at a restaurant whose name translates loosely as “Soup Pots Outside” was a banquet of local delicacies served by an utterly beautiful, charming and vivacious young lady named Li Jao. The time we spent at this wonderful local eatery brightened our moods immeasurably and we set off to inspect the city with renewed enthusiasm.
The first stop on our Xian City tour was at the absolutely amazing city wall. This impressive edifice, 13.5km long, 50m thick and over 12m high surrounds the old part of town which is in complete contrast to the shabby and rundown “new” city outside the walls. The inner city is bright, bustling and showing signs of great wealth. The wall has been completely renovated and stands as a magnificent testament to the original builders.
Prior to dinner Cynthia had arranged a table for us at the popular Tang Dynasty Theatre show. This hour-long cultural show is a very popular add-on to organised tours and on our night we shared the show with visitors from all over the world.
Before the Tang Dynasty Show, we were driven near to our hotel where we joined the throngs of tourists at the Big Wild Goose pagoda. This towering structure was built in 657 AD to house Buddhist artefacts brought in from India while they were translated from Sanskrit by Buddhist monks. The seven storey tower is about 4km from the Old City, reaches almost 65m high and can be seen from many locations in the Xian area. Adjacent to the pagoda is North Square; an extensive park with fountains, lakes and sculptures and boasts the world’s largest outdoor light and sound shows.
Dinner at the famous Defachang Dumpling Restaurant was an eye-opening (and mouth-watering) affair. Overlooking the Bell Tower, it covers four floors and probably seats 250 per floor. Our dumpling banquet was an endless parade of dumplings in all shapes and sizes, both vegetarian and meaty and we indulged in the local Hans beer and warm rice wine. Defachang is extremely popular with locals and tourists alike, and we noticed several tour groups led in by flag-bearing guides.
Next day we were picked up bright and early, and our first stop, just a couple of km down the road in a light industrial zone was “The Official Government Terracotta Warriors and Horses Factory”. While no sign of any manufacturing activity was evident, the warehouse was chock-a-block with a dizzying range of statues in all manner of sizes, ready to be packed up and shipped off to the four corners of the globe. After a perfunctory explanation of provenance and manufacturing technique we were invited to make a purchase so that we wouldn’t feel compelled to buy the clearly inferior and much cheaper products for sale from the desperate hawkers at the site. We bought a few statuettes and bundled ourselves back in the car.
The day was foggy and cool; the coolest day of our China visit so far, clouds hung low and the sun was a feeble ball in the grey-brown sky. We drove east for about an hour and ended up in a large carpark before making the ten minute walk to the first of the 3 vast covered pits which house the thousands of terracotta statues of warriors and horses.
The very first glimpse of these remarkable figures literally took our breath away. Inside an immense building – like an enormous aircraft hangar – was an excavated pit the size of a football ground. In the pit, which is still being excavated, was rank upon rank of life-sized figures standing at attention; each with a unique visage. At the front of the pit were thousands of soldiers arranged in battle formations, behind them were further ranks of horses and war chariots.
Our guide explained the roughly 7,000 figures uncovered to date were placed there to defend the mausoleum of the first leader of united China, the 25 year old Emperor Qin Shi Huang in 246 BC and took over 11 years to construct. Our cameras worked overtime as we battled with the thousands of other visitors to get the perfect vantage point. There are three pits under excavation, the first we saw was the largest and most impressive, but all pits revealed new and fantastic aspects of this amazing site.
After touring the three pits we had a set lunch at a large, and very busy, restaurant on the site before battling the hordes of hawkers selling more “authentic” replicas of the statues at a fraction of the price we paid earlier in the day. Cynthia explained that the location was specifically chosen for reasons of Feng Shui; the mountains behind the mausoleum provided protection. It was only then that I realised that we were at the foot of a rugged mountain range; previously not having seen any mountains because of the heavy smog and fog.
Returning to Xian we detoured to another museum site; the excavation of a 4,000 year old Neolithic era village at a suburb called Ban Po. While impressive in its own right, it unfortunately paled into insignificance after the visit to the Tombs of the Terracotta Warriors and Horses.
Our final visit for the day was back inside the city wall; behind the area we dined at last night, into the Moslem Quarter where we inspected the famous Xian Great Islamic Mosque. We also took a stroll through the area, stopping at a couple of market stalls where we picked up some more knockoff bargains, including a pair of jackets that would later prove to be a wise purchase.
We returned to our hotel to freshen up before the drive to our dinner destination, the Four Seasons Hot Pot Restaurant. We had passed this restaurant on our arrival to Xian, I remembered passing the comment that the Four Seasons Hotel looked quite nice, despite its location on the busy, dusty freeway so far from the city centre. The restaurant was stunning. Very modern and upmarket, leather banquettes and marble topped tables with inbuilt heaters for the hot pots. The food was fantastic – mutton, beef, squid and vegetables cooked in the bubbling cauldrons in our tables, and washed down with the upmarket local beer, Hans Red Wolf.
It had been a long day and we returned to the hotel to repack for our morning flight to Beijing. In the depth of the night I woke to the haunting sound of a flute rising through the mists outside the hotel window, and it reminded me I’d heard that music last night too. That haunting, lyrical, spiritual melody was the perfect counterpoint to Xian’s gritty, grimy exterior and revealed the inner beauty of that ancient and spiritually significant city.