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A Grand Time in Xi'an

Walls and Warriors

semi-overcast 22 °C

September 11th


Chengdu to Xi'an: A travel day that finally went right...

After the last couple, we were beginning to wonder if we'd been jinxed. But today we managed to grab some breakfast at Starbucks, debate the bill successfully with hotel reception (they seemed to want to charge us for our sponsor's membership), get a taxi to the airport, check in okay, have lunch at a great but expensive Chinese casserole restaurant, catch our plane on time, land on time, get the airport bus to the centre of the city (75 yuan for 3 versus 150 for a taxi), find a decent hotel (Xi'an City Hotel - twin room for $40 CDN) right around the corner from the Drum and Bell Towers, book a English-guided tour for the next day to the Terracotta Warriors among other sights, locate an office that sold train tickets (after much running around) and buy tickets for our overnight train from Xi'an to Beijing, find the Muslim Quarter (just as we were about to give up and eat at McDonald's), get lucky and find a waitress who spoke a little English so we could ask for her recommendations (we ended up with a spicy beef dish, a sweet and sour chicken dish (for Anica) and a basket of delicious steamed vegetable dumplings with sweet soy sauce), get an internet connection in Starbucks long enough to pay the balance on our Beijing-Hanoi overnight train tickets which we're buying through China Trip Advisor, and find (omg, finally, after /hours/ of looking, thanks to the cut and paste rough guide files we put in notetab light) the one and only ATM downtown that takes foreign debit cards.

At that point, our brains stopped working and our bodies demanded we take them back to the hotel and collapse. We obeyed.

September 12th


There was an early call - unexpectedly - to our day tour. Luckily, we were up and got ready in time anyway. The minibus held an interesting mix of people: couples from Australia, New Zealand; a student from New York; a woman from Scotland. And we're Canadian, as most of you know! The main attraction was the Terracotta warriors but the other stops turned out to be interesting. The first was a palace at the foot of a mountain, complete with hot springs, and baths that dated back to the 7th century AD. The next was a Buddhist temple said to contain a fragment of the Buddha's skull. Ashoka, the Indian emperor, was distributing authentic Buddha relics, and this one has endured. We were still skeptical. Perhaps it's our Protestant heritage kicking in. The stop at the first emperor's tomb site was not too visually dazzling. Basically the whole grounds remains unexcavated. We knew that from our reading, but still. Anica enjoyed the dance/pageant performance, however.

After lunch, we walked through the grounds to where a simple farmer, in 1974, found the first piece of a terracotta warrior. That same farmer (kind of a relic himself) signs autographs in the giftshop. He does look the the same guy, but again, skepticism. We all liked the "circle vision" (ie. 360 degree) movie theatre that introduces us to the history of the first emperor, the tombs, and the unification of China.

Then, breathtakingly, we stepped into the famous "Pit 1." It does not disappoint. It's a huge room, and the fact that not all the warriors are dug out only underscores the enormity of the place and the task.


Apparently, it takes weeks to restore just one warrior. We saw ones assembled from fragments of hundreds. We saw rows of fallen, broken soldiers. Decapitated stone heads stared up at us. In the other buildings (Pits 2 and 3), we saw the famous "Kneeling Archer" and other special figures, including horses, that are in glass cases. One of the pits has a thrust viewing platform (like the new grand canyon platform) so you can look straight down at the ramp, horses, soldiers, etc. Each building is huge, and the grounds are monumental.

A detail of the most recently restored terracotta warriors, including one with a touch of yellow paint still visible

Our tour guide explained how, for better or worse, the government moved farms, a village, and a market to create the present site. We also saw the nice, big home that the farmer now has (allegedly...).

The last stop was anticlimatic, a "tour" of a silk factory. None of us bought anything, which confounded the guides, we think. It was neat to see the stages of the silkworms, the looms, to stretch out the silk by hand ourselves, etc. Centuries ago, the process was a secret we would pay with our lives for uncovering.

September 13th

Today was another monumental day in Xi'an! We decided to see the main city sights: the Bell and Drum towers and, of course, the city walls. The towers were built in 770 and 780 respectively. There was a nice musical performance (mostly bells, of course) in the Bell Tower. The restoration of the paint colours on every roof, eave and gable is quite striking. The "shingles" are actually jade, too! Each "hip" has a row of animal characters carved into it.

The Bell Tower, and public square, as seen from the Drum Tower

Then, came the wall. To me, this is one of the most atmospheric and evocative things about being in Xi'an. The walls form a rectangle 14 km long around the city. They date from 1370 in their current form, and boast giant gates at the four compass points. They are as wide as a six-lane highway, and there are 78 steps up to the top (this last detail is by Anica's count).


We walked along the walls a very long way! We walked 1 km from the Bell Tower to the south gate, paid the admission and climbed up. Along the wide, wide top of the wall, we walked from the South gate to the West gate (got the only sustenance we could there: ice cream and soft drinks), then from the West gate to the North gate. At the West gate, a sign reminded us that this was the start of the silk road. Looking down at the gate and courtyard, this certainly fired the imagination. With somewhat overcast, cool (around 20) weather, it was the perfect day for walking. It was also really peaceful. Because of the fee, and the size, there are very few people up there. Most rent bicycles or rickshaws. So, at times, there was no one on the wall for as far as we could see. What a contrast to the teeming streets below!


From the north gate, we walked back to the area of the Drum Tower and Muslim Quarter. Another kilometre or two. That brought the total to 11 km for the day, and we still weren't done. We found an even better restaurant (that Jenn and Anica in particular loved) on Islamic Street than the night before. There was just enough English-speaking for us to order lamb skewers, a spicy rice (in cubes) concoction, baked Chinese bread, a vegetable dish of mushrooms and bok choy, then..more skewers! Very yummy. Even with drinks, the whole sit-down dinner cost about seven dollars.

Sunset saw us atop the Drum Tower. Anica gave the traditional three strikes of the giant drum. This would have once been the nightwatchmen's signal to either close the gates, warn of midnight, or announce the coming dawn. From there, we got some great pictures of the Bell Tower and of the market at the Muslim Quarter.

Anica's turn at the drum

September 14th

After a couple of busy days, we've slept in, and caught up on email, etc. before getting ready for our overnight train to Beijing. Being Friday, our favourite Muslim-Chinese restaurants were closed today (yes, there are 60,000 Muslims here, the descendants of a community begun by Silk Road traders), so we took the path of least resistance and ate Western (Pizza Hut, KFC). This is also because there are surprisingly few Chinese restaurants that aren't obvious tourist traps.

We've been the subject of a lot of attention here. Anica found some of it more aggressive than in Chengdu, and thus unwelcome. People touched her hair without asking, and some ladies poked and prodded here while she and Jenn were washing their hands. Mostly, though, Anica has continued to get a kick out of interacting with curious locals/Chinese tourists. If they're just looking, she'll give a wave. She also happily posed for pictures when asked, and then told the story of doing so to other Westerners we've run into.

We've really enjoyed Xi'an. Our hotel here, the City Hotel, has seen better days, but is good value for its current price (we paid $41 CDN per night, including breakfast - but that was for two twin beds only; Jenn and Anica were quite snug in one). The old-school looking bellhops got us a taxi to take to the train station, which was a major accomplishment in rush-hour Xi'an, so that was another plus to staying at the City Hotel.

Posted by jennrob 02:37 Archived in China

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Xi'an, the Terracotta Warriors, the Bell Tower, the Muslim Quarter and the city wall are all fascinating. You must have felt like pinching yourselves just to check it was all real.

Good job Anica! You look really serious while giving the three strikes to the drum ~~ and it's a great photo.

Loved all the photos, especially the Terracotta Warriors! Take care of each other.

by Mom-Momma

Wow! That is so amazing. I just shared the pics with some friends and they were as equally awed. I am so glad to hear that things are on the upswing travel-wise and Anica certainly looks healthy again.

by sabrinagb

Amazing! What sites to witness--the Warriors & the wall blew us away, loved Anica doing the gong ceremony & both your the commentaries. Thinking of you with love, H&D

PS- Why did they build the Warriors?

by hdbutters

This first emperor was nice, and instead of putting real people in his tomb with him, he just made these. - Anica
He also believed that in the next life he needed to be as strong, so he had his entire army recreated. - Jenn

by jennrob

"Its soo cool to see you've travelled that far and seen so many things." Will
"Great Chinese walls,have a nice trip Anica." Lauren

by JBRobinson

Thanks, Will and Lauren. Good to hear from both of you, and get your encouragement! And now we've been walking on the Great Wall of China, too, which is a completely different experience from the Xi'an city walls. You'll see more about that soon.

by jennrob

Okay, enough lurking and time to comment. I've had more fun reading about your adventures. (except for the virus attacks and the roaches *shudders*) Thank you for plugging in for us all. Way back in the day my husband and I had talked about going to China - Qin's army was on my list of must sees. I'm so glad you've gotten to see it in person. The Great Wall is another. I can't wait to hear about it and see your pictures!

by sumbunneh

My wife and I have traveled extensively through Southeast Asia and are following your trip with a mixture of great enthusiasm and envy. While our bodies are currently in Portland, Maine, our spirits and thoughts are with you on your trip.

We do a lot of volunteer work with girls and education in Camdbodia. As such, we have many contacts in and information about Cambodia. If you need any help or want any information, please just let us know.

Thank you so much for sharing your wonderful trip with the world. You are an inspiration. We (my wife, our 2 year old and 8 month old sons) hope to follow in your footsteps soon.

Safe Travels,
Jonah Rosenfield

by jonahr


Thanks so much for posting this comment! You made us feel really good about what we're doing, and it's nice to know you're out there. As far as Cambodia, we're just planning to go to Angkor Wat for a few days this time, but thanks for the offer. By the way, we would definitely recommend travelling with kids! -Rob

by jennrob

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