The Terracotta Warriors

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The main reason for our trek inland to Xi’an was to see the famous terracotta warriors. Discovered (so the story goes) by a group of farmers in the 70s, the around 7000 life size terracotta sculptures were buried with emperor Qin Shi Huang around 210 b.c. so that they could protect him in the afterlife. Ancient documents suggest that this was a compromise as he originally wanted to take his actual army with him!

Each warrior has different facial features, and there are all sorts of different ranks and types of soldier – infantrymen, cavalrymen, archers, charioteers with their horses. Originally they were all painted and must have been an incredible sight. The paint however dissolves on contact with air, which is one reason only a few thousand have been uncovered – UK and German teams have been collaborating with Chinese scientists trying to come up with a way of preserving the paint.

Only one of the thousands was found a hundred percent intact – the vast majority were found more or less broken up, and a team or archaeologists works round the clock digging up and piecing together fragments. So what you see is restored/reconstructed figures, which in no way detracts from how impressive the terracotta army is, and photos cannot portray just how huge the site is, and how eerie it is to be facing thousands of these figures.

Whether or not it did the emperor any good in the afterlife, it has certainly contributed to the economy of the province and indeed the country, being one of the main tourist sites in China. Millions of tourists visit each year, and it felt like most went on the same day as us.

Knowing that it would get crowded and hot, we got up at 6.30, and were at the bus station for the first bus at 7.30, which got us there just as the gates opened at 08.30. Nonetheless, not one of the following photos were taken without recourse to elbows and firmly standing my ground amongst the crowds of mainly Chinese tourists.

There are three pits, the first is the most impressive and mainly populated with infantrymen, who have been placed in rows as they were back in old Qin Shi’s day. There is another pit mainly of archers and chariots, and then another where they have left the pieces much as they are uncovered, to show the state they are found in before the painstaking work of piecing them together.

Lauren is still learning that its OK to barge and push if others are doing so, but she is getting better – I saw her getting frustrated by being constantly elbowed out of the way and start to stand up for herself more. By 11 though we had seen enough and had enough of the crowds. The warriors are truly impressive, and worth seeing as while you can read about them, its hard to wrap your head round these being over 2000 years old, and on such a scale. It was also interesting to see some of the weapons, which had been plated with chrome, a technique not ‘discovered’ in Europe until the 1950’s.

We rewarded ourselves for an efficient and well planned visit, getting out as the tour guides (often numbering close to 100 people) streamed in, and took refuge in the air-conditioning of a café before heading back to Xi’an, for an afternoon of board games, rehydrating and nursing our bruises.

Xi’an

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After our last experience on an overnight train, I was slightly dreading the night train from Shanghai to Xian. Thankfully, we had one top and one bottom bunk so I could claim half the downstairs. The noise was nowhere near as bad, and while there were still screaming kids running up and down the corridors in the evening and again from 6am, our compartment was shared by a quiet guy and his 5-year-old son, who was reasonably well behaved. Despite sharing about 10 common words, Lauren and the boy spent most of the evening playing together, allowing the adults to shut the compartment door and retreat into books.

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I must say, whether it is a result of the one child policy (‘little emperor syndrome’), china’s new-found wealth or a simple cultural acceptance of noise and chaos, we have found children here to be spoilt brats and adults immensely tolerant of what we would consider bad behaviour. We have seen repeated instances of children running around and screaming, climbing on things with their shoes on, wrestling in public places, spitting at each other, not vacating seats for elderly people on the metro, and just generally being obnoxious. Obviously, we have seen a miniscule proportion of Chinese children – and all in urban settings – but we have both been quite shocked by the tolerance shown by adults to all this – what happened to China’s famous respect for elders?

Anyway, we made it to Xian reasonably well rested, and after a blissfully long and warm shower at the hostel, headed out to explore the city.

The heat and humidity were a constant, and we regularly dodged into cafés and stores to cool down. We headed to the twin towers of the city, which was China’s capital under a number of dynasties, and is considered the ‘start’ (or end, depending on your perspective) of the silk road. It is surrounded by some pretty impressive city walls, that have been extensively restored. The Drum tower functioned as a way to keep time, and the Bell tower to warn against invaders. We vetoed climbing them due to the heat and crowds and instead admired them from across the road then headed to the ‘muslim quarter’ where the best food was rumoured to be found.

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The Bell Tower
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The Drum Tower

Well, we certainly found some weird and wonderful dishes. First off we had some delicious but very spicy noodles – covered with a mixture of chilli, sesame sauce (a bit like tahini), soy and sesame seeds, topped off with a few handfuls of shredded cucumber, they brought all sorts of sensations to ones mouth – sweet and bitter, crunch and silky-smooth, cool and hot-hot-hot. Yummy.

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For dessert it could only be the multicoloured balls of something sweet dipped in liquid nitrogen, so that when you crunched into them they released ‘smoke’ from your nostrils and mouth. Great fun, although it took my tongue a good 24 hours to recover.

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We also tried all sorts of samples, often pressed into Lauren’s hands by stall holders. We managed to avoid some of the more exotic offerings, and Lauren bailed on trying Durian…. .

I was done, but Lauren finished off with a local version of crisps – on a very sharp stick that made eating them without poking your eye out a challenge.

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We headed back to the hostel quite early, tired after the overnight train and keen to get a decent night before our day with the terracotta warriors, the main purpose of our visit to Xi’an.