Shaanxi Province (1) : Xi’an

Dear readers,

I arrive in the Airport of Xi’an, and it is already late in the evening.   Xi’an wasn’t really a planned destination for this trip, more a necessary stop on the way to Gansu Province, but fortunately there is a bit of time to discover this fascinating and historical Chinese city.

It would be a terrible shame if I would pass on this opportunity.  Xi’an is a big city.  Not like Beijing or Shanghai, but still a solid 5 million inhabitants. Fortunately I have friends in these parts, and that made it much easier to plan some visits during my short stay.

Xi’an is famous for many reasons.  It is not only the capital of the province Shaanxi, it used to be the imperial capital city of China.  Here you will find the mythical , and still unopened tomb of China’s first emperor Qin, and related to his tomb, it is the site of the incredible Terracotta Army.  Only discovered in a recent past, and quickly name the Eight’ Wonder of the World.   Obviously a big part of this post will cover this spectacular ancient archaeological discovery.

But it would be unfair to this exciting city to leave it there.  The city also hosts the important Goose Pagode  and Temple complex ; it has a huge city wall with towers and fortifications, the largest and best preserved from China.  Did I mention Xi’an is also famous for its Muslim district and amazing food street where you can savor all local specialties and varieties on traditional Chinese dishes.  It’s food heaven.  And I spend a good deal of time there…    Plenty to do in Xi’an, but more on that later.

I go to bed straight away after I arrive in the hotel.  I am tired and stay inside. However the hotel I stayed was perfectly located just next to the Giant Goose Pagode and it was a very nice and busy area.  I will check it out the next day.20150930_215534

The next morning I enjoy a copious breakfast buffet before I head out to see the Terracotta Army.  If this is only a taste of what is yet to come, than I am in for a treat !

I take the bus to the archaeological site.  I didn’t particularly set my clock as I had all day, so it was a very long drive through the very busy traffic.  The site is outside the city, so it takes some time to get there from the center.  It is also busy at the site, but than it is always busy here as people from all over the world come to China to see this Ancient wonder.  Tomorrow is National Day, and everybody is off.  It will be incredibly busy than, I recon, and I thank the stars I am there a day ahead..20150930_124821

Basically there are 3 pits that you can visit and of course the museum with fantastic artifacts that were discovered together with the warriors.  The most famous one is the biggest pit.  All the pits are covered and are now huge hangars where the visitors can see the Terracotta army up close.  It’s only a short walk from the entrance and I decide to see the biggest one first.  A little bit of background information is maybe necessary to fully appreciate this unique discovery.  Of course it is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The-Mausoleum-of-the-First-Qin-Emperor_1_640480The emperor Qin is considered the first emperor of China, after conquering many kingdoms and uniting or unifying the country. The terracotta soldiers are part of a huge mausoleum or necropolis that was build for the emperor between the 2nd and 3th century BC.

Construction started soon after the emperor was born, and involved 700.000 workers, twice as many as there were used to build the Great Wall.  It must have been an impressive construction. The mausoleum or necropolis was designed and constructed to be a representation of the universe, and a map of the Chinese Empire with buildings and temples and even rivers of mercury mimicking the Yellow River and the Yangtse..

After the accidental discovery of the site, high concentrations of mercury were found in the soil.  Historical records tell about riches and wondrous objects buried inside, and even more exciting : there are indications that the tomb itself has not been disturbed by robbers…  But enough history .  Let’s venture inside.20150930_125429

My first impression is one of total awe. The hangar is huge.  Thousands of statues of soldiers are lined up in battle formation in front of me.  What a sight to behold !  It’s incredible.  To imagine that these terracotta figures were crafted more than 2200 years ago.  That is the period when Ancient Rome fought the Carthaginians and conquered Ancient Greece..

The skill involved and the craftsmanship to create such detailed masterpieces in terracotta is unbelievable.  20150930_125519

It’s cultural and historical significance surely are comparable to the Colosseum in Rome or the Parthenon in Athens…

For obvious reasons tourists are not allowed to get too near to the statues themselves.  However, for a small fee, you can get 1 level lower and closer and get your picture taken in front of the terracotta soldiers.

It is also allowed, included into the extra fee, to take some pictures much closer to the statues.  It is busy.  You must be patient to get to a good spot for a picture..

So I don’t hesitate.  It is a once in a lifetime visit after all, and I will never get any closer to these ancient marvels than this.20150930_131539

It’s incredible how many molds must have been used for the creation of this entire army.  It looks like each one is a different person with different facial features or hairdo.  Amazing.

Further down the huge hangar you can see still patches that are not excavated yet, or where work is still in progress. The terracotta figures are not found intact, but shattered into pieces and covered under a thick layer of dirt from collapsed structures that gave away over the millennia.  I can’t image the work involved to piece them all together again.  It’s an archaeologist’s life’s work for sure.20150930_132944

20150930_151548They used to be colored, but unfortunately most of the color faded away immediately after being unearthed.  Here and there some patches of color are still visible.  All that was wood, like spears or chariots rotted away over the centuries and left only imprints in the soil.

I take ample time to walk around the hangar, and i make sure i have seen the Terracotta Army from every direction and angle.  I apologize to the reader of this post if you feel that you are forced to do the same…20150930_135358 - kopie

I also visit the second pit.  It is much smaller and less impressive.  Much excavation work is left and there are much less figures found.   Still they are impressive with beautiful terracotta statues and impressive pits full of broken pieces that still need to be restaured.

In a section near the entrance a replica of the site has been cleverly reconstructed. Like a ‘trompe d’oeil’. There you can have your picture taken between the (replica) Terracotta Warriors. I think that is great!  Again I don’t hesitate, which resulted in some fun pictures I will not deprive you of.

The museum attached to the archeological site is impressive.  The artifacts and objects found in nearby pits are exquisite.  From richly decorated vases and pots and figurines to ancient weapons and speartips found on the site.20150930_145238

The third pit is similar to the second. Smaller than the first and less impressive than the giant main hangar. Certainly still facinating. But the best part is the section where some amazingly detailed original terracotta statues are displayed in glass cabinets. Here you can really admire the incredible detail and craftsmanship of the Terracotta Soldiers.

There is a spearman and an archer, a horseman with horse and a general.

But the crown piece of the collection is the bronze chariot pulled by 4 horses for the emperor.  It can be admired in the museum as well.

It only takes a couple of hours to visit the site, but I realized that with traffic and a long bus drive, it would be late and dark by the time I reach the center of the city again.  Late, but not too late to still discover a different part of the city.  It is nearly  dinnertime and I am looking forward to tasting the famous local cuisine.  On the way out I can’t resist to get me a delicious snack from one of the vendors outside.  There was no way around them anyway.

From the bus station I take a taxi to the Muslim district to the famous Xi’an food street.  Its rainy that evening, but that is fine by me.  I hope it is not too busy because I am hungry.  The driver drops me near the entrance of the street, and I notice right away little food stalls everywhere.

But than I walk into the actual food street.  There are restaurants and stalls everywhere.  The bright and vivid street signs and the smoke from the barbecues mix together with the incomprehensible shouting of the vendors to an hypnotic mix.

There is an amazing variety of food and drinks.  It all looks delicious.  The Muslim influence is evident in the food and there is a lot of lamb and mutton dishes, besides tofu snacks and sweets and more classic dishes like noodles.  All with a local twist of ingredients or spices.

I want to try everything, and I nearly did.  Until I decided not to kill my appetite too much with snacks (the bbq lamb on a stick with cumin is to die for), and I pick a table in a restaurant that serves mainly lamb dishes and offers inside seating with view of the large , professional kitchens.  It’s always nice to see how your food is being prepared.   They had attracted my attention outside with their stall of lamb-breads, flat breads cut open and filled with lamb meat similar to a shoarma or pita.20150930_195918

I take such a delicious filled bread, a classic noodlesoup with lamb, and a serving of lamb-filled dim-sum..  I am a sucker for dim-sum…  and I had never had the lamb variety before.  I am happy I had them !20150930_201219

Filled and more than satisfied i continue my walk through Food Street. Everywhere you look there is delicious food.  The smell is amazing.

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As I reach nearly the end of the street, I see the brightly and colorful rooftop of the first of the 2 famous towers of the Xi’an old city defenses.  But that is for next post. For now I leave you with some more pictures of this lovely and tasty part of Xi’an.  Too bad I can’t upload ‘smell’-files yet…

Till next post !

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