"All genuine knowledge originates in direct experience." - Mao Tse Tung
After spending a week in Shanghai, it was time to hit the road. Or the air, to be more exact. A quick train ride to the airport, and by quick I mean 250 miles per hour on a magnetic levitation train, very cool. My brother and his family had never been to Xi'an, so they decided to come along for the second leg of my three city tour. In the interest of travel time, we opted for China Airways. I'd heard some horror stories about domestic air travel, but it's come a long way in the past few years. Aside from traveling with all Asian fliers, it felt pretty much the same as a normal flight from Hartford to Orlando to visit the folks. The only real difference I noticed was they don't seem to buy into the concept of lining up and boarding by row. People crowd the front of the gate at least a half hour ahead of time, and when boarding is announced, it's every person for themselves. Come to think of it, that was the general feeling I got throughout my travels in China. A friend had recently described the Chinese as 'rude', but I just felt like people were just doing what they had to do to get from point A to point B. Let's face it, a billion is a lot of people to crowd into one country.
Thanks to my brother's frequent traveler status, we got to enjoy celebrity check-in from the cushy chairs in the executive lounge. Free Tsing Taos and fancy snacks. Xi'an, so far so good.
In case your China geography is rusty, Xi'an is north and slightly west of Shanghai, and as you can see from this map, almost on the way to Beijing, my next destination..
Aside from the big wall around the perimeter of the downtown, Xi'an looked like a typical chaotic, bustling and overpopulated Chinese city. Its population is around four million, about half the size of New York City. Shanghai is China's largest, at 15 million, and Beijing sits around 11 million. Here's a view from our fancy Sofitel Hotel..
Tourists mostly come to Xi'an to see the famous Terracotta Warriors, and we were no exception. A long day of planes, trains, and taxi's didn't stop us from wandering over to the Muslim Quarter to grab a bite and take in some of the local culture first though. We passed the Drum Tower and Great Mosque, but unfortunately both were covered in scaffolding and closed to the public. The Quarter was still well worth the twenty minute walk and death-defying street crossing to get there.
This photo doesn't really capture its energy. This walking street was buzzing with activity. Street food vendors were everywhere (I already talked about the food here in the last installment). Trinket shops and markets lined the streets. This is where I learned you never pay full price for anything in the streets and markets of China. In fact, it became a bit of a competition among family members to see who could get the best deal on souvenir mini Terracotta Soldiers.
Which brings me to the main reason we traveled to Xi'an, to see the Terracotta Army.
Discovered in 1974 by a farmer digging a well, the Terracotta Soldiers have become a major tourist attraction in China. And for good reason, they are impressive. Built in 200 BC for China's first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, the Terracotta Army is a collection of 8,000 life sized soldiers and hundreds of chariots and horses. Emperor Huang thought that by building this faux-army and assembling it near his tomb, he would be able to bring them all along to his afterlife and be able to kick butt there too. Ok, so he may not have said 'kicked butt'. The hollow statues were made by government laborers and craftsmen. Faces resemble actual warriors. I'd seen pictures, but I was excited to see them in real life, in the actual place they were first assembled, now one of the world's most well-known archaeological digs.
My brother had worked out a little arrangement with a Chinese colleague who provided a driver and an English-speaking guide to take us to a few of the local sites and to the Warriors. He called it 'Guanxi', which basically means my brother owes him a big favor.
First stops on the way. The Ban Po Museum, an ancient settlement, and by far the coldest museum I've ever experienced.
Next, it was off to the Huaqing Hot Springs, beautiful..
And a good place to warm up our hands..
On a side note, the Chinese locals loved to get their picture taken with my nephews and niece. Especially my niece. Strangers would constantly ask, some more aggressively than others, to pose with her. She was always a good sport about it. Here she is, summoning her inner rock star...
Now without further delay, we get to the site of the Terracotta Warriors..
Understated but definitely built to support large crowds, the grounds did little to give away any hints as to what lay in the pits we were about to see.
There are three pits, and although pits two and three were interesting in their own ways, pit one was what we'd come to see.
A small museum gave us a close look at some of the figures, through glass...
We entered the giant airplane hanger from the back. Here's the staging area where soldiers are painstakingly brought back to their original form. The paint is gone, but all the other detail remains.
No small feat when you consider the condition many of these figures were in when they were first unearthed. There was a revolt just be the emperor died. His mausoleum was ransacked and burnt. Guess the working folk were just tired of being forced to make all those soldiers for their death-fearing dictator.
Here we all are. As I've said, long johns and a ski hat were my devoted travel companions for most of the trip.
And here it is...
Not sure if this giant army made out of terracotta actually helped China's first chairman in his afterlife, but a pretty impressive display nonetheless.
The weekend in Xi'an ended with my brother and his family waving goodbye to me as I anxiously walked toward a crowded train station and an awaiting bullet train to take me to Beijing, the grand finale of my tour...