Xi’an, China: The Terra Cotta Army

Angela and I decided that for our Spring break, we should see some of China. We have seen embarrassingly little of the country that we are currently residents of, so we settled on a trip to the ancient capital city of Xi’an. I had a gig with my jazz band on Friday night, so we stayed up until around 1:00 AM the night before our 7:50 AM flight. It was a little bit of a bummer, but we made it to Xi’an, and to our very accommodating hostel called the Han Tang House. We had arranged a driver to pick us up from the hostel, but they never showed up. We managed to communicate with a cab driver and found our way. Once we arrived to our hostel, we took a nap! The room was pretty basic, but the bed was very comfortable.

After our nap, Angela and I headed to the Muslim Quarter of Xi’an. There is a large Muslim population, and a large area with many shops and food stalls, along with the Great Mosque of Xi’an.

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Angela has a good rule of thumb when it comes to street food: if there is a line, wait in it and buy what all of the Chinese people are buying. This has worked out really well for us so far. We waited in line for what the locals refer to in English as a ‘Chinese hamburger’. In Chinese, I believe it is called a Rou Jia Mo, but I could easily be mistaken. Either way, it was delicious.

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We saw a lot of Muslim pulled noodles, which is done very creatively as shown in the photo below.

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Angela found the largest dumpling steamer we had ever seen above.

We wandered to the Great Mosque of Xi’an as well while in the Muslim Quarter. Prayer time was just finishing when we arrived, so we worked our way through the crowd and explored the ancient mosque. Shown below is Angela in front of the prayer hall. We were not allowed inside.

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After exploring the Muslim quarter, Angela and I participated in one of our favorite activities, which is sitting on the street outside our hostel and people watching over a beer.

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On Sunday morning, Angela and I decided that we would hike around the top of the entire Xi’an City Wall. We had beautiful Spring weather for our walk around the wall, which is huge. We climbed up the stairs by the South gate, and headed East.

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They had a lot of decorations left over from Chinese New Year, which made us think of a racetrack straight out of Mario Kart Racing.

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After spending about 1 and a half hours walking, Angela got grumpy, and I admit that I was sweating and a little tired of walking as well. We had made it to the North Gate, which was only our halfway point. Luckily, we were in China, and the option of renting a bicycle that you could pedal around the top of an ancient city wall is something that no Chinese tourist destination would be without. We rented two bikes and continued to breeze our way around the remaining half of the city wall. It was awesome.

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After our intense hike/bike, we wandered all over Xi’an looking for different pubs and popular spots for a drink that we had found in our Lonely Planet book, only to discover that every fun place in Xi’an waits until at least 5:00 PM to open (that’s 17:00 for you Europeans). Our hostel owned another hostel down the alley from us, so we decided to go people watch there over a ‘local brew’, as the bar tender told me. When I asked what it was called, he said ‘Tsing Tao’. Guess I would’t call that a local brew, but I don’t really know what the official qualifications are for a local brew. At least they had a Terra Cotta army statue for us to look at. I am confident that it must have been authentic.

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Angela had booked us a food tour through a company called Lost Plate Food Tour. I can’t say that I was eagerly awaiting this, but I am very glad that I went and I would recommend it highly to anyone who visits Xi’an. It was not very cheap, but well worth it! We were met by our guide Ruixi at our hostel, and rode with her in a tuk-tuk with a cooler full of beer and soda all around Xi’an. She took us to all of the great spots that we would never have found on our own, and her English was fantastic! I can’t remember most of the food that we tried, but some of the highlights included cutting our own noodles at one local family-owned restaurant. Here is Angela trying her best.

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We also ate some more Chinese hamburgers, the same that we had tried on our first night. We learned an interesting fact about Chinese hamburgers from our guide. She said that families who made the Chinese hamburgers never turned off the hot broth that they cook the meat in. They just ladle out the bad stuff, and add new  stuff. She thought that since the family that we had purchased them from had lived in Xi’an for 20 years, that their cooking broth might be 20 years old. She said that there was supposedly one that was a hundred years old that cooked meat in only 8 minutes. Supposedly the older the broth is, the better the hamburger tastes. It certainly was delicious, but I couldn’t decide if I would rather the story be false and disappointing or true and risk certain death. Either way, the food tour was a success and all of the food was delicious.

On Monday, we had booked a tour to see the main attraction of Xi’an: the Terra Cotta Warriors. I am not sure why we decided to book a tour to do this, since it would have been easy for us to have seen this one on our own. We met some nice people, but following a woman around who was carrying a flag made me feel a little silly. Still, the warriors were a fair ways out of town, and this was an easy way to get there.

We arrived and had a nice stroll through the entrance park.

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The Terra Cotta Army is divided into three different pits. Pit 1 is the most famous, where all of the pictures are from. All of the statues had been destroyed except for one, so the archaeologists are piecing them back together in what must be the world’s most frustrating jigsaw puzzle. I guess I had assumed that they had discovered the statues whole, so I was surprised to see pit 2, where they are only in fragments since it is a relatively new excavation site.

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Pictured above is pit 2, which is still mostly covered. Luckily, we started with this pit as it was not what I was expecting.

The next pit we saw was pit 3, which was the command post for the army. I was impressed by how put together the commanders were. I couldn’t tell that they had once been mere fragments, and were only there thanks to the efforts of some poor sucker who didn’t realize that his college education was going to land him in a hole putting ancient pieces of clay back together.

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Pictured above is the command pit.

After that, we ended with pit 1, which is the place where all of the photos are taken. This pit has more than 4,000 reconstructed warriors, and was very impressive.

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After exploring the warriors we traveled to the tomb of Qin Shi Huang, who was the crazy emperor who made the terra cotta army to ensure his rule after his death. His tomb is a giant mound of earth, allegedly the world’s largest tomb, that is supposedly entirely surround by terra cotta warriors. Archaeologists suspect that the current terra cotta army is only a small fraction, and the whole area most likely contains more armies. I was most fascinated by Qin Shi Huang’s tomb for several reasons. The emperor drank mercury during his reign, which probably contributed to his early demise. The legend is that there are rivers of mercury in his tomb, but nobody has entered it yet. They are waiting to enter the tomb so that they do not cause any damage to the relics inside (when they unearthed the terra cotta warriors, they were still the same color that they originally were, but immediately oxidized and lost their color), and also because the mercury levels inside the tomb are dangerously high, which supports the rumors. That fascinated me, along with the fact that our guide was insistent that there was nothing to see at the tomb, and that we should only take a few pictures from a distance and leave. A few of us obstinately walked closer to the tomb regardless, which seemed to frustrate our guide. This could have been because she genuinely thought the area was boring, and she wanted to get home in time for dinner. Or, this could be because there is some major government secret surrounding the tomb, which is the conclusion that I choose to believe. Either way, the area around the tomb was actually really beautiful to walk around, as you can see below.

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After our terra cotta expedition, we came back and enjoyed Xi’an at night. They tastefully light up the city wall, and the drum and bell towers.

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The next morning, we stopped at the tomb of emperor Jing Di on our way to the airport. As Lonely Planet puts it, this is one of Xi’an’s most underrated highlights. I would agree, as the tomb is very interesting. The museum is set underground, with glass corridors that allow you to see the excavation site as if you are involved. Also, they found all of the relics mostly intact, and though they are much smaller than the warriors, they are more impressively preserved. After wandering around the grounds for about two hours, we continued on our way to the airport.

Angela and I sat next to a man who lived in Xi’an named Ricky. Below is a photo of Ricky doing some business on the plane.

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Ricky was a really nice man, who was anxious to practice his English on me. I am a nervous flyer, and one of the first things he wanted to talk about was the Germanwings flight tragedy, which I did not particularly appreciate, but he was a good conversationalist and made my trip home seem very quick. All in all, it was a great trip, and I enjoyed Xi’an very much.

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2 thoughts on “Xi’an, China: The Terra Cotta Army

  1. Gary Griffin says:

    Angela & Jason,

    This whole experience that you have had makes me very envious, that i didn’t try something like this. However, someday reality will set in & you will have to come back to the good old USA. I will agree that it is an opportunity of a life time, and the time to do it is when you are young.

    Thanks for sharing with everyone.

    Gary Griffin

  2. Deb McCreedy says:

    Hi Angela and Jason,
    Really good to hear from you. The hamburger juice worries me some however.:)
    Looking forward to seeing you this summer.
    Love Aunt Deb

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