Years ago, I had one of those Dorling-Kindersley eyewitness discovery books on ancient China (I also had one about ancient Egypt, crystals and gems, spies, and polar expeditions, but none of this blog deals with that). I remember reading about the terracotta warriors of Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi’s tomb, among other things. I could not have made a trip to China without making this very important stop.
Xi’an ended up being the last stop before returning to Beijing on my trip. I’d originally planned to go up to Datong to see the stunning Yungang Caves, but ended up cutting that out in favor of streamlining the rest of my trip. It only took 3 hours on the train from Lanzhou instead of 5 or 7 as expected. I’d had time estimates when planning the trip, but they were seldom accurate. It was a nightmare trying to get metro tickets in the crowded train station. Some girl tried to help me find my hostel but led me in exactly the wrong direction; I’m dumb but I can at least read a map. My hostel was another one of the best hostels I’ve ever stayed in, with super helpful staff, a great bar/café, and great events and tours available. After I checked in and booked my warriors tour, I got a banana milkshake and Hawaiian pizza at the bar. I walked around a while afterward, to the bell and drum towers, and out to the city walls. I quickly got overwhelmed by the crowds and went back.
The hostel had this make-your-own breakfast situation which was not unlike those I encountered at hostels in Australia. I was the only one from my hostel going on the tour, so I had to go over to a neighboring hostel to catch the bus. Our tour guide’s name was Jaja and I made a French friend named Maelle. It’s nice to have somebody to make snide comments to when you’re on a tour (or ultimately to notice if you’re missing and stop the group from leaving without you). First, we saw the “tomb”of the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huangdi, after whom China was named. I say tomb in quotes because we know it’s there underground, but it’s just a forested hill from ground level. You can’t actually see the tomb because the emperor deliberately poisoned the land with a mercury “river” to keep out tomb robbers. The land is so toxic that archaeologists still aren’t sure how they can excavate it safely. The stop on the tour is about a mile away from the hill, in front of a stone obelisk proclaiming the tomb site. Jaja explained you can take a golf cart tour closer, but you’re only going to see more forest.
Emperor Qin started planning his tomb long before his death, like many Egyptian pharaohs. He built a full-scale palace underground, filled worldly goods, models of animals and servants, and the mercury river running through the courtyard. Guarding this ghostly palace was an army of terracotta warriors, protecting him even in the afterlife. It was thought that each warrior was modeled after a different soldier, but we can’t know for sure. Out of the three excavation pits, the first is the most impressive. Out of 8,000 total warriors, only 2,000 are assembled, and archaeologists think it will take another 130 years to assemble them all. In the daytime, the aircraft hangar-like space is inundated with tourists, and at night the archaeologists get to work. I cannot describe – despite the insane crush of people clamoring around – the feeling of seeing the warriors excavation site in person after reading about it as a kid. It felt a bit like coming around full-circle. After we emerged from the “pits,” we had a traditional Chinese buffet lunch, complete with the lazy-Susan of dishes and bright yellow buckwheat tea. As if the day weren’t perfect enough, we got an impromptu tea tasting as we waited for the bus to come.
Back at the hostel, after naptime and coffee, they held what was called a “dumpling party” at the hostel café. Although I thought it would be more like all-you-can-eat dumplings, it was actually a dumpling-making class. You’ve gotta work for these dumplings. It ended up being more fun that way. After I’d had my fill, I met Maelle back at her hostel, which had a proper UK-pub-feel, for some beers before sleep.
The next day was kind of a wash because my ankle was killing me. The plan was to climb nearby Huashan mountain, famous for its terrifyingly narrow walkways over gaping crevasses, but the bigger to-do was getting my train ticket back to Beijing, later than intended so I had to stay 2 additional nights. I went to the Muslim Quarter with Maelle for dinner and exploring, where we had those hamburger- flatbread-things that you’re supposed to get when you’re in that area. There were lots of books in the hostel book exchange so I was determined to finish my book so I would have a new one to take to Beijing. As it was, the book I got in Xi’an would be the one I took all the way back to the States with me.
The next day was a serious scorcher, but as my last full day in any city in China, I was determined to make the most of it. I went to the Big Goose Pagoda and walked the city walls in the shimmering heat. It was a bittersweet kind of day. I went to Three Sisters Dumplings on the way back, attempting to try a bunch of dumplings (this would have been easier with a bunch of friends so each could order a different kind and all share). As it was, I got a plate of 20 and had to be okay with that. I was all dumpling-ed out for a while.
The next day, I caught the train to Beijing to depart the day after that. All the boxes were checked, all the “T”s crossed and “I”s dotted, nothing left to do but make the long-postponed journey home.