After the sleeper train, we arrived in Xi’an at midday; I was aching and coughing, but free of the chills and sweats. Result!
The city is divided into two parts: the old, walled city and the newer, modern section. Inside the old walls, buildings are limited to 15m high or less (only a few metres taller than the walls, and many are lower), while outside skyscrapers vanish into the smog.
Xi’an is set in the very middle of China: north of it is officially ‘Northern China’. It is set at what was considered to be a very lucky location for a city, surrounded by eight mountains and eight rivers, but on flat ground itself. It is known as the Heart of the Dragon (China being the dragon).
Our new guide, Lei Lei, was excellent. He spoke excellent English and his wisecracks were almost enough to keep Nick in line. This was good, as our time in Xi’an was packed and we needed efficiency!
The Bell Tower is set in the very centre of the city. It is a massive pagoda, supposedly built to keep a dragon sleeping underneath it. It was used to mark the passing of time in the day, just as the nearby Drum Tower was at night.
Next, we visited the city walls themselves. We climbed them, hired bikes and set out from the South gate. Th walls are very thick – enough for eight of us to ride next to each other – and still in excellent repair.
In total, we cycled nine miles around the old city; while most of us took it easy, Jason and Iain went round twice. The scenery was mostly grey, but the gatehouses were very ornate and beautiful – especially when the lights covering them were turned on at sunset.
Our next stop was the Drum Tower and the Muslim Quarter. This is the official beginning of the Silk Road: the main route that took goods through the wilderness between China and Turkey. It takes up the entire North-Western quarter of old Xi’an, which is considered to be the city’s best land. This is because the Muslims who traded with China prayed for the emperor when he got ill; when he recovered, he granted them the land to convince them to stay.
The Quarter is not exactly Arabic and not exactly Chinese, but a mix of the two. In many ways (bartering and shopping!) the cultures are similar, but in food, architecture and other factors they are separate. The food here (don’t eat the street meat!) is Arabic, and in several places you can see the corpses of lambs and goats hanging from the front of shops.
After we were finished in the Muslim Quarter, we gathered in front of the Drum Tower, where Lei Lei took another group picture. Turns out that the Chinese say “Qiezu” (“Aubergine”) when taking a photo (and, yes, throw up the peace sign everywhere), because it is the Mandarin word that sounds most like “Cheese.” They do not, as Nick convinced the girls, say “Yinjing” (“Penis”). This earned him a slap on the leg from Lei Lei.
Our last full day in Xi’an saw us visit a Wonder of the Ancient World: the Terracotta Warriors. They are located on the first of seven levels of the tomb of Qin Shihuang, the first true emperor of China. The tomb, the largest in China, is shaped like an upside-down pyramid, but it cannot be excavated yet because all of the lower levels are filled with liquid mercury, as a preservative.
Qin Shihuang was both brilliant and terrible. He unified the six Chinese kingdoms and began construction of both the Terracotta Warriors and Great Wall of China. He also established a legal and political system that lasted for more than 2,000 years. However, half the population of all of China worked on his tomb alone!
Originally, the Terracotta Warriors were meant to be the corpses of the Chinese army – that is every single enlisted man. Wise men told Qin Shihuang that this would be a Bad Idea, and convinced him to have copies made of every soldier, instead. This is why each statue looks different: they are based on real men who lived more than two millennia ago.
Three pits have been uncovered so far. Pit One is the largest: it holds ranks of infantrymen, with the outer ranks facing outwards to avoid flank attacks (presumably from moles). Pit Two holds horses and chariots, and Pit Three is tiny, only holding a few groups of soldiers and four horses.
After three hours, we retired to Subway for lunch (Chinese food, while excellent, lacks Western staples likes savoury bread). This is where Sarah and Paul gave me one of the trip’s funniest moments (imagine the following in heavy Irish accents).
Sarah: Look Paul, I took one good picture on the GoPro.
Paul: That’s nice. Well done.
Sarah: We have a photo competition every day. We also have a very gay Instagram account called Chocolate Orange Adventures.
Sarah: We said if we have a son we’ll name him Terry.