Summer 2016: Entry 6: Xi’an and Its Warriors — Part 1

It took about 45 minutes to get to the Luoyang Longmen Station for the high-speed train to Xi’an. David’s older brother wanted to stay with me to be sure I got the right train, but his little daughter, “Dede,” was really cranky, and I couldn’t see waiting for the train with her in melt-down! Besides, I was very anxious to move on— and specifically by my own efforts.

The high-speed train experience is totally different from the regular train. No pushing lines with crowds of people or long waits along the track for other trains to pass. The seats in the second class car (blue seats) were comfortable with sufficient leg room. The first class seats (red seats) are wider and, of course, more comfortable. I liked the large area between the cars where the spacious handicapped accessible bathrooms are located. It gives you plenty of room to stretch without people bumping into one another. As this was a continuing train, all the luggage bin space was taken already, so I had to keep my two small bags at my seat. It was only a 90-minute trip to Xi’an, anyway. The train travelled at a speed of about 200-250 kph (120-150 mph) and it was a constant, smooth ride. My only “complaint” was that the windows were polarized, so you couldn’t take many decent photos of the beautiful countryside of terraced farms, distant mountains, or small villages and towns we passed along the way. (I have to give a hats-off to Chinahighlights.com for excellent service getting the train tickets, not one glitch along the way. Even when I found out it would be safer to pick the tickets up at the train station rather than delivered to David’s Beijing address, there was a no-hassle, prompt refund of the service charge.)

The train pulled in on time to the new and modern Xi’an North station. The high-speed trains use their own stations that are generally outside of the cities. I used my Chinese app on my phone to learn the word for “subway” and was directed to the connecting hall. I was going to the bell tower, which is the center of the city in more ways than one. As the two subway lines cross there, it was easy to figure out which station to choose. The ticketing machine was all in Chinese with English directions but none of the stations are listed in Pigin, only Chinese, so you have to use your English-language subway map as a Rosetta Stone to figure it all out. All part of the experience! Your other option is to just get a card at the kiosk with the English-speaking attendant, but that would be too easy! It is an expensive taxi ride to the center city from there, but the subway, as in many Chinese cities, is pretty cheap.

It seemed like no time at all that I found myself at the Beidaje stop. I got off and started walking in the general direction of the hotel. After 5 minutes, I was there at the Ramada, a fairly dated but well-located place. As in most of China, the staff spoke very little or no English, which is fair enough. But they use on line translators with sometimes baffling results! When I asked about my laundry that I sent out, I was helpfully directed to “look behind the mirror.” The one-day service did not include the actual day I gave it to them. I think it was really a 24-hour service, because it was delivered the next day. When I told them I brought down a bag of laundry in the morning, they understood the word “bag,” but thought I was looking for a checked-in bag, i.e., luggage. The funny part is that I NEVER use hotel laundry services because they tend to be very expensive. There is always a cheap place to have laundry done somewhere near your hotel, or at times, just do it in the bathroom sink! However, it was cheap enough there, so why not?! No problem! You need to roll with some of the more minor situations and appreciate the humor in them! I found that getting upset about most things when traveling deprives you on some of your more memorable experiences!

Xi’an is famous for the terracotta warriors that were unearthed along with the burial site of the first real emperor of China. The fact is, there is so much more to this wonderful and historic city! Xi’an is larger and more cosmopolitan than I thought it would be. The city was established as a capital of China in the 11th Century BC. Over the years that followed its fortunes rose and fell with those of the dynasties. It was the eastern starting point of the Silk Route, so it has a history of being multicultural and somewhat tolerant. Of the four cities I visited in China this trip, hands down Xi’an would be the place I would want to live. I wish I had planned more time there, but with my ten-year, multi-entry visa, I hope to get back soon! I roamed some of the back streets to get a flavor for the area. I love the tree-lined streets. Not only does it look good, but provides added protection from the elements. On those really hot days, I always looked for these streets to walk on! As I wandered that first evening in Xi’an,  I finally settled on a restaurant that had photos in the window of the food they served. I had some delicious stir-fried noodles with pork, but they gave me so much I had plenty for dinner the next day!

That evening, I hung out at the Bell Tower Square that is the happening place in Xi’an at night. There were lots of people enjoying the parks, restaurants, shops, malls, meeting friends, taking selfies and photos of the lit Bell Tower. On the other side is the Drum Tower, which is the entry way to the Muslim quarter. This is a real jewel of a place in and unto itself, so I resisted the urge to explore it that night.

The next morning, I went to the Xi’an train station, the regular station in the town itself.  I soon found the line for the #306 bus on the southeast corner that would take us to the Warrior site. At 8 am, the line was already long and the weather hot, but the line was moving quickly with a bus leaving every 5 minutes at that hour of the day. The trip took about 30 minutes and made several stops at other spots along the way. At a price of only 7 yuan (a little more than a dollar), this is the best deal of the day! As with many sites in China, I think I spent more money on entry fees to places over the next few days of my trip than on anything else! At 100 to 150 yuan ($13-$15 USD), these fees add up!

As my time in Xi’an was only budgeted for three days, I only allotted 2-3 hours at the site. It seemed pretty large, so I paid the 200 yuan for a tour guide. This was largely a waste of money as most of what she told me I had already read doing research on the site. She was subtle about it, but she kept telling me that I could get some replica “special edition” statues in a shop she knew for a good price. As always, she gets a good commission. This happens everywhere you go. It’s all wrapped up in the price! When we finished the tour, we went to the shop as I wanted the experience of listening to this hustle. The merchant started a story about how they were “special edition” because they were made from clay removed from the very site of the pits.  I smirked skeptically. “How could I be sure that was true?” “You get a certificate,” he said. “Hmm. And you use clay from an active archeological site? No one has a problem with that?” He didn’t answer that, but offered me “his best price” of 350 yuan ($52 USD). The price quickly dropped to 100 yuan when I balked at that. I wasn’t interested anyway. Even cheap refrigerator magnets were going for 40 yuan. And when I pointed out they go for 8 in the city, the price went down quickly to match it. At that point, I was just having none of it. It’s not why I came. I said good-byes to the “guide” and off I went to just walk around the site for 30 minutes on my own. (PS: I bought a cheap replica of the same statue in Xi’an the next day for 28 yuan. I couldn’t care less if it were made of clay from the site!)

You can easily do this place in 2 hours as the three “pits” are right next to each other. Getting there from the bus stop is going through a Disneyland gone all wrong, however! Trinket shops and restaurants alike overpriced products going for 5 to 20 times the price in Xi’an! In short, get off the bus, head for the ticket office with purpose and enjoy the site. And bring in all your own food and water. All the nonsense aside, the pits are extraordinary and shouldn’t be missed.  The first pit is probably the best. The warriors date from about 200 BC, so excavation is tedious, not only due to their great age, but they are also quite fragile. Pit 2 is full of broken terracotta statuary, and it is largely unearthed as yet.  I was told that although the types of statues are limited—archers, lancers, cavalry, various officers, etc., no two are really alike. The faces of the figures were probably modeled from actual soldiers of the day. Pit 3 is the smallest, but contains a lot of the history of the site and two exquisite chariots- one to carry the emperor and the other, smaller one to transport his soul.

In short, don’t let yourself get caught up in the suffocating, distracting, mountain of nonsense connected to the site. You can easily lose sight of these wonderful statues if you do.  I think you will enjoy the experience more if you realize that you are looking at some amazing art. Looking at the site as a whole, you find yourself saying, “Gee, I expected it to be more!” But focus on the individual forms and, especially, the faces and you won’t come away disappointed! 

I exited the site about 12:30 and caught a returning #306 bus back to Xi’an. I think it was the first time in China that I was on something that was only half full! The warriors are phenomenal, and I was glad I went, but as the next couple of days showed me there is so much going on in Xi’an itself that rivals or even surpasses this site. (“Xi’an- Part 2” to follow.)

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