Everyone we spoke to about traveling to Xi’an told us “Go, but only stay a day. Besides the Terracotta warriors, there isn’t anything to do.” But after a very rainy weekend in the capital of China’s ancient dynasties we discovered that the city of 8.2 million has a lot more to offer than the 82 million terracotta warrior tchotchkes that have invaded every gift shop in the province.
We left for Xi’an on an overnight train from Beijing Friday night and arrived early Saturday morning. This was merely a 14-hour train ride, so we didn’t spring for the more luxurious and pricier soft sleeper car that we enjoyed during our 50-hour train from Lhasa, settling instead for the “hard sleeper.” We slept fitfully on the top bunk, about 7 feet off the floor but only two feet from the ceiling, and pulled into the Xi’an train station with a jolt.
We wasted no time getting to the main attraction and hopped a bus to see the Terracotta Warriors. The Army is quite a site to behold, and put into its historical context is a remarkable bit of archeology. Constructed two millennia ago by the first emperor of China Qin Shi Huangdi, the army of more than 8,000 life-size soldiers was buried underground until farmers drilling a well in 1974 happened to find these imperial guardians. Inside it’s crowded with tourists and outside throngs of hawkers offer cheap souvenirs, but the site itself is awesome.
There is a “historical film” which depicts a dramatized version of the battles and events that led to the terracotta army’s construction that was shot in the 80s with an amazing panoramic camera. It’s projected onto the walls of a circular room giving you a full 360 degree view of the action.
We spent the night at the Shuyuan International Youth Hostel which is just inside the formidable, 2,000 year old city wall. Our 50 kuai (about $7.33) beds came with free wifi, a free beer and coffee each, plenty of lounge space, and a veritable menagerie of in-house pets including a cat, fish, songbirds and a turtle.
With the rain increasing, the next day we went off to see the nearby tomb of Emperor Jingdi, who ruled about a century after Qin Shi Huangdi. Jingdi had a very different administrative style than his predecessor. While Huang unified China by force, outlawed Confucianism and buried scholars alive, Jing ruled following the Daoist principle of wu wei – non-action and non-interference – and reduced taxes, cut military spending and reformed the criminal code.
However, Jing’s Daoist sensibilities did not prevent him from also building a ridiculously lavish tomb for himself and his mistress. Instead of an army of warriors, Jing had an army of terracotta servants, animals and concubines crafted and buried in giant pits surrounding his burial mound. Only a few of the pits have been excavated but the museum sits right on top the ongoing dig. The pits have been glassed over and you can stand directly over the site and get a close up view of thousands of artifacts. My favorite was a chamber full of meticulously lined up pigs, horses, goats and dogs.
Despite the rain and warnings of boredom, we were sad to leave Xi’an Sunday night, but very glad we’d given the city more than the cursory visit most tourists do.