Our first activity on arriving in Xi’an was a bike ride along the Ming Dynasty city walls. The walls were an impressive feat of construction, but the ride itself was a little less inspiring. We had to hire single-gear bikes with little to no suspension and incredibly uncomfortable seats! Views from the wall were not as scenic as we’d hoped; we essentially looked at a concrete jungle for the entire 14km.
Following the bike ride, we explored the Muslim Quarter of Xi’an, having been briefed on how it came about by our tour guide (visiting Turks impressed the Emperor at the time so much that he commanded them to leave their lands and settle in China!). This area is potentially the busiest market I have ever visited; we went to the two main streets, one for souvenirs and the other for food. The souvenirs were the usual, chopsticks, t-shirts, hats and assorted fake goods. We had been told that the market in Beijing affords much more variety, so we decided to hold off on buying things until then.
The food street had a great atmosphere and lived up to my preconceptions of how I expected China to feel. There were hundreds of vendors selling everything from a whole sheep carcass to deep-fried sweets. We opted for a spiralised potato- unfortunately we ate it before thinking about taking a picture! It can best be described as a giant thick-cut crisp cut into a single spiral piece from a whole potato and threaded onto a stick before being seasoned with ketchup.
After the market, the group made our way to our guide’s favourite restaurant and it was worth the walk! We had in the region of 10 different exquisite vegetarian dishes, copious amounts of beer and it cost us under £5 each! We were also taught a Chinese drinking custom where the oldest person could call ‘ganbei!’ and the rest would be obliged to toast and finish their drinks. That explains why the beer glasses were so small!
Visiting the Terracotta Warriors of Xi’an was one of the three main things I wanted to see in China, the others being the pandas in Chengdu (which for me was a little disappointing, as they didn’t appear to be in the best conditions - and if it wasn’t for the fact that we were in China, it could well have been London Zoo), and the Great Wall of China (watch this space!).
It took about an hour and a half to reach the site of the warriors from where we were staying, which in the scheme of our Chinese travel so far was just around the corner! The underground complex which contains the remarkable army of pottery warriors was built as a mausoleum for the first Emperor of China in 210BC, Emperor Qin Shi Huang. This Emperor is credited with unifying China from the seven states which existed beforehand, bringing them together with the same language, currency and religious customs, but also committed many atrocities during his reign, including enforced labour to build his tomb, which is said to have claimed many of the lives of the 720,000 people conscripted to work on the creation in ancient China.
Our tour guide in Xi’an had previously studied Chinese literature at university, so could give us a fascinating and detailed history of the warriors which made seeing them even more rewarding. The site is an upside down pyramid with the tomb of the Emperor himself at the point roughly 100m below the surface, and excavation work continues to this day, with some parts of the tomb still impassable even with modern technology due to the reinforcements and blockades put in place by the Emperor’s builders (much of the tomb is filled with mercury, making it nearly impossible to unearth what lies below without significant risk to both the artefacts within and the team carrying out the excavation). Given the resources being poured into the site by the Chinese government has and the cultural and historical significance of the site, I have no doubt that we will one day be able to explore all aspects of the colossal tomb.