Thursday 23 October 2014

36 Hours in Xi'an (Well, sort of....)

One of the main reasons I wanted to come with the Big K on his trip to China was the opportunity to see the Terracotta Army of Emperor Qin Shi Huang. The story of these life-sized clay sculptures have been frequently featured in magazine articles and TV documentaries. And what makes these statues remarkable is the sheer number of them. No, we're not talking of a handful nor a hundred but think thousands! Thousands upon thousands of warriors and horses, all created to accompany a single person in the afterlife. 

And where do you find this incredible army? It's in Xi'an, the ancient city in the Shaanxi province. Xi'an is one of the oldest cities in China and was once the eastern terminus for the Silk Road. It was also the capital city of 13 dynasties (there were 26 dynasties in all) where a total of 73 emperors once ruled.

My First Long Distance Train Ride in China (Beijing-Xi'an)

Now, how do I get from point A to point B?

I had three options: a two-hour plane ride, a six-hour high speed train or a 12-hour overnight train ride. The plane fare was too expensive on my travel dates while the high speed train schedules meant a hotel stay in the city. Since I figured one whole day was enough time to see the Terracotta Army, probably squeeze in one or two more popular tourist sight/s, an overnight train would be perfect (arrive in the morning, do a whole day tour and return at night). Plus it came out the cheapest among the three options. 

It's going to be another train ride for me! Hmmm... I'm seeing a pattern here. It's turning out to be the year of train rides for me. You can check out my earlier train rides here and here

The huge Beijing West Railway station (Beijingxi). There are 5 railway stations in central Beijing:
Beijing (Central) Railway, Beijing North, Beijing South, Beijing East and Beijing West.
My train for Xi'an left from Beijing West Railway station.

After deciding to take the train now comes the question on how and where to get my tickets. Well, one can do it the hard way: buy train tickets at the train station. Quite a challenge if you don't speak or understand Chinese (although the railway company has a website where one can purchase tickets online but then again it's only in Chinese). If you do decide to go this route, buy your tickets as early as you can (not hours but days before your travel dates) as trains get filled up fast. Train travel is very popular in China.

So, I did it the easy, stress-free way and got the services of a reliable travel agent because I didn't want to find myself waking up in a strange city hundreds of miles from my intended destination. Or worse getting standing room tickets for a 12-hour ride (Yup! They do sell these tickets there.)

Unlike with European and American train stations where the waiting areas are common,
Chinese train stations have assigned waiting rooms for different trains. The big departure board
indicates the train number, destination, departure time and the waiting room number.
No platform numbers here!

My train Z19 was assigned at waiting room number 4.


I arrived a bit early for my train and yet I couldn't find any vacant seat in the crowded
waiting hall. I did find one at the snack bar but of course I had to buy something. Yup, a pretty
expensive cup of coffee that costs RMB28 (USD5). Oh well, at least it was served in a beautiful
tea cup. I should have ordered the chrysanthemum tea, it came with refills.  

If you're wondering where to find your train's platform, it will be displayed on the LED board
at the ticket check gate once the train is ready for boarding 20-25 minutes before departure. 

I booked the Deluxe Soft Sleeper compartment both ways. It came with only 2-bunks, an 
armchair and its own toilet. Not to the Orient Express train's standard but this will do. I was 
lucky the train wasn't full going to Xi'an so I had the compartment all to myself. Different
story coming back! But still it was a good train ride experience.

Good Morning Xi'an!

I usually DIY my travels but for this trip I decided to hire my own tour guide as I found out that the Terracotta Army museum was another hour and half drive away from the city. And since I only had a short stay, I didn't want to waste my time figuring out how to get there. Oh and my no-speak-Chinese didn't help my cause either.

This is it! The golden ticket!

One of the greatest archaeological finds of the century, the Terracotta Army has been inscribed in UNESCO's World Heritage List in 1987. It is an active dig site as local archaeologists have been working here since its discovery in 1974 by local farmers digging for water wells. And one of the more interesting facts here is that archaeologists are still finding a lot of ancient objects. 
The whole site is actually a part of a huge necropolis that belongs to the first emperor of unified China, Qin Shi Huang (the same emperor responsible for the building of the Great Wall of China). Talk about a penchant for construction on a grand scale!

The entrance to Pit no. 1, the largest of three pits and the first one to be discovered.

What a sight to behold! It gave me goose bumps! 

Pit no. 1 contains the infantry soldiers. 

Story has it that each of the soldiers' faces are different, modeled after the artisans who created

Most of the unearthed sculptures were found in fragments and had to be carefully pieced together 
much like 3-D jigsaw puzzles. Here are some of the assembled soldiers on display to the public. 

Underneath all that earth is the cavalry at Pit no. 2

A depiction of what Pit no. 2 would have looked like with the cavalry unearthed.

Pit no. 3 is the command center.

Terracotta kneeling archer

Cavalry man and his saddled war horse. 

Big Wild Goose Pagoda and the Muslim Quarter

After a hearty lunch and a free tea-tasting ceremony (I've always been a coffee person but the demo was pretty interesting), it was back to the city to see the Big Wild Goose Pagoda and the Muslim Quarter.

The Big Wild Goose Pagoda is an ancient Buddhist temple where sutras (Buddhist canonical
scriptures) and figurines of Buddha were kept. It was built in 652 during the Tang Dynasty.

The Big Wild Goose Pagoda is included in UNESCO's World Heritage Site as part of
the Silk Road network (June 2014). 

The Muslim Quarter in the city is the hub of the Muslim community in Xi'an. As the terminus
of the Silk Road, this was the neighborhood where Muslim foreign diplomatic envoys and
merchants settled. Most of the present residents here are descendants of those immigrants.
The place is a veritable food and souvenir heaven! 

Persimmon cakes! 

The Big K is surely missing this!

After the hustle and bustle of the Muslim street market it was a
welcome relief to enter the peaceful garden of the Great Mosque. 

The main prayer hall of the Great Mosque, built entirely in Chinese-style architecture. 

It was a long and tiring day but definitely worth the visit especially after seeing the Terracotta Army up close and personal. That was a totally mind-boggling experience! I hope I get to come back with the Big K in tow next time. And, yes, stay a little longer....

And it's a date with the Sandman. Good night!

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