We arrived at Xi’an very early this morning, but not as early as planned. The overnight train was an hour late leaving from Nanjing, and therefore got to Xi’an an hour late too. That’s ok though, since arriving somewhere at 6:30 is often easier than arriving there at 5:30. As I remembered from the last trip, the overnight train is a relaxing way to travel. You get a reasonably comfy bed, and when you wake up, you’re in a new place. It’s public transit and hotel combined into one. Genius.
The taxi stand at the train station in Xi’an isn’t immediately apparent, unlike in other cities where it’s directly in front of the exit from the station. Dad and I wandered aimlessly for a while before discovering it. After that, it was a brief drive through the city until we arrived at the hostel, which is located in a beautifully restored historic building. We checked ourselves in and then immediately turned around went out the door to tour the areas around the tomb of Qin Shi Huang, who united China as a single country about 2300 years ago, and declared himself the first emperor. I was excited to be there, because I’ve heard so much about this emperor and the massive army of clay warriors he had buried in his tomb to ensure his rule in the afterlife.
We took a couple of public buses to go about 40km outside of the city. Along the way, I couldn’t help but notice the dozens of brand new high-rise buildings being built in the suburbs. These were enormous apartment buildings, each at least 40 stories high. This is the kind of development that is happening all over China, in its rush to modernize. When I try to picture China’s population of over a billion, it becomes easier to imagine when I consider dozens of brand new apartment complexes simultaneously rising out of the suburban landscape of every small Chinese city.
Our first stop was the emperor’s tomb. This site was extremely dilapidated. It looked like they started restoring the tomb and its grounds, and then promptly stopped as soon as the U.N. designated it a world heritage site in 1987. The grounds themselves are impressive, consisting of long paths bordered by tall coniferous trees, and (what should have been) manicured gardens. In the middle, there is a large burial mound, with steps leading up to the top. It was surprising to see that so little effort has been put into maintaining it though. Grass is uncut, and displays are worn out, unfinished or just plain missing. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the experience of visiting it. There were few visitors, so it was quiet and peaceful, and there were many song birds warbling in the trees. We even saw a pheasant fly out of one of the bushes. The view from the top of the burial mound was impressive, if not smoggy.
The next stop was the site of the buried terra cotta army. It was discovered by a peasant in 1974 while he was digging a well. He reported his find to the government, who within a short period of time turned it into a major archeological exploration slash tourist attraction. The peasant, who is now in his 70’s, still works at the museum. The site is enormous. The heart of it is three large pits, over which three huge buildings have been constructed, with viewing galleries from which you can see the terra cotta warriors in their original formations. Work is still ongoing to excavate these sites. So far, they’ve discovered about 8000 of these warriors, no two of which are the same. You aren’t allowed too close to them, so I’m glad I brought my 70-200mm lens to get a closer look. Surrounding the site is an sprawling complex of shops and food stands, a gigantic outdoor mall. Hawkers selling pomegranates, persimmons, and terra cotta figurines shout at anyone and everyone passing by.
In fact, everyone seems to be selling pomegranates and persimmons. From the bus, we could see dozens and dozens of fruit stands, side by side. Each of them stocked nothing but pomegranates and persimmons. When we weren’t passing pomegranate and persimmon stands, we were passing groves of pomegranate and persimmon trees. It’s amazing that they could stay in business with this level of uniformity. If these guys can survive, it blows our theories about product differentiation right out of the water. Dad bargained hard and bought a choice pomegranate for RMB 1.5 (about 20 cents).
After a pretty fancy dinner down the street, which consisted of goose, jellyfish, green veggies, fancy mushrooms and surf clams, we did some planning. We’re getting down to the last few week or so of our trip, so we have to be a little more careful with our time so we can see what we want to see. I’ve planned an itinerary that’s going to take us into the boonies and back. More about that later…