Xian is more than just Terracotta Warriors. With a much more lively and cosmopolitan feel than Beijing, it has at its centre the colourful and bustling Muslim Quarter. This is the place to eat, teaming with barbecued street food. Most popular are lamb kebabs (delicious with local flatbread), skewered squid, dried persimmons (a type of date), and, bizarrely enough, all manner of pork products. Most stalls gave an option of take away or sit down in a small restaurant behind the grill. Eating in on one occasion, we saw a small kitten (not more than a week old) hurrying nervously from the kitchen. Thinking at first that one of the starters was escaping, we watched as it took refuge under our table. It then immediately vomited on the floor and moved on. Fortunately the cats verdict on the establishment was much harsher than our own, and we enjoyed a delicious meal of lamb kebabs, flatbread, and noodles with satay and chilli sauce. Total cost 25 Yuan (~£2.50).
At the opposite end of the scale, the next evening we opted for western decadence and decided to go to a misleadingly dubbed “6-star” hotel. Disappointingly this was a fairly ordinary place with curt staff – our drinks arrived with the now familiar “You pay now!” But the cabaret act was entertaining – a Chinese band singing Abba classics in a Cuban themed bar. It doesn't get much more diverse.
Our own accommodation was the *International Bell Tower Hostel*, in a great location – next to, not surprisingly, the central Bell Tower. Fantastic value for money, this was the best place we had stayed so far. Our double ensuite room was about £23 a night, which was £7 a night more than usual due to the May Bank Holiday.
Despite Xi’an’s many attractions in its own right, there is only one that draws millions of tourists every year from all over the globe – The Terracotta Warriors. Located about 2 hours by bus outside the city, the three enclosed pits containing the Warriors are China’s most famous archaeological site. Unfortunately we had no choice but to visit them on one of the busiest days of the year as part of the May Bank Holiday. Our guide said that there are often 90,000 visitors per day here, and it was anyone’s guess how many were here today – certainly the metal detectors and bag scanners were working overtime to herd everyone in.
The throngs of bum-bag laden visitors waddling after their flag bearing tour leaders are a good way of killing any sense of wonder at these undeniably impressive statues. People push, cameras flash, and 250,000 feet shuffle mechanically along the perimeter barriers. But like everyone else we didn’t want to be the only people who visited Xi’an and didn’t see the Warriors. Box ticked.
Contrary to popular belief, only one of the more than 2,000 warriors (the “Crouching Archer”) was discovered intact. By almost unbelievable coincidence this one was also the first one found – by a peasant farmer who uncovered it in 1974 while digging for water on his land. Just at the end of the Cultural Revolution, there is a good chance that if this discovery had been made a few years earlier it would have been promptly bulldozed and covered over again. As it happened, the farmer was paid the not so princely sum of 10 Yuan (£1), had his farm seized and was relocated along with his entire village to another area. According to our guide they were “much happier in their new home.” To our amazement, after visiting the Warriors we found this farmer signing books in the souvenir shop! Obviously attracting quite a crowd, he was the centre of attention – the “no photo” sign next to him was barely visible in the atomic-like flash of cameras. We did wonder whether he was just making a special guest appearance for the holidays, or whether the authorities had installed him as a permanent attraction. Either way, he looked distinctly unamused by the whole affair – his dour face almost as un-moving as the Warriors themselves. We imagined him thinking that if he could roll back the clock to 1974 he would have just filled in that hole that turned his life upside down and gone to dig for water somewhere else.
Back in Xi’an we spent a pleasant afternoon cycling the Xi’an city walls with Anindo. These were built in the Tang Dynasty & widened in the Ming Dynasty to become one of the largest ancient military defensive systems in the world, in that time.
We also bought a print from local printing artist Ding Ji Tang. We bought his print of the persimmons we had seen so many of in the muslim quarter.
Once bitten twice shy, we shunned the hard seat option on the train out of Xi’an and instead opted for the “luxury” of the “soft sleeper”. A 10 hour journey in a cabin of just 4 bunks, complete with fluffy duvets and a thermos of hot water. Our destination? Xiahe, via Lanzhou.