Wednesday, August 24, 2011

An Underground Army of Terracotta Warriors in Xi’an, China


Destination:  Xi’an, China (Shaanxi Province)

Number of Days Spent: 3 days

Where we stayed:  Shuyuan Youth Hostel – Busy place with tons of fellow travelers to swap stories with. They can arrange trips out to the Warriors which takes in a few minor sites but the public bus is easy and cheaper. After weeks of seeing one or two foreigners where ever we were it was nice to spend a couple of days with fellow English speakers. They also had a “how to make dumplings” class which was free and quite tasty.  A tip though, ask for a quiet room, the hostel has many courtyards and was rather noisy.

Best restaurant:  Xian has just about anything you could imagine. We absolutely loved the Sichuan place near Xiangzimen Hostel, named Lele Canting (乐乐餐厅).  Thanks to for the recommendation!  As suggested, the gongbao jiding & dry-fried green beans were absolutely delicious, the best we had since Chengdu!  Cheap eats can also be found around the Muslim Quarter – try the soupy noodle and mutton dish that you crumble a loaf of bread into – filling and far better than it sounds. The roujiabing (meat sandwich) was a miss for us though.  We also took the opportunity to check out Pizza Hut, yes it’s the American fast food chain but here it’s a sit down meal with wait service and white table cloths. . . also overpriced but we ‘had’ to check it out.    

Best of:  The terracotta warriors are the obvious draw to Xian and rightfully so. The water fountains at Big Goose Pagoda and the Drum Tower are both sites not to miss. If you have the time, a trip out to the “miniature” terracotta army of Emperor Jingdi is impressive and you will likely have the place to yourselves. There is public transport out there, but plan on spending the day getting there and back as the bus is not frequent.

And did we mention how great train travel in China is?  Super comfortable, clean and beats the buses by a mile! Smile 


Worst of:  With nearly all our time spent in rural China, we finally found the foreign tour groups. Up to this point, our touristy stops in China were mainly geared toward Chinese travelers. Xian and the warriors are firmly on most itineraries of the big western tour companies. Expect lots of crowds, both Chinese & foreign, at the warriors and expect to be overrun by flag bearing tour groups. Aside from the warriors, the rest of the sites in and around Xian are relatively tame.

Memorable:  We were not sure what this woman’s deal was, but she had to pose with absolutely everything in the Drum tower… including Tracy. We felt sorry for her husband as she was constantly yelling at him. We tried our best to avoid her, but the place was small and she eventually cornered Tracy and had her sit in the 500 year old chair for a photo – along with crazy Chinese lady on her lap.


Welcome to main stream, clean, modern city China!  In utter contrast to the southern countryside and the western Tibetan areas we had been experiencing, Xian is a shining example of urban China. Research and technology industries as well as space exploration all have offices here. With one face turned to the future, there still remains a lot of history in this sprawling metropolis of 8 million plus. The 700 year old city wall still remains intact as do the drum and bell towers as well as several pagodas most notably the 1300 year old Big Goose Pagoda. Xian is also considered the terminus of the old Silk Road and as such was an important city for trading goods as well as ideas for many centuries. 

Like a compass that always points north, the Drum and Bell Towers located right in the middle of the city help travelers orient their sense of direction. The towers used to signify the start and end of the days as the bell would be rung at sunrise and the drum beat at sunset. Today, the bell and drum are silent, but there are musical performances at certain times of the day that help bring the 700+ year old buildings to life. The Drum Tower, located in the middle of a traffic circle is lit up at night for an enchanting scene not to be missed.


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Located on the outskirts of Xian, The Big Goose Pagoda is one of the more iconic landmarks of Xian. Built in the 7th century, the Pagoda was built to house some of Buddha’s teachings that were brought back from India. While you can pay an entrance fee to get into the Pagoda, we were told that it wasn’t all that impressive inside and it’s really the architecture that makes the pagoda so iconic. We opted to visit the pagoda at night instead so we could catch the water fountain show. For a free outdoor daily show, the fountains along with an upbeat soundtrack were actually quite impressive.


On our way back we couldn’t help stopping at the impressive city wall which was conveniently located next to our hostel (or is it the other way around?).


Buddhism may be the dominant religion, but the Muslims have been able to carve out their own niche here as well. The spread of Islam reached all the way to Xian, the eastern terminus of the silk road and its presence takes on a life of its own here in China. The headscarves are donned by the women and the men wear their traditional skullcaps but the mosques blend in with the Chinese style of architecture so well that only the crescent moon atop the building gives away its purpose. The food also reflects some traditional Muslim foods such as kabobs, stuffed pitas and mutton dishes.

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As China rapidly advances the giant corporations of the world move in and set up shop. Unlike Europeans, the Chinese seem to embrace the presence of the worlds largest retailer – Wal-Mart. Of course, this doesn’t stop what China is known best for – knockoffs. Just up the street about two blocks stands Wu-Mart, a virtually identical retailer with even better prices. Big box retailer or not, the Chinese still have their traditional attire. The convenient slit-in-the-pants can be seen virtually everywhere in China – Xian no exception.  Makes child rearing & bathroom breaks a snap!


Just outside of Xian about 20 km is the main reason why tourists come here – the Terracotta Warriors. If it not for some silly wall to the north this may be the number one historical site in China. Just look how immense it is, those are people to the left and right of the pit!


The entire collection were created by Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China, in the second century BCE. It is estimated that it took over 11 years to complete the mausoleum. Not only are the sheer number of statues impressive, but the level of detail that is put into each one is remarkably done well for such a large scale project. No two warriors are alike and were more than likely replicas of his real army. Most scholars believe that he created the army to assist him in the afterlife as he had all intentions of ruling there as well. Just look at the stunning detail!


Lost over the years of aging are the colors that once adorned each statue as well. Just a few fragments of blue  and red pigments remain but it’s enough to get a decent idea of what the completed statues may have looked like 2 millennia ago.





Excavations and restoration are ongoing so there is more and more being discovered each day. One aspect of the warriors that is somewhat impressive is the fact that the Chinese have largely not commercialized them to death. Sure there are tons of vendors selling miniature warriors, and a growing number of gift shops outside but the warriors themselves have been put back to together and placed right were they were intended to stand for eternity. All the excavation sites have been simply covered with airplane style hangars. In a country obsessed with making everything shiny and brand new, it’s nice to see them respect an important site such as this.


So the Terracotta warriors are huge, lifelike and one of the most impressive sites in all of China, if not the world but the area around Xian has one more hidden gem up its sleeve. The tomb of Emperor Jingdi was built less than a century after the Terracotta warriors but could not be anymore different.

Jingdi was a pacifist by nature. He reduced military spending, cut taxes and as a result improved the lives of his subjects. Rather than be buried solely with his army, he preferred to bring all of the necessities of creating a functioning society. Miniatures were made of pigs, cows, scholars, teachers, and workers. In total there were over 50,000 ‘puppets’ created complete with moving arms and wardrobes. With the wood all rotted away, the figurines are mostly armless.

While not as impressive as the Terracotta Warriors, the site is interesting and the building that houses the excavations and museum is state of the art. The pits containing the statues are below glass floors giving you a closer look at the pit than the warriors. It is also a crowd free place – something you will appreciate if coming from the warriors.






Xian proved to be an exciting blend of old and new. The modern city provided a glimpse into the current lives of the Chinese and what the future may hold. Perhaps, though for this city the future remains invariably tied to the past. Being home to the terracotta warriors, the eastern terminus of the Silk Road and other impressive historical buildings and sites Xian will always be linked to its past.

With our bags packed, we head to the train station to take the overnight train to another ancient walled city – Pingyao.  

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Exploring the Amdo region of China in the Crossroads of Western China: Xining


Destination:  Xining, China (Qinghai Province)

Number of Days Spent: 3 days

Where we stayed:  Lete Youth Hostel – Cozy place spread out across the top couple of floors of a high rise on the south side of town in a residential neighborhood. Lots of common area space. The breakfast was so-so (they were often out of a lot of items) but they do stock the local yak yogurt, a favorite of Tracy’s.  A bit out of the way, if location is a concern – head for the Sunshine Pagoda located right next to the night market. After popping our heads in there to chat with some friends we met in Xiahe we thought maybe it would have been the better choice but we didn’t feel like moving.  

Best restaurant:  There was a nice little café just up the street from the Lete and the night market was great for grilled meats and veggies on a stick. Just grab a basket and then load it up with all the skewers you want. Hand it to the ‘chef’ and on the grill it goes. If looking for coffee, head to Amdo Café. Pastries and French pressed coffee are on order at this cute little hole in the wall but it’s the crafts that make the place. Hand made by local Tibetan women, the café sells the products as sort of a fair trade system where the women get most of the profit.  Prices, quality and selection were among the best we found in China.

Best of: Sometimes rain can be a blessing in disguise. While visiting the Youning Si Monastery, we were invited into one of the monk’s homes where we shared tea and bread with some of his visiting family & his super cute ginger cat. Once again language was a barrier, but the unspoken gestures are often times worth more than any amount of words that could be spoken.

 Worst of: The Kumbum Monastery was one of the great Yellow Hat sect monasteries in Tibetan Buddhism but the Chinese government has staked its claim & thrown up an ATM to boot.  Tickets are for sale & organized tours given in Chinese are given by the busload.  The place just felt unhappy and more desperate than any other monastery we visited in China.

Xining sits along the crossroads to three distinct cultures. Head east of here and as you go the people and heritage becomes more Han Chinese. Head to the Northwest and the Islamic culture of the ‘Stans’ (Uzbekistan, Kurdistan, etc.), also referred to as the Hui, becomes more prevalent.  Hopping on a train to the Southwest takes you deeper into Tibetan culture. Here at the crossroads, all three combine to create a city of 2 million that has more heart and character than first apparent to the average traveller. Most stop here on the way to greater destinations but Xining has a few sights of its own worthy of exploring.

Travelling by bus from Tongren, we passed by some of the most beautiful countryside we have seen in China. We both wished that renting a car here was an option, it is simply stunning!  A river winds alongside the road for most of the way accompanied by a painted canvas of multi-hued rolling hills and mountains. The scene can almost make you forget you are on a Chinese public bus filled with chain smokers…almost.


Our first stop was to check out the Kumbum Monastery located just south of Xining. Lete and Sunshine can arrange a trip out here, but its almost as easy (and slightly cheaper) to catch a shared taxi just below the large bridge south of the central part of town. One of the great monasteries of the Yellow Hat sect of Tibetan Buddhism, Kumbum is a stunning collection of temples, chortens and stupas. Its significance comes from the fact that it was built in the 1600s atop the birthplace of the founder of the Yellow Hat sect (Gelugpa). Its significance is not overlooked by the always enterprising Chinese government. There is an admission fee, ATMs and Chinese tour groups are not an uncommon sight. The town around the monastery is being ‘spruced up’ and there will no doubt be hundreds of souvenir shops lining the path to the temples when the dust settles.  Here is that ATM just inside the front gate to the monastery.


Inside the complex the scene is not that much more authentic. Perhaps it’s because we had visited so many monasteries prior to our visit here, but we found that this place lacked the heart and soul that the others seemed to have. Where the monks in other monasteries were engaging and active, here they seemed as if it were a job and they were being forced or paid to hang around. While we couldn’t necessarily put a finger on it, the atmosphere here was decidedly less magical than in Tongren or Xiahe.


Despite the atmosphere the buildings themselves were pretty impressive. The architecture and wildly vivid paintings helped liven up the air and remind us that despite the government’s best efforts, the Tibetan culture lives on through their art.



Back in Xining,  in the heart of the town we stumbled upon a place that reminded us that Buddhism isn’t the only religion in town.  The city boasts one of the largest mosques in China which services the Hui population – a spillover from China’s ‘Stan’ neighbors to the west. This particular mosque is off limits to non-Muslims, and the outside is not as ornate as other Mosques we have seen, but people watching outside and strolling the Islamic quarter with its vast array of fascinating shops was an interesting eye opener in a nation not commonly associated with Islam.


Back outside the city of Xining we headsx to the east a few kilometers to visit the beautiful monastery of Youning Si.  Meandering up the side of the hill the monastery once boasted over 7000 monks and was instrumental in establishing the Yellow Hat sect of Buddhism in the Amdo region. Founded by the 4th Dali Lama, a Mongolian, the monastery became the main worship center for the Tu, descendants of the Mongolians. The monastery became famous for its study of astrology and medicine. Today, it is but a fraction of its glory days but the setting is non-the-less stunning. The overcast and rainy day only added to the atmosphere and when the drizzle turned to a downpour, we were invited in out of the elements into the home of a monk and his family. Sharing a loaf of bread and some tea, we mostly exchanged smiles and pleasantries but it was an interesting experience to see the simple home and how they live. 




Near Youning Si, but off limits to visitors is the childhood home of the current Dali Lama. China keeps tabs on who comes and goes from here and most taxi drivers will not go near the place. It’s still an interesting footnote to just how important the Amdo region is to the Tibetan Buddhists and adds to the significance of the area.


The Amdo region proved to be a fascinating look into the lives of Tibetans without having to break the bank on getting to Tibet itself. Having our fill of monasteries, we hopped on board the overnight train headed to Xian. Next stop: The Famous Terracotta Warriors of Xian!