Xi'An : Constant Grey, Eternal Clay

Xi'an Travel Blog

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Reading in the park, Xi'An

Two days in Xi’An.  For those such as I heading West to East through China, probably the first “gotta gotta gotta get to that city!” destination on the itinerary.  This of course by virtue of it being home to the not-so-long-ago discovered but world renowned Terracotta Warriors.  The Chinese Authority’s self-proclaimed ‘Eighth Wonder of the World’.  But more of them in a moment.

First I must lug myself off the night train from Chengdu (comfy, clean and fine for my 201RMB/ $29.50) and espy the ‘Stephen’ sign held aloft by the kind representative of the excellent ‘7 Sages (Qi Xian) Youth Hostel’.  A sign is ready for James and Sarah too (UK both) who will be my principle pals for my time in this former imperial seat of ancient China.

The man of the moment : China's 'First Emperor' Qin Shi Huang
  Along with Beagle and NiuNiu the two pet dogs of the hostel too!

It’s a pretty grey grey day.  This will remain the case for all of our time in Xi’An and to a large extent this limits my capacity to engage with the city;  to take in its internal sights and culture and really try to ‘get to know’ the place.  In fact day two, in an extremely rare moment for my travels to date, is a real washout.  No trips outside at all whilst I sit reading, chatting and killing time ahead of my second night train.  This time to Beijing.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.  Suffice to say I really mind very little about this enforced stop to my wanderings as having travelled so far, so fast and having walked my feet to destruction in Chengdu yesterday I am so perfectly happy just to do next to nothing for a time I just can’t tell ya.

The lesser known (and lesser sized) member of the terrifying Terracotta Army :D

Xi’An anyhow from a tourist’s perspective is pretty much about one thing and one thing only.  That being the Terracotta Warriors of Emperor Qin Shi Huang or ’Qin’s Armies’ as they are sometimes entitled.

Situated about an hours bus ride out of the ’Imperial City’ area of Xi’An the first of the great pit necropolis sites of the Terracotta Army was discovered as recently as 1974 by local farmers drilling and digging for construction of a water well.  The site today, situated 1.5kms East of Emperor Shi Huang Di’s actual tomb site besides Lishan mountain comprises 3 main covered pit areas amongst various other buildings of various purpose (merchandising, conferences and so-called ‘information’ - yeah, more about that, or the lack of it later too!).

Giant marionette puppets from Olympics displays now housed in the shockingly uninformative 'museum' conference centre.
  The Emperor’s actual tomb site remains almost entirely unexcavated to date (quite rightly I feel) and many Chinese you speak to are taught that this is mainly for fear of the presence of many, many ingenious and deadly booby-traps that reside therein.  Whether true or not, I have written to a certain Dr Jones and he’s on the case to get it sprung open, raided and appraised in time for the next edition of ‘Lonely Planet China’ for y’all.  Ain’t I a good ‘un!

There must be about 10 trillion blogs pertaining to this site of vast archaeological and cultural significance so I’m not sure where to go with this one really?  A brief internet-cadged potted history I guess and then a farewell…

Emperor Qin Shi Huang ruled China between 246 - 221 BC only but did rather a lot in his short-ish tenure.

  He was the self-proclaimed and ever after known ‘First Emperor of China’ and in many ways justified the title in effecting the first true unification of the nation following from the ‘Warring States Period’ of its tumultuous history.  Following this impressive little party trick he also instigated vast road infrastructure schemes, the first idea and incarnations of the ‘Great Wall of China’ and of course ordered the creation of the great pottery army that he and serendipity have now bequeathed to human history.  He also did some rather unpopular sh*t like burying large numbers of scholars and intellectuals alive, burning untold masses of books and texts of great learning (predominantly Confucian) and generally working great numbers of his people to death in effecting the aforementioned construction projects.
Yes it's true to say, everyone loses their heads in times of war! :)
  Thus history - I’m told - views him in conflicting lights and affections.

The ‘Army’ as now known to us consists of 8,000ish soldiers, 130 chariots and 670 horses of varying sorts stood (or now crumbled) in military guard formation in 3 main archaeological pits.  These latter structures for the preservation and presentation of the ‘Eighth Wonder’ themselves grand works of the usual questionable taste for blocky grey Brutalist, Communist architecture at its … um?… best?  On their insides they appear quite fabulously like you’ve walked into some cavernous subterranean James Bond baddy lair complete with intricate structures of glass, plastic and metal girders with appropriate floodlit eeriness and with the Army stood there arrayed and “Set to be reanimated, unleashed and to CONQUER THE WORLD ONCE MORE!!! Mwwah-ha-ha-ha-ha-HA!”.

Pit 1 : the main necropolis enclosure containing approx 6,000 warriors.

On this last point… I.e. The purpose of the army, that previous and poor comic flourish is apparently not so far from the truth.  One of the prevailing theories being that the ‘Army’, supposedly an actual replica of the main defence force that guarded the Emperor in his lifetime (even down to direct copying of soldiers’ facial characteristics) was intended by him to assist in his conquering, establishment and rule of an ongoing empire and dynasty in whatever worlds met him in his afterlife.  

A good number of people you will talk to who’ve visited this site will express various forms of disappointment with it.  An anti-climax.  “A wasted journey” and worse.  One Chinese lad I chat to in Shanghai some while later in my journey says “…they really, really frustrated me!  Growing up in China, in schools, in our lessons we are told again and again and again how wonderful and incredible and amazing this site is.

"And everybody was KUNG-FU FIGHTING!!!..." ;)
  So good for china.  Such a source of wonder and pride but I did not think it was that great at all!”.  Whilst I have one significant reservation about the archaeological park itself (hang on, it’s comin’), to be able to live and to see with ones own eyes such an incredible expression of power-forced creativity and funerary extravagance and genius (no matter now its bloody foundations - our usual “Oooo! Ain’t that clever!” approach to all such sites I guess?) really, really is a privilege.  And something of true wonder, if not the ‘Eighth’ of the World.  Don’t gripe too hard people.  Be content to be a witness to such history and recall the sage words of Dr Jone’s arch foe Belloq : “Indiana, we are simply passing through history.
The vast majority of the 'Army' remain buried in their original chambers as excavation leads to the loss of their colorization and other forms of gradual decay.
This, this is history!”.

The problem, for there is one, with the site is the absolutely staggering dearth of information and learning to be taken from it.  It’s a modern, well-presented and very, very sizeable location with many fine enough and well appointed buildings and halls.  But you can cast your eyes to every single wall, display and surface in the place and probably reiterate on the back of a postcard the sum total of insight and learning that this place bothers to impart to its well-paying visitors.  Not just for those suffering in need of translation either.  There’s just no info in Chinese, English or any other tongue you care to mention.  The ‘museum’ centre is a disgrace for the ambassadorial hall of knowledge to an UNESCO World Heritage Site that it should be and the hilariously old, shoddy and bad panoramic cinema film of the history of Qin Shi Huang and his ‘Army’ likewise will teach na one nuffin’ mate.

Pit Walls.
  I wanna be learned somefin’ a bit ‘ere people!!  With gate tickets at 90RMB ( $13) a pop and I reckon a very conservative average of 2,500 visitors a day that’s 81 Million RMB (nearly 12 Million US Dollars) a year in gate revenue over a 360 day period per year!  I’m over simplifying of course but with that kinda money, again, the educational void that this place represents is a shame on China’s 21st Century embrace of tourism and its own rekindled cultural pride.

But do go.  Really.  How can you not if you’re a lover of history and culture… and Indiana Jones. :)

As I said before, constant grey and its attendant rains were James, Sarah and I’s companions in Xi’An so apart from braving any weather whatsoever for the purpose of eating the phenomenally gorgeous food in the Muslim Quarter of the old city we stirred little from the comfort, beer ‘n’ good cheer confines of our hostel.

Xi'An Night Neon (abstract)
  I’ll leave you to the pitter patter of the water on your screens, and catch up with you in Beijing for some maybe sunnier scenes.

* 'Indiana Jones and The Raiders of the Lost Ark'

sylviandavid says:
Sounds like a good down time for you....
Posted on: Jun 03, 2009
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Reading in the park, XiAn
Reading in the park, Xi'An
The man of the moment :  Chinas …
The man of the moment : China's …
The lesser known (and lesser sized…
The lesser known (and lesser size…
Giant marionette puppets from Olym…
Giant marionette puppets from Oly…
Yes its true to say, everyone los…
Yes it's true to say, everyone lo…
Pit 1 : the main necropolis enclos…
Pit 1 : the main necropolis enclo…
And everybody was KUNG-FU FIGHTIN…
"And everybody was KUNG-FU FIGHTI…
The vast majority of the Army re…
The vast majority of the 'Army' r…
Pit Walls.
Pit Walls.
XiAn Night Neon (abstract)
Xi'An Night Neon (abstract)
Smashed Pottery
'Smashed Pottery'
Smashed Pottery (detail)
'Smashed Pottery' (detail)
4 horses.
4 horses.
We aaall, staaand together! bom …
"We aaall, staaand together!" bom…
Good morning on the night train …
"Good morning" on the night train…
A doorway at the wonderful, tradit…
A doorway at the wonderful, tradi…
photo by: Deats