Tag Archives: xi’an

An Army of Clay

Before Mary came to China, she asked people what cities they recommended visiting. Several encouraged her to see the terra cotta warriors, and I’m so glad they did! I was worried the site would be too touristy, so if Mary hadn’t suggested going there, neither Xi’an nor the terracotta warriors would have been on my itinerary. And I would have missed out!

The guide books all agree that hiring an interpreter is a good idea for the warriors. The site is 90 minutes away, so you’re already going to sink money into taxi fare. And while there are some helpful signs in English inside the museum, they don’t give you a lot of the backstory.

Our guide for the day was Jia Jia. (It’s pronounced something like Zsa Zsa.) She told us, “Jia Jia is my Chinese name. My English name? Is Lady Jia Jia.” Her English was not always clear but she made up for it by repeating the last few words of sentences, followed by an “Alright? OK! Mm hmm.” And then a big grin and a head nod. I’m pretty sure she was convincing herself that we understood, not asking for feedback. It was actually incredibly endearing.

Lady Jia Jia.
Lady Jia Jia.

If you’ve never heard of the terracotta warriors, I’m just going to send you here, because National Geographic does a better write-up than I could.


There are three main archaeological pits. Jia Jia insisted that we visit them in this order: Pit 2, Pit 3, Pit 1. (“I’m saving the best for last. OK?” Head nod. Grin.)

In Pits 1 & 2, the soldiers are mostly still in pieces. At the end of the Qin Dynasty, Han soldiers pillaged the site. They stole the useful weapons held by the statues and in some areas, smashed them to pieces. Other damage is the result of earthquakes, which are also caused the roof to collapse.


Only a few soldiers are restored and put on display.  It’s so interesting to see those few up close, as you really can’t appreciate the level of detail on the warriors in the pits below the viewing area.

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Originally, the pieces were colorfully painted. Most of the paint has disappeared due to oxidation, but you can see traces of red on this soldier’s back.
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So much detail.
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This archer would originally have been carrying a longbow. He was my favorite. I think he looks like he’s practicing tai chi.

The pits are vast. Archaeologists are still actively working to extract broken soldiers and put them back together, an army of Humpty Dumpties. We didn’t see anyone at work, though. Jia Jia told us they work in the evenings, when they won’t be distracted by the hordes of tourists.

As promised, Pit 1 was the most impressive. There, we saw hundreds of fully restored soldiers, lined up much as they would have been when the tomb was created more than 2,000 years ago.

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Back at the hotel that evening, I decided I still hadn’t seen enough of Xi’an.  Mary volunteered to stay in with Simon so that Joel and I could go on a date.  My first goal was to eat biang biang mein for dinner.  This noodle dish is a specialty of Xi’an.  Primarily made in Muslim restaurants, it’s a bowl of soup with a giant hand-stretched noodle.  Define giant?  Well, it’s sometimes called “beltstrap noodle” because it’s as wide and thick as a belt.  And your dish will just include one, single noodle that’s three meters long.

There are so many great things about this noodle and it’s name.  Supposedly, the name (“biang biang”) is supposed to mimic the sound of the dough being slapped on a cutting board before being stretched.  The character for biang biang mein is possibly the most complex currently used in the Chinese language.  It has 57 individual brush strokes.  Locals have invented rhymes and mnemonics to help remember how to draw it.

That scribbling on the kitty's belly?  That's one "biang."
That scribbling on the kitty’s belly? That’s one “biang.”
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Eating noodle soup with chopsticks. It’s a skill.

After dinner, we headed to the Big Wild Goose Pagoda.   (Yes, there is also a Little Wild Goose Pagoda.) Legend has it that there used to be some Buddhists who weren’t vegetarian.  They were very hungry and prayed for food.  At that moment, as a flock of geese flew overhead, one broke his wing and fell to the ground.  So the Buddhists decided to become vegetarian and built this pagoda to mark the spot.  I’m unclear if they ate the goose first.

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Big Wild Goose Pagoda at night.

There is a pedestrian mall near Giant Wild Goose Pagoda and we took a stroll.  We saw a group of men practicing calligraphy on the sidewalk.  They used huge paintbrushes with only water as “ink.”  They kept consulting books as they wrote their characters, so I’m not sure if it was poetry, prayer, or propaganda.  It was very lovely to watch them work.IMGP1541 (1153x1280) IMGP1536 (1280x848)

Statue on the pedestrian mall.



30,000 Steps in Xi’an

“A day and a half is plenty.”

“There’s not much more than the terracotta warriors.”

“We got bored on our second day.”

Seriously, when am I going to stop listening to travel reviews from other people?  These were real quotes from real Westerners I’ve met in person who’ve been to Xi’an.  Hearing the way they talked, I budgeted one day to see the terracotta army and one day to see the town.  Wrong.  Wrong wrong wrong.  Now, I realize that we move slower than most, owing to a toddler and his slow eating, slow walking, ad lots-of-napping lifestyle.  But still, I turned our day into a Xi’an Death March in order to see as much as I could, and I didn’t see it all.  Mary and Joel were good sports.

In the morning, we all headed to the Great Mosque.  Yeah, that’s right.  Xi’an has a significant Muslim population mostly Hui people.    First built in 742, this is the oldest mosque in China, but most (everything?) visible today was built later.  It’s a funky blend of architecture, looking far more Chinese than Arabic.  (Not a single dome in the entire structure.)

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The roof of the mosque is distinctly un-domed.
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The plaque says “one god.”
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Hui men often wear these brimless caps.

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Mary was impressed, but she wanted to see something Buddhist.  We’re in China, after all.  So we walked to the nearest temple on the map.  It turned out to be something different altogether.  It was a City God Temple.  Just like ancient Romans, Chinese culture believed that cities had guardian deities.  Just outside was a small Daoist temple.  Joel gave Mary a quick review of Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism.

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At the City God temple.
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Little interpreter.

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In the gift shop.
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A very Daoist trash can.
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The street leading to the temple was filled with small shops selling souvenirs, religious items, and household goods.
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Fake money for sale–to be burned in honor of your ancestors.
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Joel and Mary thought the juxtaposition here was pretty funny.
Big yawn.
Big yawn.

Simon was past naptime, so Joel volunteered to grab a street food lunch for the guys and head back to the hotel.  Mary and I would keep exploring.  We headed for the Bell Tower.  The Bell Tower is the symbol of Xi’an.  Like the one we saw in Beijing, it was used for centuries to measure time in a world before iPhones.  A unique modern twist is that it sits in the center of a massive roundabout.  The roundabout haters of Saint Peter would totally freak out over this thing.  On the other hand, I have a new idea for the city’s Pearly Gates…

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View of the roundabout from the Bell Tower.

Mary still wanted to see a real Buddhist temple.  There’s a monastery in the northwest corner of the Xi’an city wall.  We decided to walk there.  It didn’t look so far on the map!  It was a pleasant walk down tree-lined streets, which definitely helped mitigate the heat.  It didn’t hurt that we had beautiful blue skies all day, too.

Finally!  A Tibetan Buddhist monastery (aka lamasery).  We only saw one monk, but he was there.  It was real.

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By this time, we were really tired.  A cab ride took us back to the hostel, where we found the guys still napping.  We ate lunch in the hostel restaurant and relaxed in the quiet, air-conditioned space.

By now it was mid-afternoon and I still had one major item on my XI’an bucket list: a bicycle ride around the top of the Xi’an city wall.  Xi’an is a truly ancient city.  It goes back more than 3,100 years and was the capital to no less than 13 dynasties.  The existing wall was started in 1364, expanding upon earlier fortifications.  While many Chinese cities of that era had city walls, most have not survived.  Weather, hostile armies, or enterprising recyclers have dismantled many walls.  Xi’an’s wall is widely recognized as the best preserved wall in all of China.

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Climbing to the top of the Xi’an city wall.
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A southern gate tower.


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Defending the city.

The top of the wall creates a traffic-free bicycle path with fabulous views of the old city.  We were running a bit behind schedule, so we ended up renting the bicycles a bit later than planned.  It worked out perfectly.  We bicycled counterclockwise as the sun set.

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By the end of the 8.5 mile loop, we were exhausted and it was dark.  And–let’s admit it–our butts were sore.  The stonework floor of the wall is a bit bumpy and even the nice mountain bikes we rented couldn’t fully protect us.  We took a taxi home and called it quits.  According to my Fitbit, we walked 34,607 steps, or about 15 miles.  And I still wasn’t bored with Xi’an.