Asia 2005 : Xi'an

9am, Xi'an station: 下 雨 - It's raining!

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single male traveller in possession of a Lonely Planet, must be in want of a prostitute. At least that's how it seems at times: particularly in Bali and, oddly enough, the historic city of Xi'an. Cries of "Xiaojie? Miss? Miss!" echoed after me down the street. - email home

Xi'an, like many Chinese cities is arranged in a grid pattern with streets strictly laid out on North/South and East/West orientations. The Chinese are far more happy giving directions in terms of points of the compass: don't turn right, but head west. There's even a saying by Beijingers: "I was so happy I didn't know which way North was". The city is surrounded by city walls which also follow the North/South/East/West grid plan.

All this makes navigating quite simple: by carefully studying your map you can see you just have to head three blocks east and then head south, so it doesn't matter if you can't read the street signs. Of course, if your target is a 63m tall pagoda, I realised somewhat foolishly you can also navigate by looking at the skyline, as I headed towards the excellently-named Big Goose Pagoda.

I'd just spent an intriguing couple of hours in the Shaanxi History Museum escaping the rain and admiring the staggeringly old artefacts. Centuries before Rome was founded, Xi'an was a thriving world city, producing intricately decorated wine vessels and burial figurines. One of the cleverest objects in the collection was a teapot which filled from the bottom.

One full, air pressure prevented the water running out again when inverted. For ingenuity, this beat even the oil lamp in the shape of an elephant I had seen in Colombo, in which "the oil is poured out onto the receptacle through the male organ of the animal".

I do not like tours, especially when you are marched round by an annoying woman with a little flag, a loud megaphone and a big mouth.

The tour to the Terracotta Warriors wasn't too painful however. As is traditional rather than go straight to what we all wanted to see, our guide Xiao Liu (see box) took us to a variety of middling sights first as a warm-up. Notably, we visited the mausoleum of Qin Shi Huang, the emperor who ordered the building of the whole huge complex of which the Terracotta Warriors are but a part.

Guarded by the warriors, his tomb supposedly contained a 3D map of the known world, with constantly flowing streams of mercury representing rivers. Nowadays all you can see is a large sloping mound; though excavations have found heavy mercury contamination in the soil. I decided for this reason not to feast on the pomegranates growing on the hill which hawkers were anxious to sell us.

Another diversion was provided at a small museum. A panel listed the penal laws of the Qin Dynasty. I didn't fancy chuosi.

Corporal Punishments
Bin Chop off the kneecaps
Yi Cut off the nose
Jing Inscribe on the face with black ink
Gong Cut off the man's reproductive organ
Chi: Beat with whip
Death Penalties
Yaozhan Cut someone in two at the waist
Chelie tear someone asunder by five carts
Chuosi poke the deceased repeatedly
Xiaoshou cut off the head
Peng Boil to die
Jiao Hang to die
Cisi Force one to commit suicide
Canyi One breaks the law; his whole family including his father and brothers are punished too
Jimo The properties are confiscated and the family becomes slaves
Lianzuo One breaks the law; the family and five neighbours are punished

At last we made it to the Terracotta Warriors site. The three pits that have been excavated to date are contained inside large space-age buildings. In pits 2 and 3 there isn't too much to see besides lots of broken shards of warriors and preserved roof beams.

Pit 1 is where the action is. It covers an area of two football fields and while not all the pit is filled with statues (they haven't finished piecing them all together yet) the life-size figures till stretch into the distance.


The impressive thing is that each warrior has a different face and expression: Xiao Liu told us that the local paper had recently run a feature where readers send it photos of celebrities and friends who they thought looked like particular Terracotta Warriors.

On the coach on the way back we discussed whether the Terracotta Warriors deserved their claim of being the "8th Wonder of the World". Perhaps not: although one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of the 20th century, much has been looted and destroyed since they were created. If only we could see those rivers of mercury too.

Soft sleeper train on the way to Beijing... Luxury!
Personal TV set
Door to compartment
Clean seated toilet
Toilet paper
Hot water
Potted plant
Comfortable bed Next: Beijing >>