Josh's Photo Blog

June 27, 2010

Xi’an

(second in a series of 4 posts on China)

I had a choice of several cities in China to visit after Beijing but before Shanghai. Xi’an was the most far-flung I could realistically get to for cheap, which is probably the main reason I went. I figure, I can go see the closer sights later, but having a few extra days to visit the Terracotta warriors is a luxury I might not enjoy in the future.

It’s hard to imagine that some clay soldiers and horses would be worth so much fuss and muss, but after seeing them, I have to agree that they’re actually pretty amazing. The mammoth first dig (above) is the most impressive from a visual standpoint, the museum’s managers having lined up the soldiers to look as they did right before they were buried by a slightly paranoid, slightly megalomanic, extremely powerful Chinese king.

The future potential of these treasures is incalculable: it’s been almost 40 years since some farmers first found the site, and the Chinese are still digging up more warriors, in various states of repair…
…ensuring that legions of (mostly Chinese) tourists will continue to be awestruck by them for generations to come.
Unfortunately, the rest of Xi’an isn’t quite as impressive. It’s a great little city (if you can call a place with over 8 million residents “little” – and in China you just might be able to) but much of its history and legacy wasn’t buried under several feet of soil and clay like the Terracotta Warriors, and so failed to survive for us to view today. While there’s quite a bit to do on paper, in practice, you’ll probably run out of things to see and do within a few days like I did. Especially given how impressive the warriors are, some of these places feel like tourist traps hanging on to the reputation of their more famous terracotta neighbors, a feeling which isn’t helped by the gaudy Hollywood spotlights some of them sport. That said, some of the highlights include:
The Big Wild Goose Pagoda (don’t ask where they got the name) which is big, but not too wild architecturally. Originally the center of Buddhist worship in Xi’an, it’s now surrounded by tons of bars, restaurants and shops, and (God knows why) the “largest fountain show in Asia”. A bitter irony given Buddhism’s ascetic virtues, perhaps, but it looks pretty awesome at night. And yes, it is leaning like a certain other tower in Pisa.
The Little Wild Goose Pagoda, which is actually probably more architecturally interesting than its larger brother, and less cheesy to boot

The Xi’an Mosque, China’s first. Also probably the most interesting and peaceful place of worship in this city, since most tourists get lost trying to find it.

The walls of Xi’an, which you can bike on top of with gleeful disregard for other tourists, old people and signs telling you to “please don’t bike down this long steep ramp that’ll make you go slightly faster than is safe on your rickety old rental bike with no brakes”.

The “Forest of Steles”, which isn’t much of a forest, and not too interesting if you can’t read Chinese (I can’t), but extremely important culturally for the people who can. You get to see the roots of the language, and a written history of the numerous kingdoms that preceded China’s current communist reign

and my hostel (not pictured), which is easily the nicest place I’ve stayed at while backpacking. Amazing staff (go get Tom to do his coin trick for you) and great amenities for dirt cheap.

Check this place out, but don’t stay too long or you may get bored.

Next stop: Shanghai!

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