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Older than Rome, Xi'an has throughout history been one of the most important cities in China, if not the world. The name means "West Peace" but for much of its existence, Xi'an was called Chang'an, which means "Long Peace". Its population exceeded one million during the Tang dynasty 1300 years ago, when as the centre of the silk route it became the largest and most influential city on earth, whilst Europe was still in the dark ages. Today Xi'an is still an important provincial capital, with 8 million residents and a treasure trove of history surrounding, including most famously the Terracotta Warriors.

We took three days to head down to Xi'an in June 2009, which turned out to be a good length of trip from Beijing. We stayed in the Chinese equivalent of Travelodge, which was perfectly pleasant, on the south side of the old city walls. It was a murderously hot weekend, and it was apparent how less affluent this very inland city is compared to the coastal settlements like Shanghai and Guangzhou.

Emperor Qin

Here is the chap responsible for the Terracotta Army, the mighty Emperor Qin, from whom the western name of China was derived. By all accounts he was a fairly nasty bloke, not least for commanding the populace of Xi'an to build him an army to watch over him in the afterlife.

Horses bolting from the Terracotta Warriors - or perhaps they spotted Emperor Qin?


Terracotta warrior

Close up of one of the warriors. No two faces are the same, it appears that each was actually modelled on a real person. They were originally brightly painted.

Blimey, there's a lot of them. This is the main pit, in which there are over 6000 warriors, give or take. Those at the front have been repaired, but there's still a long way to go.

Pit one

Headless warriors

The occasional unfortunate warrior is still missing his head. The thick embankments originally supported the roof, which collapsed long ago.

Towards the back of the main pit, warriors stand patiently in various states of repair. This is one almighty jigsaw puzzle.

Warrior repair shop

Terracotta warriors

Taking pictures of the warriors felt weirdly like taking pictures of crowds of real people. They are very lifelike. I was also surprised at how astonishingly old they are - dating from before the birth of Christ, over 2200 years ago.

Full sets of horses and chariots were found, particularly in the smaller pits where the commanders and generals were sequestered.

Terracotta horses


Faces in the ground waiting to be excavated. The site lay unknown until 1974 when it was discovered by locals digging a well. Had it been discovered much earlier, the madness of the Cultural Revolution might well have wiped it out.

Beautifully restored miniature horses and cart in one of the modern exhibition halls.

Mini horses

Muslim quarter

Back in the city, there is a sizable Muslim population in Xi'an. It felt like an interesting mix between China and north Africa.

Cooking up lunch in the Muslim quarter. We had some delish spicy lamb pita breads.

Cooking in the Muslim quarter

Xi'an mosque

The Great Mosque of Xi'an is quite unlike any other mosque I've seen or visited. The very few I've been inside include those in Casablanca, Damascus and Edinburgh. The Great Mosque of Xi'an is of the same vintage as the Umayyad Mosque of Damascus, being over 1200 years old.

Xi'an Muslims having a good blether in the mosque.

Chinese Muslims

Chinese lanterns and Arabic writing

Juxtaposition of Chinese lanterns and Arabic calligraphy in central Xi'an.

The Bell Tower of Xi'an forms the defacto centre of the city.

Xi'an Bell Tower

Shopping centre

Modern shopping in the centre of old Xi'an.

Out of town again, this time to the Jingdi tomb at Xianyang. Equally as ancient as the Terracotta Warriors, but on a much more modest scale. The figurines are all only about two feet tall, and lack their wooden adjustable arms which rotted away hundreds of years ago.

Jingdi Tomb

Mini warriors - don't worry, they're 'armless...

Their facial features are nonetheless just as intriguing as those of Emperor Qin's creation.

Approximately eight thousand of the warriors are estimated to be at the the site, and they're slowly digging them up. Here just the heads protrude.

Digging up more warriors

Xi'an city walls

Another popular aspect of Xi'an's tourist side is the city wall. Certainly the most impressive of any city I've ever seen, the walls are somewhat chunkier than the Great Wall of China, and wrap nearly 14 kilometres around the old city. As impressive as they are, the Tang dynasty walls encompassed an area seven times as large.

The best way to see the walls, and views of the city, is by bicycle. We rented a tandem and scooted around the perimeter in the melting heat in about an hour.

Wall restaurant

Vanishing point

The wall stretching off to vanishing point in the Chinese haze. The wall is wide enough to get four lanes of traffic down it. Don't give them any ideas...

Big Goose Pagoda in the south side of the city, again over a thousand years old. Immediately adjacent, and well viewed from the top, is Asia's largest fountain which shoots water skyward in time to deafening classical music, soaking all those who wander within its football-field sized catchment.

Big Goose Pagoda

Candles at Big Goose Pagoda

Candles at the Big Goose Pagoda, and a buddha peering through the incense smoke in the background.

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Copyright © Ross Wattie 2010