Sunday, 24 April 2011


Our first stop back in China was Xi’an, once one of the country’s four great ancient capitals. Xi'an became a cultural and political centre of China in the 11th Century BC with the founding of the Zhou Dynasty but it is perhaps best known as the capital of the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, who unified China for the first time in the 3rd Century BC and after whom the country may have been named.

Like surely all other foreign visitors to Xi’an we made the pilgrimage to visit Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s vast army of Terracotta Warriors, which date from around 210 BC but were only discovered in their subterranean hiding place in 1974. The combination of the sheer number of warriors – the three pits so far excavated contain an estimated over 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots with 520 horses and 150 cavalry horses – and the level of detail in their decoration is amazing. Not only are no two faces among the soldiers the same, but their clothes, hair and armour are all subtly different too, and all beautifully crafted. It is an awesome sight to look down on this vast army of life-size soldiers marching in neat lines in their sunken pits. Sadly however the curation of the museum is poor: visitors are kept well away from all bar five of the warriors, and many of the remainder are hard to see clearly in poorly lit pits. Even more disappointingly there were perhaps just 200 – 300 words of text in the entire complex about the Warriors and their history. Rather than informing visitors, effort seemed instead to have been devoted to profiting from them and we were confronted with countless opportunities to buy replica warriors of all sizes, to be photographed in front of other replicas, or even to have a personalised warrior made in our likeness – all for a fee of course.

As well as visiting the Warriors we visited the fascinating tomb of Emperor Jingdi, an Emperor in the Han Dynasty from 156 BC to 141 BC. Like Emperor Qin Shi Huang, Emperor Jingdi chose to be buried surrounded by terracotta figures, but Jingdi’s are much smaller than lifesize and there are few soldiers amongst the figures. Instead they provide an insight into everyday life, with groups of men, women, children, eunuchs and even hundreds of wonderfully lifelike sheep, goats, pigs, dogs and horses.

Xi’an – then known as Changan – also served as an imperial capital for later emperors from the 7th Century AD. A 9 mile city wall which was constructed in 1370 during the Ming Dynasty (1368 to 1644) survived the Cultural Revolution and remains intact to this day, and we spent an enjoyable few hours walking its length as the sun set over the city.

Other than the wall however not much remains of the city’s rich history. The historic Bell Tower at the heart of the city has been turned into a traffic island, accessible only via an underpass, and shares centre stage with an enormous shopping mall and an enormous and gleaming McDonalds. Arriving from Kathmandu this modernity was shocking but not altogether unwelcome: the clean, well-lit and wide, straight roads in such contrast to the over-crowded dark litter strewn alleys of Nepal’s capital, and the reliable hot running water and 24 hour electricity felt luxurious indeed.

As Xi’an was the Eastern terminus of the Silk Road it also seemed a fitting place for us to begin our journey home. Although the name, the Silk Road, wasn’t coined until 19th Century, goods have been traded overland between China and Europe since 1000BC, along the shifting network of overland trading routes that made up the various Silk Roads. We hope to travel some of those old trading routes, visiting parts of Western China, Central Asia, the Caucuses and Turkey, on our way.

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