We took the sleeper train up from Yichang after the Yangtze cruise to Xi'an, capital of Shaanxi province. Xi'an was crowded and very, very badly polluted and there's only one reason tourists go there – to see the terracotta warriors.
As soon as we walked down the ramp from the train platform we hit a moving sea of people. Outside the train station it was no different – a solid mass of humanity slowing moving forward.
A guy from the hostel met us and showed us how to take the bus to get there. It was still very early so the rooms weren't ready, so we went out to look for breakfast. Would have thought that was pretty easy especially since we were next to the Wild Goose Pagoda, one of the main tourist attractions, but everyone was closed (or in Subway's case, open but with no actual food to sell). I think we ended up eating pizza.
I went out to find pharmacies – Google Maps surprisingly worked here – to see if they would sell me a scalpel blade my partner needed (no).
Already walking around I could feel myself wheezing a little bit – the air was so thick with smog that it was visibly dimming the view when you looked just as far as the other side of the road.
When we arrived I thought that the sun was only dim because it was early morning. By 10am it was clear that in Xi'an you can stare straight at the sun at any time and it will never be more than a feeble light circle in the sky: the pollution is so thick it drowns it out almost completely.
All of China produces pollution, but in Xi'an it's trapped in a bowl by the surrounding mountains and hangs thickly over the city. Beijing was by in relative terms quite clear.
We had half a day before our final travel buddy arrived and we could form a kind of vaguely smutty voltron so we headed out towards the interesting parts of the city.
The Big Wild Goose Pagoda was right next to our hostel and we admired its shape, but it sat there in the filthy pollution and we decided to give going inside it a miss.
I made the mistake of going into a mall of technology shops – the camera guys in one of the stores were so interested in the gear I'd picked up in Hong Kong they insisted I sit down and demo it to them (the Eye-Fi card I got off Amazon required some explaining too – they let you snap pictures on any camera and then transfer them straight onto your iPhone (or whatever)) – so my friends got bored while I tried to figure out how to buy the right battery (in the end I got one at another shop for half the price – surprisingly, it seems to be genuine).
It took us well over half an hour to find someone who was willing to take us to the Muslim Quarter of Xi'an – lots of taxis weren't allowed to take passengers at that hour, plus we discovered when we got there that the streets were really narrow. So tuk-tuks were the go, except that it was too far away for most of them to want the fare.
We eventually found one who'd take us and had one of the most entertaining and dangerous rides of our life – the actual most entertaining and dangerous ride of our life happened about an hour later in another tuk-tuk.
So we went to the main street and wandered around having a look at the sculptures, towers, and shops, then made a break for the Mosque in the second tuk-tuk – that guy was clearly just driving dangerously because it was fun.
The Mosque was a welcome break – actually the most peaceful place in our whole China trip, very serene.
The street food in the Muslim Quarter looked delicious – if I hadn't just recovered from food/water poisoning I would probably have tried heaps of it!
Evening came, we met our friend, ate dumplings, made plans.
The next day we went out to see the warriors. They're quite a way out from the city centre, so you can either take a complicated set of busses, join a tour group, or hire a van guy. Bus changes are pretty damn hard if you don't speak the language and tour groups tend to be pretty focussed on selling you stuff, but if you have 4 people like we did then it's not really much more to hire your own transport and that was definitely better.
We accepted the offer of a tour guide they knew when we got there – she certainly added a bit of depth to the info available, and didn't cost much so no complaints there.
Visiting the warriors is pretty much exactly what you might imagine – there are big covered halls where they are excavating the warriors from the clay, mostly in pieces. They take the pieces away and carefully reconstruct what they can, replacing any missing shards, and then put them back where they came from.
You're not right up next to them but you can see them clearly and the scale of the assembly is impressive – this guy spent a lot of the people's cash on his afterlife service.
The way that they all have individualised heads (ie. different faces and expressions) is cool, and they are not just a thousand infantry soldiers in lines, there's all sorts of horse-and-cavalry, archers etc.
We're so used to seeing them in their basic clay terracotta state that I had no idea they were originally fully painted in lavish color. In fact when they dig them up they can still see the color – the blue on their coats for example – but the ancient paint quickly degrades when it gets exposed to the oxygen in the air after thousands of years. They have repainted one or two and they almost feel gaudy, but that's how they originally were.
Certainly an interesting day, and traditionally one of the “must do” things in China, but there are nicer places to go in China so I wouldn't worry too much if it doesn't fit your travel plans.