How to experience Xi’an and the Terracotta Warriors
The city of Xi’an is at the heart of China’s culture and history. It served as the capital seat of twelve dynasties totalling more than a thousand years, and its Wei River Valley, associated with the rise of the Zhou dynasty (c.1100 – 256 BCE) is one of the birthplaces of Chinese civilization. Centuries later, in the Tang dynasty (c. 618-907) Xi’an, known then as Chang’an, became the first Chinese city to reach a million people and a centre of Buddhist activity. As the central Capital of China, Chang’an played a pivotal role in the expansion of the Silk Road network.
Fast forward to the 20th Century, when in 1974, local farmers were digging a well and unearthed a civilisation remodelled in clay that had laid buried underground for over 2000 years. The warriors on view today date back to 210 BC and represent a small selection of the estimated 8,000 strong army that are buried in Emperor Qin Shihuangdi’s tomb, created to defend him in the afterlife. One of the most important rulers in Chinese history, this emperor leaves a morally complicated legacy. He is known for his contributions to the modern state, as well as sacrificing the lives of over 700,000 labourers to his visionary projects, which also included the first Great Wall, constructed as a defence of the northern territories.
To avoid the crowds, we advise that clients visit this site first thing in the morning and have obtained special access to drive in all the way to the entrance, so that we can skip the touristy shopping stalls that line the way.
The excavated sections are vast and having an expert guide is vital. c+l work closely with a handful of specialist guides who bring the history of this fascinating site to life and help contextualise this time in history when the second Punic war ends Carthage and Rome takes power over the Mediterranean.
For clients who wish to delve deeper still, we arrange a private room at the museum with an expert, who can offer an insight into the ongoing excavation and preservation process. And with plenty of prior notice, we work with a Chinese archaeologist, who has been intrinsic in the restoration of the warriors. Extraordinarily, the main tomb has still to be excavated – partly because archaeologists are still uncertain of how to preserve whatever may be inside.
As well as seeing the warriors, Xi’an’s tombs of the prosperous Han and Tang dynasties at the Han Yang Ling Museum by the Wei River, offer more astounding treasures, including the greatest collection of pottery uncovered in China since the revolution. Julius Caesar is said to have dressed in Chinese silk at this time in Rome, exemplifying China’s prowess on the world stage at this time in history.
Back in the centre of the city, Xi’an’s City Wall, erected in the 14th Century Ming Dynasty, remains largely intact. The city was originally a walled metropolis and still today, is neatly arranged along the towering wall. We recommend clients take a walk or cycle along the wall to look upon the city’s hustle and bustle from this quiet vantage point.
Down on the city’s streets, the Great Xi’an Mosque, constructed in 742 AD is a surprising gem and a charming place to spend time with one of our specialist guides, who can explain how the Muslim community in Xi’an traces its history back to those Middle Eastern and Central Asian merchants who, after traveling the trade routes, settled here. We like to take clients in the middle of the day when the mosque is a peaceful oasis tucked away from the Muslim Quarter. Although for those clients seeking more action, evening prayers is a particularly lively time.
Xi’an streets are lined with countless food stalls that are more manageable to explore than in bigger cities like Shanghai and Beijing and offer a local experience. These colourful areas are best discovered with our local food expert, who knows every nook and cranny in the city and can take our clients to authentic markets in the mornings, or to try all manner of street food in the evening markets.
I encourage my clients to spend at least 2 nights in Xi’an to have the time to get under the skin of this welcoming heterogeneous city and to take in the historical wonders, which along with the magnificent Great Wall, are treasures of the world that surpass all expectations.