We crossed the Hong Kong/Shenzhen border without trouble and didn’t stay too long over there. We took a bullet train to go 1500km further north, to Xi’An, a city with fascinating history.
Qin Shi Huang (259 BC – 210 BC) became king of the Qin state when he was 13 and the first emperor of China at 38 after conquering the other independent kingdoms. China was therefore unified for the first time in 221 BC and the region of today’s Xi’An was chosen for the capital.
Although he was obsessed with the idea of becoming immortal, Qin Shi Huang ordered the construction of his tomb as soon as he accessed the throne (just in case the mercury pills he was taking to prolong his life did not work exactly as planned…). More than 700 000 men are supposed to have worked on this titanic project finished just in time.
While digging a well 2200 years later (in 1974), farmers discovered by accident one of the most important archaeological finds in history: the terracotta army. According to estimations from 2007, there should be 8000 soldiers, 130 chariots pulled by 520 horses and 150 cavalry men with their mounts, all of it built to protect the emperor in the afterlife. Most of it is still buried in the ground, archaeologists having found parts of approximately 2000 different soldiers and reconstructed between 500 and 1000 (we couldn’t find any precise number, but we counted a little bit more than 500 on our pictures ^_^).
Every statue is unique: hair-style, facial features, clothes, height, body shape, etc. The faces were cast from different moulds (at least 10) then adjusted with clay to give the sense of individuality. The sculptures are incredibly precise, to the point that thread is modelled on the shoes.
Visiting the museum of the Terracotta Army :
The museum is just a one hour bus ride away from Xi’An train station. You can take an audio-guide at the entrance (just before buying the tickets), but the English version is unfortunately quite hard to understand (the strong accent as well as the odd sentence structures don’t help) and also very boring. There are a few signs in English here and there throughout the museum, and they give about as much information as the audio-guide.
Upon entering the museum grounds, you have the opportunity to visit 4 covered areas: the 3 excavation pits and the exhibition hall. Excavation pit number 3, the smallest of them all, showcases roughly 30 soldiers without head and 4 horses. There is not much more to see in this pit, which takes only a few minutes to visit.
Excavation pit number 2, quite a bit bigger, seems to be there mainly to show how the excavating process works. Most of it is still covered in earth, with just a few spots excavated where you can see fragments of soldiers piled up in a giant puzzle.
Finally, pit number 1 is by far the biggest and the most interesting to visit.
Rows of soldiers have been restored, giving a very impressive visual impression.
Unfortunately, these soldiers are quite far away and it is difficult to see the details clearly (bring a pair of binoculars or a good zoom lens). The only way to see them up close is through the few soldiers that have been put in display cases (next to pit number 2). Despite the crowds, we still managed to get a good look at them !
Overall, we were a bit disappointed by this visit. It’s one of the rare wonderful sites we have visited that look better on the pictures than in real life. Our expectations were probably way too high as well (visiting the terracotta army was in our top 3 for China along with Zhangjiajie and the Great Wall). Furthermore, we had no idea that most of the army still hasn’t been excavated and we were surprised to see so “few” soldiers (although we do think the restoration work is wonderful and that it’s amazing they already managed to reconstruct hundreds of soldiers). Finally, as often in China, the crowds kind of spoil the enjoyment (for example, we couldn’t get access to the exhibition hall which contains 2 bronze chariots).
We are still very happy to have visited it. We would probably not advise someone to go to China just to see that, but it would be a shame to miss it while in the area.
Qin Shi Huang’s mausoleum:
The terracotta army, located 1.5 km away from the emperor’s tomb, is only the tip of the iceberg. Nobody has entered the mausoleum. The Chinese government is waiting to have the necessary technology to perform excavations without loosing any valuable information. During the first excavations of the army in 1974, the paint that was still on some soldiers was destroyed immediately upon contact with the air (the lacquer curved in under 15 seconds and the paint flaked away in a few minutes). Nowadays, research teams have developed new techniques to preserve the paint in future exavations.
The tomb itself lies under Mount Li, an artificial pyramid 76m high, covered by vegetation. Beneath it, an artificial city was constructed to reproduce the capital at the time, with an inner city (2.5 km circumference) and an outer city (6.3 km). The palace lies at the centre, with the chamber containing the tomb measuring 80 by 50m (approximately the size of a football field)!
Sima Qian, a historian who lived around one hundred years after the emperor, wrote that the mausoleum contained palaces and towers for hundreds of officials, as well as many treasures. To protect them, booby-traps would have presumably been installed so that any intruder would get killed by arrows and spears automatically activated. Because you can never be careful enough, all the craftsmen who worked on the project would have been buried alive in the mausoleum to make sure the secrets would be kept forever. And for tiny bit of style, the Yelow river and Yangtze river were apparently reproduced using mercury and mechanically activated to pour into a reproduction of the “great sea”.
Studies of the soil contents revealed an unusually high level of mercury, seemingly backing up Sima Qian’s claims (although he never mentions the presence of the Terracotta Army). This adds two reasons for the decision of the government to delay the excavation: the mercury and the traps could still be functioning. It is a fascinating story that we can’t wait to see revealed by the excavations.
Xi’An city centre :
For a city with such a rich history (it was also the starting point of the silk road), the centre of Xi’An seems a bit disappointing at first. Most of the buildings look brand new, as if the city has been entirely rebuilt recently. The only remains of more ancient times are the 12m high city walls that encircle the inner city over 14km, the drum and bell towers, and the Muslim neighbourhood.
The drum tower and bell tower are two sister buildings in the centre of town, clashing with the surrounding modernity.
Built in 1380 and 1384 respectively, they were used to tell the time (bell stricken at dawn and drum beat at sunset). Completely renovated, they are still very interesting to visit, mostly for the beauty of the multicoloured wooden beams that form an interesting structure, and for the silk paintings exposed inside.
Several times a day, musical performances are organised upstairs inside the drum tower. It sounds like a very good idea, but what we saw was not exactly great… The musicians looked very depressed, the volume was just way too loud, and the whole show was very short (5 minutes), leaving us with mixed feelings.
Just after getting out of the drum tower, we went directly to the Muslim neighbourhood, famous for being a bubbling and charming place. This part of town was spared by modern urbanisation, and it is very nice to walk around, surrounded by food and souvenir stalls. There is also the Great Mosque of Xi’An (the largest mosque in China). As non-muslims it is not possible enter the mosque itself, but you can still visit its gardens.
During our afternoon in the city centre, 3 groups of children (between 8 and 12) approached us and asked us if we could speak English with them so that they could practice. It was an exercise an English teacher had asked them to do during the week-end. They were a bit shy and had learned by heart a list of questions, which was quite cute and funny. A few of them were actually very good for their age, and they were able to sustain a basic conversation with us. The youngest kids were accompanied by an adult who spoke English to help them and translate if necessary, but who rarely intervened. Impressive !
After Xi’An, we decided to go to Langmusi, a small town 3300m high, located on the border between the Gansu and Sichuan provinces. The city is famous for its two Tibetan Buddhist temples, Sertri Gompa and Kirti Gompa founded in 1748 and 1413 respectively, whose power struggle is probably the reason why the border was established in the middle of the town. Although it is not located inside the Tibetan autonomous region, Langmusi’s population largely consists of Amdo Tibetans.
The trip to get there turned out to be a bit tiring, as we first had to take an 8-hour night train to Lanzhou and the only remaining places were “hard seats”. All the guide books talk about the “hard seats” as a not so comfortable option and advise not to take them for long distances. We can confirm that. It’s not really the fact that the car was overcrowded (standing tickets are sold when there are no more hard seats), nor the salesmen who never stop shouting (it’s always fun to be woken up at midnight by a guy selling an electric razor that doubles as a flash light…), but more the fact that the seats are literally two wooden planks with a bit of foam at a 90 degrees angle. We’ll remember that trip for sure !
We arrived completely dead in Lanzhou at 4.30 am, and after a quick taxi ride to the south bus station, we waited in front of the gates for the station to open. 4 hours of waiting and a 6 hours bus ride later, we were dropped off at the Langmusi junction, where we hitch-hiked into town.
The main reason we wanted to come here was horse trekking in the neighbouring grasslands. We booked our trek through the company “Langmusi Tibetan Horse Trekking” as it seems to promote responsible tourism, employs local Tibetan guides and gets great reviews. The evening of our arrival, we met Liyi (the organizer of the trek) and Nora (an American girl who joined us for the trek) for a little briefing over the dos and don’ts with the nomadic family hosting us for the next 3 days. The next morning, after a quick lesson on how to control a horse, we left with Nora and our guide, Zhaixi. After the first few kilometres, we quickly realized that it was more the horses controlling us than the opposite. They seemed to know the way perfectly well, and were not too keen on letting us decide anything 🙂
Clement’s horse seemed to enjoy eating grass more than walking. Always a hundred meters behind the others, he tried to compensate by taking short-cuts of his own. All in all, a lazy boy. Tracy’s horse thrived for independence. He always wanted to take its own path rather than follow the others. Never satisfied by the food at his disposal, he was in a constant quest for the perfect pitch of grass. Nora’s horse seemed to have a small superiority complex. He always needed to be first, at all cost. Sometimes this lead to an internal struggle: “Do I eat or do I go in front ?”. To sum up, even though they all had distinct personalities, they only wanted to eat 🙂
During the trek, the horses were spared as much as possible: no trotting or galloping, a minimum amount of personal items allowed (10L/person), and a maximum weight of 75kg for the participants (you can still register if you weigh up to 85kg, but you’ll need to hire 2 horses to alternate between them).
The first day, we started by riding the horses for 2 hours to reach the nomads’ tents. We arrived just in time to get shelter from the rain, and got a nice lunch under the tent made of Yak hair where we would spend the next 2 nights. The rain stopped suddenly as we were finishing our meal, and so we left on foot to hike in the grasslands while the horses grazed freely.
We walked among the Yaks and marmots (who, by the way, were gigantic), amazed by the nature surrounding us.
As the conversation went on, we learned more and more about Nora, with whom we got along really well. We also discovered that she had spent 2 years teaching English in China, and that therefore she could speak Mandarin quite well.
On our way back, our guide made us participate in the gathering of the Yaks towards the tents. Each day, one of the nomads is in charge of bringing back the 500 Yaks grazing freely in the mountains, so they can tie them up for the night. It’s a titanic job, and we observed with admiration how efficient our host was (she was in charge that evening). One second we could see her on top of a mountain with her slingshot in hand to motivate the Yaks to go down, the next on horseback on another mountain yelling to lead the animals in the correct direction. We “helped” as much as we could, but it would seem that our inability to whistle and our ridiculous shouts did not have any effect on the Yaks…
As soon as all of them are safely back at the camp, each family comes and gets their Yaks (between 100 and 150). The babies are tied up separated from their mothers, to prevent sucking and so that the nomads can milk the mothers in the morning. While our hosts Soga and Danba got the Yaks ready for the night, we prepared the dinner on the stove under Zhaixi’s supervision. Nora took on the role of interpret, which greatly facilitated the communication with our guide and our host family, making our stay with them much more interesting. We can’t thank her enough for that !
We all ate together before getting into the nice comfy beds Soga prepared for us. We were covered in blankets, and our heads were next to the stove, perfect for a good night’s sleep. Soga is an amazing woman, who is incredibly energetic and never stops moving around. She takes charge of absolutely everything and still manages to find time to take care of us and be very friendly.
In the morning, we got to see her milk the Yaks. They are a bit more difficult to milk than cows, and Soga must first let the cub suck the mother for a couple minutes to get the milk going and make the whole process easier. When the milking is over, she heats the milk then put it in the separator. One part will be used to make the butter, the other to make the yoghurt.
A few minutes later, we saw her with a big basket on her back and a fork in hand, picking up the Yak dung. Later on, she will spread them out to dry them under the sun so that they can be used as fuel for the stove (there are no trees around in the grasslands).
We got on our horses again, and rode to the foot of the Huagai mountain, where our guide let us hike for 2 hours. For the first time in our lives, we went to 4200m high, and to be honest we felt it a bit 🙂 We reached the top with no breath left but happy.
We did some more horse riding in the afternoon, passing through breathtaking landscapes. We felt like we were in a movie !
When we got back to the tent, Zhaixi prepared a Tibetan snack they often eat. He softened some Yak butter with a bit of warm water, to which he added sugar, roasted barley flour (tsampa) and crumbles of dried cheese. After rolling the mixture in his hands for a while to shape it in some kind of doughnut, we tried this sort of Tibetan raw cookie dough. Delicious 🙂
In the evening, we cooked all together. Soga and Zhaixi showed us how to make noodles from a piece of raw dough. We tried to imitate them as best we could and put everything in the pot. At the end of the meal, Soga gave us some of her home-made Yak yoghurt: amazingly good!
The last day of the trek, we got up early as Nora needed to catch her bus in the afternoon. We took a different route than on the way to the nomads’ camp, way longer and way more beautiful.
On the road, the guard dogs of the other nomadic families are very aggressive towards us (any person they don’t know, they seem it as a threat). Zhaixi keeps them at bay by making a heavy piece of metal at the end of a rope circle above his head, cow-boy style. He looked really classy doing so (we were quite a bit afraid in the meantime).
We came back to Langmusi in the middle of the afternoon, really tired after these 3 intense days. This trek, simple and authentic, is one of the best experiences of our trip. The comfort is fairly basic, sure, and the nomadic families don’t wait for you with crowns of flowers, but everything is sincere and you can participate in their lives if you want to (if you don’t take the first step, they won’t wait for you and they’ll get on with their tasks). It’s as authentic as it gets, and we strongly recommend it to other travellers.