Visiting Xi’an: A Journey through Chinese History

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As our bullet train approached the outskirts of Xi’an, we sped past hundreds of modern high-rise buildings still under construction. Lined up like gigantic dominos, identical in height and design, these skyscrapers reminded us of towering Tetris tiles.


At the Xi’an North railway station, where our high-speed train pulled into, tall, modern structures greeted our eyes from every direction. The city’s dashing infrastructures, as well as the newly built high rises could easily compete with any European capital. Somehow it was hard to imagine that Xi’an is the third oldest continuously inhabited city of China.



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As we drove to the hotel, our local guide Rocky explained that Xi’an was founded in 195 BC. At that time, the capital of the Western Han dynasty had about 146,000 inhabitants. But the population doubled within a century. Mainly thanks to its role as the political, economic and cultural center at the eastern point of the Ancient Silk Road.


Rocky suddenly paused and rapidly flipped through our trip’s program. I’ve noticed that you are going westwards all to way to Xinjiang, the westernmost province of China. Is your goal to travel along the Ancient Silk Road? Kerstin and I nodded. And divulged that we chose to follow the reverse journey of Marco Polo, starting at the terminus of the Ancient Silk Road.


Oh, but Xi’an is not the end of the Ancient Silk Road! Rocky laughed out loud, before explaining that Xi’an, known as Chang’an in ancient times, was in fact the starting point of the famous Silk Road. Seeing us perplexed, he decided to unfold the history of Xi’an/Chang’an and of the Ancient Silk Road.



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In fact, about 60 years after the foundation of Xi’an’s ancient city Chang’an, the Han emperor decided to dispatch one of his diplomats to the West of China. This man, named Zhang Qian, traveled westwards with a group of 99 men to make contact with the tribes in Central Asia. When the Chinese diplomat returned to Chang’an in 125 BC, he brought back valuable information about the West. Not only information from the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom and the Parthian Empire, but also from the Seleucid Empire in Mesopotamia.


Thanks to Zhang Qian’s missions and explorations in the West, commercial relations between China and Western Asia flourished at the end of the 2nd century BC and the 1st century BC. And it was these relations that initiated the development of what would later be known as the Ancient Silk Road, connecting China and the Mediterranean world through Central Asia.


Rocky barely finished talking when our driver pulled into the parking lot of our hotel. He promised to tell us more about Xi’an’s history on the following day. With our head full of Chinese chronicles, we went out to mingle with the crowds around the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda. Located in southern Xi’an and just steps away from our hotel Tang Dynasty Art Garden, this Buddhist pagoda was built in 652 during the reign of Empress Wu Zetian from the Tang dynasty.



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When I was a kid, I used to watch the Chinese TV show “Journey to the West” with my grandmother. It tells the famous story of a Chinese Buddhist monk and scholar called Xuanzang. He traveled westward during the early Tang dynasty to find Buddhist sutras in India. These Buddhist sutras that the monk brought back to Xi’an were stored in the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda. So, when we were standing in front of the pagoda, it felt weird but also sensational to be able to connect the dots between my childhood’s stories and the actual history of China.


The next morning, we visited an even more impressive site in Xi’an. As we headed towards the outskirts of the city, Rocky announced joyfully: today, you finally get to see the infamous Terracotta Army! Discovered by accident by a local farmer in 1974, a huge army of over 6000 life-sized soldiers, archers, strongmen, and horses made of terracotta has been guarding China’s first emperor Qin Shi Huang’s tomb since 210 BC.


Knowing that I had wanted to see the Terracotta Army since the day I started studying archaeology, our guide gave us extra details about this archaeological discovery. The more he told us, the more we were eager to visit. But when we spotted the crowds of Chinese tourists lining up at the entrance of the Terracotta Warriors museum, I felt totally discouraged. And the scorching heat didn’t help. As we entered the first vault of the archaeological site, which looks like an airplane hangar, sweat ran down our forehead and back. We immediately understood why the floor was so wet…


Rocky said that about 2000 terracotta soldiers stood in the pit right facing us. But in front of us we saw nothing but a mass of Chinese tourists holding their camera above their head. Let’s get you through this crowd! Kerstin looked at me and we both thought that our guide was joking. Before we moved an inch, Rocky counted to three. With his two hands he pushed our back through the mass. People around us just moved away to both sides. And before we realized it, we were standing in the front row. And were looking down in the pit at thousands of impressive terracotta statues.



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Take your time and don’t care about the people surrounding you. If you don’t move and just hold onto the rail here, they won’t dare to push you away. I’ll wait for you on the other side of the vault. Rocky pointed with his index finger at the door in the opposite side of the vault, and off he went. Leaving the two of us to contemplate the statues displayed in this enormous pit of 210 x 60 meters.


Of course, I knew that the statues of the Terracotta Army were not all alike. But I had no idea that the figures were really so unique. They vary in height, hairstyle, uniform, and even in gestures and facial features. Some soldiers are short and thin, others are tall or have a bigger belly. Some wear a moustache, others have a beard… Standing there, I suddenly remembered what my Art teacher in high school once said: details matter. Each and every little detail matters! The local craftsmen and sculptors of the first Chinese Emperor certainly understood that very well.


Later, when we walked over to the other parts of the museum, we both wondered why the sculptors had to individualize the features of hundreds and thousands of life-sized terracotta statues, if they were all meant to be buried underground. Seen by no one else but the dead emperor. But then again: details matter! In this life, as much as in the afterlife. And in order for the Terracotta Army to protect the first Chinese emperor in his afterlife, each of the soldiers had to look real. Real enough to scare off any soul who dared to come close to Qin Shi Huang’s last resting place.



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When we left the museum, I asked Rocky if the local or national archaeologists have planned to excavate the emperor’s mausoleum. In fact, it is well known that the whole mausoleum is at least 13 times larger than the pits that have been excavated for the last 30 years. According to the Chinese historian Sima Qian, the emperor’s mausoleum also contains a great number of relics such as silk, jewelry, frescoes, paintings and other treasures. But also a large amount of mercury to keep off grave robbers. Since the mercury has not been volatilized, we can be quite sure that the emperor’s tomb has not been disturbed yet, and that all the relics are still underground.


Many people wonder why archaeologists don’t want to excavate the whole mausoleum. But as an archaeologist, I was very happy to hear from Rocky that there is actually NO plan to start such an excavation. What many people don’t know is that archaeological remains are best preserved when kept undisturbed and unopened. Truth be told, today’s scientific techniques regarding the preservation and conservation of archaeological remains are still far from sufficient. When the Terracotta Army was unearthed, the lacquer covering the paint curled and flaked off within seconds. This is why the terracotta figures don’t look as bright as they were at the moment they were dug up.


Researchers are constantly trying to create enhanced technology to improve the methods of archaeological excavation and conservation. So, until we know for sure how to best preserve the archaeological materials that are still hidden in the emperor’s mausoleum, it’s best to keep the site unearthed. And hope that future generations will do better than we can now…



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That afternoon, after strolling through the Xi’an Museum, we were halted by a little Chinese girl. Although shy, she tried to chat with us. Seeing her eager to learn English and telling us how much she longed to see the Terracotta Army gave us hope… Hope that the younger generations will still be interested in History and Archaeology. And hope that the future generations will not reject their past like many did during and after the Chinese Revolution.


As our next train rattled towards Gansu Province, we were sure about one thing: Xi’an might look quite modern from the outside. But the city’s past is still in its heart and soul.


Disclosure: if you click on the hotel link in this post, we may receive a small compensation at NO extra cost to you.

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Follow Mei:

Traveler - Storyteller

Mei is a 30-something Archaeologist, born and raised in Luxembourg. Besides traveling, she loves eating sushi and stinky cheese (although not at the same time), as well as listening to Kerstin's funny stories while driving on long road trips. She's afraid of heights, but adores panoramic views. Her favorite places are those she chose to live in: Paris, Greece, San Francisco.

10 Responses

  1. I missed seeing the terracotta warriors during my trip to China so I want to go back. What a great guide you had!

  2. Kevin | Caffeinated Excursions
    | Reply

    I had no idea that the Terracotta Army was discovered so recently! That is really fascinating, and it sounds like you had a truly amazing guide who was both extremely knowledgeable and helpful.

  3. Michael Hodgson
    | Reply

    I would love to see the Terracotta Army! And I love that your guide Rocky did the most Chinese of things … pushed you forward and the crowd parted. We once waited politely in a crowd to board a bus with no where near enough seats for the crowd gathered with a friendly Chinese man, sensing Westerners out of there element, grabbed our arms and said, “follow me” and literally dragged us onto the bus. Then proceeded to tell us we needed to be more assertive and just move to where we needed to go in China or we would always be left behind. ;-).

  4. Susanne
    | Reply

    What great impressions. The terracotta army is really impressive. I always find it particularly exciting to discover old and new architecture in a region.

  5. Carol Colborn
    | Reply

    You had a great tour guide. Wow, 195 BC, that’s a lot of history. And each warrior unique!!!

  6. uoprincess
    | Reply

    Your tour guide sounds like a jewel. I didn’t realize the Terracotta Warriors were each unique.

  7. Danik
    | Reply

    Apart from the famous stoned warriors I never really looked into X’ain and this post as got me thinking more that I need more than a couple of days here. I love traveling to China but X’Ain has escaped me so far. Also the bit about your experience with a young chinese girl trying to learn English, I had this a few times on the outskirts of Beijing. Some wanted to learn the language, some just wanted a photo with me because they never seen a European before (thats what it felt like to me). Fingers crossed I make it to X’ain soon

  8. I have never been to China. Your post inspires me to want to travel there. Maybe in 2020!

  9. Sandra
    | Reply

    I’ve been to China many times but am yet to make it to Xian. The Terracotta Warriors are high on my bucklist so it will definately happen in the next few years! Pinning this for future reference.

  10. Samantha Karen
    | Reply

    Wow this looks like such a wonderful experince! I’ve always been interested in seeing the Terracotta Army and love that this is included in the history.

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