NOTHING quite prepares you for your first glimpse of Emperor Qin Shi Huang's Terracotta Warriors – the staggering number, the magnificence, the incredible detail, the sheer scale of the endeavour – all combine to overwhelm your senses.
Just a few miles outside the city of Xi’an I walked around the three enormous, cavern-like pits housing this silent army – an 80,000 strong army which would never march, nor invade. An army fashioned to guard the mausoleum of China's First Emperor and the Qin dynasty he helped create.
Kneeling Terracotta Warrior Even then, within touching distance, I could hardly believe what was there before my eyes. Described by many as the Eighth Wonder of the World, it is, without doubt, one of the most incredible manmade sights and that first view will live forever in my mind. This army would never go into battle but the power to overwhelm is clear; in the eyes, in the armoured preparedness, in the might of each individual warrior, a terrifying beauty which, even in that eerie stillness, would still strike fear into the weak. This was an army created to impress – and it does.
The story of how this army came to be created, how for centuries it was lost and, of its fortuitous re-discovery by peasant farmers in 1974, is a story which could fill many a volume – and I suppose it already has – but it is that first glimpse which intoxicates. If you want to know more the Terracotta Warriors Museum in Dorchester, Dorset (which supplied the picture above) is the place to visit.
In addition to the warriors’ magnificence and cultural importance’ the historic city of Xi'an has much more to offer visitors. From temples to street food, from sacred sights to the hustle and bustle of markets, from history to the modern, it is a city of contrasts with an irresistible vibrancy.
Xi’an’s importance grew under the First Emperor, who came to power more than 200 years BC and, for the first time, ruthlessly united China's warring states. The city became a crossroads of trade, power and influence growing into one of the country's most important cities, at the start and end of the Silk Road. Long before we had heard of Beijing, Xi‘an was the cradle of Chinese civilisation.
Now, since Finnair opened its route via Helsinki to Xi’an, this must-see city – a million miles from Manchester in culture and history – is just a few short hours away.
That importance is reflected in the wealth of its history. There are culturally important sights around every corner including The Big Wild Goose Pagoda (which is big at 43m) and Small Wild Goose Pagoda; the Forest of Stone Tablets (3,000 stone slabs which permanently record the great books and record early calligraphy); the Great Mosque, Famen Temple and Dayan Tower.
To help understand all this do visit the Shanxi History Museum, which holds thousands of stunning artifacts, some dating back to 1000 BC.
But while you would be selling yourself short if you did not immerse yourself in its past, you would be missing a mountain of fun, entertainment and experience if you did not experience Xi’an of the present. Take in its shopping malls and pedestrianised streets for retail therapy. Stay in the city for a couple of days and you will be offered enough miniature terracotta warriors to contemplate your own invasion
Visit the Muslim Street market. So-named because as Xi'an's importance as a trading centre grew, influences from all points of the compass were encouraged and this became an area were Hui (Chinese Muslims) chose to settle. Now it is an area which, come dusk, explodes into a sea of noise and the irresistible smell of freshly cooked street food.
Try Yang Rou Pa Mo – where you break up your wheat flour bread into small pieces and place in a bowl and hand it back to your server who will return it with mutton stock and spices – or Guan Tang Baozi, steamed buns with sauces inside, and persimmon cakes.
This is the place Xi’an locals choose to meet, eat, greet, and simply stroll. It is a cauldron of aromas, colours and sound. You will be, quite simply, drawn into the energy of the place.
Then, if all that bustle leaves you wanting to rest your feet but not your appetite, then a trip to Jiefang Lu Dumpling Restaurant on the Bell Tower Square is the place. Yes, you read it correctly, a dumpling restaurant.
Dumplings, both savoury and sweet, have been a staple in this part of China’s Shaanxi Provence for hundreds of years and this restaurant has been baking and preparing them for 100 years, long enough to make it an institution. Settle down and enjoy dumpling banquet. Each one, fried, steamed, baked, will be described as it is served. It is overpriced but you are paying for history and atmosphere. Often the whole banquet is followed by another Chinese tradition – a massive bowl of steaming hot chicken soup in the centre of the table.
Not far away is the Bell Tower. Along with the Drum Tower on the other side of the old city and the ancient Ming-Dynasty city walls, among Xi'an's most historic and important landmarks. The bell was rung in the morning, the drum was sounded at dawn when Xi’an was a walled city. It signalled that all was well. Now they are tourist venues offering astonishing views across the old city.
You could round off one day with a visit to Tang Dynasty Dinner Show – an evening of performances by musicians, singers dancers. It’s over-the top but, hey, it’s all part of the modern Tang Dynasty deal.
The warriors may or may not be the Eighth Wonder of the World, officially, but it is hard to find an argument to refute its claim. Those 8,000 individual warriors, each one different, standing in silent protection of an Emperor who never saw his completed master plan, are a secret, silent army which, nevertheless, speaks volumes. The rest of this ancient city speaks for itself.
Finnair has thrice weekly seasonal flights to Xi’an from both Manchester and Heathrow via Helsinki – Monday, Wednesday, Friday.
All prices are starting from
Manchester-Xi’an, Business class: from £2,209. Economy class: from £555. London – Xi’an, Business class: from £2,223. Economy class: from £569. Tickets can be booked at www.finnair.com or 0870 2414411.
For up to date offers on twitter @finnairuk
Finnair also has daily flights to Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong and the airlone flies to Chongqing and 12 other Asian including Singapore, Japan, Korea, India and Thailand plus Hanoi, Vietnam.
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