Having made it to Xi’an, our most westerly destination, it’s difficult not to consider the possibility of continuing on. An ancient capital, start of the famous Silk Road, one of the final “civilized” outposts before the unknown…and then what?
If you ask a Chinese person where they would like to visit, where is the most beautiful place in China, they will invariably respond with Suzhou or Huangzhou. An easterly place with little geographic distinction, a crowded place filled with other tourists, a place that has been fully tamed by Chinese culture where even the rocks are weathered at will. After a few weeks in China, I’m craving the solitude and wide open spaces of the west. And with no plane ticket home, it’s awfully tempting.
That’s why I have Radek, the voice of reason. (Make note of the first and last time those phrases are paired together.) We’re here to visit Xi’an and the Terracotta Army, not springboard to some further epic adventure. Although maybe someday…
The first glimpse of Xi’an is a romantic one indeed. Stepping out from the train station you are met with thousands of travelers just arriving from or soon to depart to some distant land. Behind them looms the imposing Ming Dynasty city walls and further on the sun sets in that hazy orange way that it does every evening thanks to air pollution.
In the Muslim Quarter the bustling food stalls and souvenir shops lend credence to the idea that you are on a Chinese frontier. The modern hotels and highrises mirror the architecture of the ancient structures, reinforcing your sense of place.
Of these ancient structures, the most impressive was never intended to be seen. The Terracotta Army, created by the meglomaniac emperor Qin, survived the Cultural Revolution by being completely unknown. No records marked it’s existence. No rumors circulated. In fact it was only discovered in the 70’s when some peasants digging a well happened upon a mysterious underground wall.
Like all things worth seeing in China, this one is overrun with crowds and touts but somehow, unlike many of these touristy things, this one does not disappoint. It is just too epic and too bizarre to do anything other than inspire awe, even if you are being violently elbowed in the back.
Which reminds me once again…wouldn’t it be nice to just keep heading west?