Guardians of the afterlife

Sat, May 5, 2012, 01:00

GO CHINA:IN THE EIGHTH century, Xi’an was the world’s biggest city, home to a million people brought there by the fabled Silk Road which carried that precious commodity from northeast China to the waiting markets in Europe.

Over the centuries, both in its ancient guise as Chang’an or in its modern incarnation as Xi’an, the city has been home to some of the most powerful despots in human history, none more awe-inspiring than Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of a unified China, who had a mighty army of terracotta warriors and horses buried with him 2,200 years ago.

These days, Xi’an is the capital of Shaanxi province, one of China’s poorer regions, but the city is still undergoing the same kind of breakneck growth that other major Chinese cities are experiencing.

Throughout the city there are enormous tower blocks under construction, the air is dusty, and new cars chug through the streets.

There are around eight million people in Xi’an, and still signs of heavy industry downtown.

Once you have absorbed the dust and the glitz of contemporary China, you can slowly build a sense of the ancient heritage in the city.

The walls of the city are fascinating, the most complete city walls surviving in China. They stretch for nearly 14km around the city and are eight metres wide at the top. There are four gates in the city walls, which were built to defend against Western invaders. The walls were made originally of a rice-based brick that was so hard you couldn’t drive a nail in. The Drum Tower and Bell Tower are also worth visiting and, if you’re feeling sporty, you can jog around the walls.

The Muslim quarter still bears testament to the city’s Silk Road heritage and, while you might expect the Great Mosque to look, well, more mosque-like, in fact it looks very much like a Chinese temple in its architectural style, and has no domes or minarets. It was built in 742 AD during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD).

The Muslim influence prevails in the food – the yangrou paomo, which is mutton and bread pieces in soup, is a local speciality, and Chinese people come from all over the country to eat the hand-pulled noodles. The stuffed flatbreads, or bing, are particularly good here too.

Most people come here to see the Terracotta Warriors, one of the great archeological finds of the late 20th century. Hundreds of sculpted warriors, complete with chariots and horses, who are believed to have been guardians, in the afterlife, of Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of a unified China, who lived between 259-210 BC.

Archeologists reckon there are 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots and 700 horses, and most of the army is still buried in the pits surrounding the emperor’s tomb, awaiting excavation. The ranks of warriors standing in lines inside the aircraft-hangar-like museum are an eerie testament to the hubris of the man who founded the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC).

The sight of hundreds of armour-clad, pale-coloured troops – each with individual features, in different positions, their hair tied up in specific ways to mark out their rank – is breathtaking.

It’s also vaguely disconcerting, as this is, after all, a tomb. Some Chinese people won’t take photographs at the site.

The troops also vary in height according to their roles, with the tallest being the generals.

Much of what we know about the army comes from the historian Sima Qian (145-90 BC), who says the burial site of Qin Shi Huang was as big as a football pitch, and it was surrounded by 100 rivers of mercury. Recent discoveries of mercury suggest that there may indeed have been such rivers. The construction of this vast necropolis took 700,000 forced labourers.

The warriors were discovered by accident by farmers in Lintong District in 1974 – the farmers are still autographing guidebooks in the museum shop.

There is some debate about whether it was a tomb after all. There has lately been some controversy over the exact purpose of the warriors.

Sun Jiachun, a researcher with the geological bureau in Shaanxi province, believes the pits where the clay figures were discovered were actually the ruins of a military school near the emperor’s mausoleum.

Veteran researcher Zhang Wenli, at the Xi’an museum, remains convinced the troops were sacrificial guardians. They certainly appear to be guarding something.

In the nearby workshops you can buy model soldiers and horses and, for anyone feeling adventurous, they will make a life-size terracotta warrior with your face on it and ship it to Ireland, for around €2,000. By way of illustration they have warriors with the heads of David Beckham and Vladimir Putin.

The Terracotta Warriors are a must-see, but if you are looking for a slightly offbeat option, but still on a necropolis kick, check out the Hanyangling Museum. This houses the joint tomb of the fourth Emperor Jing (Liu Qi) and his queen, Empress Wang, from the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-24 AD) and, while less of a big-ticket items than the Terracotta Army, is a much more varied experience.

The reign of Emperor Jing, along with that of his father Emperor Wen, known as the Rule of Wen and Jing (180-141 BC), is considered to be one of the golden ages in Chinese history.

The mausoleum covers an area of 10sq km, comprising the emperor’s tomb, empress’s tomb, the south and north burial pits, ceremonial site, a human sacrifice graveyard and a cemetery for criminals. Altogether there are 50,000 figurines in this excavation, which is still ongoing.

To walk along the tunnel is to visit a zoo for terracotta animals. There are herds of sheep and pigs, hens and dogs (we are not sure if they were there as pets or food). Nearby stand thousands of nude figurines, all in hierarchical perfection, ready to serve the emperor and empress in the afterlife.

Only a very small percentage of the funereal treasures of Xi’an are believed to have been excavated so far, and scientists believe there is a lot more to come.

While Xi’an is very much a contemporary Chinese city, with BMWs whizzing by and skyscrapers going up by the score, the sense that a vast army of the undead lies just beneath the surface adds to the excitement of visiting the city.

How to . . . Xi'an

GET THERE

Coming from Ireland you are most likely to come to Xi’an via Beijing or Shanghai. Xi’an Xianyang International Airport is 40km northwest of the city centre, in Xianyang, and has connections to most places in China, and internationally to Hong Kong, Bangkok, Japan, Singapore and Korea.

A taxi downtown should cost around 100 yuan (€12) but every time I’ve been there, the drivers have tried some trick or other. Stick to your guns and demand the meter, or fix a price that you can live with.

There are trains too, from most major Chinese cities. Beijing is around 11 hours away, Shanghai is 16-20 hours.

WHERE TO STAY

* Hotel Sofitel Xi’an on Renmin Square, 319 Dong Xin Street, Shaanxi, 710004 Xi’an, 0086-29-879-28888, sofitel.com/xian. This is right downtown, within easy reach of the sights. Around €120 a room.

* Grand Park Xian, 12 Xi Duan, Huan Cheng South Road, Xi’an 710068, Shaanxi, 0086-29-8760-8888, parkhotelgroup.com/xian. Also downtown. From €80.

* Bell Tower Hotel Xian, 110 Nan Da Jie, Shaanxi 710001 Xi’an, 0086-29-87600000, belltowerhotelxian.cn

This is also downtown but a four-star and a bit cheaper. Staying here is a more Chinese experience.Prices start at €60 per night.

WHERE TO EAT

* Street foodin Xi’an is what to go for, especially Muslim street food, the best of which is available in the Muslim Quarter, at Bei Yuan Men Jie, off Xi Da Jie. Here you can find all manner of local delicacies. I understand people’s reservations about street food in China, but there is high turnover here so you should be fine.

* Lao Sun Jia

Two outlets on Dong Dajie, west of Nan Xinjie. This restaurant opened in 1989 and is the place in Xi’an to go for yangrou paomo, lamb soup served with bread. A meal for two with beer will set you back around €15.

* Fan Ji La Zhi Rou Jia Mo,on Zhu Ba Shi, opposite the Drum Tower. For more than 60 years this hugely popular restaurant has been serving ruo jia mo – this is the Shaanxi hamburger – a warm flatbread stuffed with meat, usually lamb or pork, and fantastic blended fillings, and full of gravy. Always crowded, and your meal will probably not cost more than a couple of euro.