A former teacher and charity worker from the North East of England, I love people and places and like to try out new experiences wherever possible. Capturing that 'perfect pic' is all part of the pleasure. Access issues are a particular interest.
We flew into Shanghai from London and our tour took us to Wuhan to visit their museums, Chongqing to see giant pandas, Yichang to start our Yangtze cruise and see the mighty Three Gorges Dam, then finally we would be taking in the sights of Beijing and Suzhou. But before that we were heading to Xian to see the amazing Terracotta Army. Xian, however, had even more delights in store.
The six centuries old city wall currently surrounding Xian is an awesome sight and a formidable stronghold. Formerly known as Chang'an, Xian was a capital city in the times of the Emperor Qin (pronounced 'chin') – the first emperor of China, after whom the country takes its name, and the architect of the 3000 year old Great Wall of China.
Xian city walls are stunningly Oriental in design, dotted with pagoda style mile-castles that seem to stretch into infinity. The fortress, which we entered by the south gate, is thought to date back over 600 years, while just on its other side, modernity is all around.
Xian sits at one end of the Silk Road, an ancient trade route that connected Asia with the Middle East and has been used by travellers and traders of all nationalities throughout the course of history. We may even have been walking in the steps of Marco Polo.
The city guarded the ancient texts of Buddhism as the religious centre of the Buddhist faith. The magnificent multi-storey building of the Little Wild Goose Pagoda, once a sacred temple, had been somewhat relieved of its former beauty as all the sloping pagoda roofs that once adorned the building had been removed following the mid-twentieth century advent of The People's Republic of China, which discouraged religious belief and traditions. The essence of the temple remained however, standing serenely in its own grounds near the Big Wild Goose Pagoda on the other side of the road.
We stayed at the lovely Garden Hotel which was walking distance for the pagoda. On our first night in Xian we witnessed a sound and light show in the vicinity that involved colourful dancing fountains set to music and we took the opportunity to see the spectacle for ourselves.
Of course the main reason you come to Xian is to see the Terracotta Army, which was discovered in 1975 by farmers working in the fields surrounding the city. It is believed to have been built to accompany the Emperor Qin to the afterlife as a fitting tribute to a great leader and consists of thousands of life-sized clay soldiers, each with their own faces and individually painted insignia showing their ranks within the forces of the emperor.
Close up on Individual Soldiers of the Terracotta Army
Several pits have been excavated and exterior buildings have been erected to protect the archaeological discoveries made at this UNESCO World Heritage Site. The project is ongoing, with a set timetable to excavate the other known sites in the area. We visited a number of the specially constructed halls that house the Terracotta Army and also saw an amazing audio/visual installation consisting of a circular room with floor to ceiling screens, projecting images and effects that replicated a battle scene, showing the charging horde of Genghis Khan's cavalry hurtling towards the onlookers who stood in the centre of the circle. Excellent.
Earlier that day we had visited a Neolithic Village in Xian. Civilisation stretches a long way back in these parts and this village, called Banpo, has been carbon-dated as existing in Stone Age times, 5000 – 6000 years BCE.
This was a very enjoyable visit to see an ancient example of human civilisation in a museum that housed both indoor and open-air attractions. Time was limited, however, so our visit only lasted a couple of hours. Definitely worth seeing if you get the chance.
We spent two days in Xian and packed in a few more experiences such as a visit to a factory that made jade jewellery and an evening at a Chinese Opera.
The theatre show was said to be an 'American style' experience, with a delicious Chinese meal and sake being served before the show.
The opera was beautifully staged in the Tang Dynasty style, with sumptuous costumes and performances from renowned Chinese musicians, as was explained in English at intervals throughout the performance. I can't pretend that I understood most of it but at least I've had the experience.
Throughout our journey with Archers Direct we had the services of our tour guide, who picked us up on arrival in China at Shanghai airport and stayed with us the whole time until we left from Pu dong airport at the end of our tour. Other local guides joined us along the way but having one person to stay with us for the full journey made for a very well organized tour, with a special relationship building up between travellers and their guide. All of our immediate needs were catered for and our lovely guide Jessica was so attentive to everyone it was a delight to travel with her.
We were in China in 2007 and prices have risen considerably since then - we paid just under £1500 per person for a two week tour that included returns flights from London to Shanghai, meals on a full-board basis in mostly four Star accommodation, the services of a tour guide throughout, internal flights, hotel porterage and all excursions and entrance fees to attractions or museums.
Additional extras included flights to London from our local airport, an overnight stay at a Heathrow Airport hotel and Visas (which are your responsibility to arrange with the Chinese Consulate prior to departure).