Xi’An and the Terracotta Warriors, China

Terracotta Army

I’d been looking forward to flying out of Shanghai. Not because I was glad to be leaving the city –quite the opposite infact – but because it meant I got to ride the fastest form of land transport in the world.

Maglev this way...

Shanghai’s Pudong airport is more than 20 miles from the city centre, a good hour’s ride on the underground. So being a futuristic bunch, they decided to build a shuttle between the outer city centre and the airport – using magnets.

Maglev arrives

It’s a bit like a cross between the Heathrow Express rail service from London and the Alton Towers monorail – but at warp speed! An incredible 431km/h (268mph) to be precise, faster than any car on earth. Its all done thanks to the opposite poles of powerful magnets – the effect you get when they don’t stick together but push away from each other.

Some bright spark has managed to make this into a form of transport, by fixing the powerful magnets to a monorail-style train and an elevated track. The result is quite staggering – the 18 mile journey gets covered in seven minutes thanks to a complete absence of friction! Its even a popular video on Youtube, such is the speed the train reaches.

Having completed the longest rail journey in the world, I just had to add ‘fastest land transport journey’ to the list too. I had to pick up my tickets from a counter in the terminal between 2.30pm and 3pm, for my flight to Xi’An in western China at 4.45pm. I arrived at the Maglev terminal at 2.20pm – and was gutted to see it doesn’t run at full speed until 3pm. At all other times, it crawls along at 320km/h.

 Well that wasn’t much faster than the bullet train the other day, and as I watched the world fly by the window, I was annoyed that I wouldn’t experience the full speed the Maglev is capable of. It took over eight minutes to cover the distance, but all along I was looking at my watch and thinking – could I pick up my tickets and get back to the Maglev in time to ride it at full speed, back to Shanghai, and get back in time for my flight?

I soon found the ticket counter and thankfully there were no queues at check-in. I dumped my backpack on the conveyer, got given my boarding card and looked at my watch. It was 2.50pm, the flight boards at 4.15pm – surely I could make it

With all of my belongings on the way to the cargo hold of a Hainan Airlines jet, I knew it was tight and left very little room for error or catastrophe. If the Maglev breaks down,it would cause far to many problems to even think about. But I couldn’t leave Shanghai without experiencing it – after all, I might never return or have another chance!

It was a busy service...

With a bit of a quick walk I reached the ticket office and paid around £8 for the return trip. A man waved me through saying the next Maglev was leaving, and I was safely on the 3pm trip back to Shanghai. It was the first of the afternoon to go at full pelt, and what an experience. With a bit of a shudder, it pulls out of the station and picks up speed. It then takes on a bit of a feeling of a theme park ride – you can hear the engine or magnets, or whatever it is that propels it, rising in pitch and you can feel the g-force keeping you in your seat. Trees and houses start to go past quicker and quicker, before they turn into factories and warehouses as we quickly reach the outskirts of the city.

 Before long the digital display is showing 350km/h and still rising. The noise is still increasing and there’s no sign of the Maglev slowing. Outside, bridges pass overhead in a blink, with everything going by so quickly you have no real time to focus or look at anything. Cars travelling full speed on a motorway alongside the track appear almost at a standstill. By now the carriages are shaking a little, a gentle vibration as we hit 400km/h. We’re already going almost twice as fast as an airliner at take-off, and still the speed counter climbs. As a bit of a speed freak, it was fantastic – and people onboard realise it, with so many passengers looking at each other and smiling in amazement, taking photographs and filming the scene outside the windows. It was the sort of speed that makes you think ‘surely this is dangerous

Top speed!!

Its so fast, we’re only at its top speed of 431km/h for a minute or so, and no sooner had we left the airport we were slowing down and arriving back in Shanghai.

I got off, ran downstairs, through the turnstiles and back up the stairs on the opposite side of the platform to get back on the same Maglev for the trip back. Seven minutes later, at 3.25pm, I was back at the airport – in plenty of time to join the other tourists taking photos of this brilliant piece of engineering and get through security in time for boarding.

For £8 return, the journey should be a tourist attraction in its own right – I imagine many people have already done the same as me judging by the smiles of staff acknowledging what I was up to. It was money well spent – it would cost a heck of a lot more to be taken for a spin in a Bugatti Veyron to get anywhere close to that speed, and even then the Maglev is faster.

Noodles and blog!

There was time for some beef and noodles before the flight, where yet again the locals took pleasure in watching the westerner trying to use chopsticks, while the free wifi meant time for a blog update.

It was a two and a half hour flight to Xi’An, and while I wasn’t expecting anything special for my £90 ticket, I was pleasantly surprised. A full meal service with drinks,  a lovely new plane with lots of leg room, comfy seats….and a lot of phlegm.

I’d been holding off writing about this, but quite simply, my patience reached its limit on the aircraft. China has to be the ‘phleghmiest’ nation in the world. You cannot walk the streets for more than 90 seconds without hearing one of the locals, shall we say, ‘clearing their throat’. It’s always very loud, very visible, and to be honest, quite disgusting. It got to the point where it makes you shudder. It doesn’t matter where you are – I saw it happen on trains, on platforms, in shopping centres, at museums, and now planes

First plane in a while!

.Across the aisle from me was possible the largest, sweatiest Chinese guy I had seen during my stay, and for me, also the most disgusting. We’d just taken off when I heard the familiar noise come from him…and immediately wondered what he would do with the ‘deposit’. Well, in China, airsickness bags have another use

From Shanghai to Xi’An it felt like absolutely everyone was at it. There was a phlegm chorus at one point, so bad I almost had to cover my ears to switch off from it. Even through the meal service there was no respite. Its revolting, and apparently there has  even been a government campaign to try to cut down the level of spitting.

It hasn’t worked.

Xi’An was a real highlight for me though. It was a bonus visit that I hadn’t scheduled in, so the fact I was seeing anything there was great, let alone one of the greatest discoveries in this part of the world

The Bell Tower, Xi An

.I only had one full day in the city, but decided against an organised tour to see the Terracotta Warriors. My Lonely Planet I had ‘borrowed’ from the Beijing hostel said it was easy enough to get to on a public bus, and it’s always nice to be free from time limits and ‘shopping stops’ that the tours so love.

As I wouldn’t see Xi’An by day, I decided to walk through the city to find the railway station. It’s a very old place – it was once the centre of the Chinese empire – and there’s a huge city wall which still survives. It’s a busy city built up around one of its main landmarks, the Bell Tower.

Xi'An city wall

It took about an hour to reach the northern gateway to the city, and I was still some way off from the railway station to the east. I decided to walk along the top of the city wall, which was a great vantage point for spotting where I needed to be. The bus was easy to find, and soon I was walking through the grounds where the Terracotta Warriors were found

Mountains around the site

.I watched a film about how they were first discovered in 1974 by a villager out digging a well. Little did he know that the fragments of pottery and clay he was bringing to the surface would turn out to be one of the greatest ever historical finds. He’s done alright out of it though – he’s now got a special building near the exit to the site where he sits all day signing copies of his book

The bits of clay he’d found were parts of an estimated 8,000 full-sized, highly detailed warriors, complete with weapons and horses, and arranged in full military fighting positions

The soldiers in the main pit

They had been constructed by hundreds of thousands of people under orders of Emperor Qin, the first emperor of China (pronounced ‘Chin’ hence ‘China’) who believed that when he died, he could still be a leader in the afterlife. But if he was to be buried and be a leader underground, he needed his own army to protect him. Therefore, the terracotta warriors were built. Ironically, the emperor died while visiting the area, and so that’s where they were buried

Pit 3


There are three pits where the warriors were found, all fairly close to each other. I’d been advised, and it turned out to be a great tip, to tour the museum in reverse, starting with the smaller pit and building to the larger pit.

Remains in the pit

The smaller pit had very few soldiers in it, but it was still quite a special sight to see this huge hole in the ground, complete with clear marks left behind by artefacts that were found, including chariot wheels and the remains of wooden beams which protected the tombs.

Bronze chariot for the Emperor

The main pit was incredible. The sheer size of the area where the warriors were found, the rows upon rows of immaculately restored warriors standing to attention, the excavation work and restoration work that is still ongoing.

Still digging

So far around 2,000 warriors have been found at the main site, and its estimated there will be up to 6,000 of them recovered in there by the time all the work is completed.

Piecing together the jigsaw

It will take many, many years for them to be found and restored, piece by piece. Its like the world’s biggest, most challenging jigsaw – and the final result is still a long way off.

In the meantime, thousands of people visit the site. The soldiers are all different, with different features, faces, weapons and stances. The work that must have gone on thousands of years ago is hard to comprehend. It’s also amazing to look at the warriors and imagine what life must have been like for the people who made them, and to think about how, at some point, they would have all looked fully painted up and stood in formation.

I was almost the last one to leave the site, even taking in Emperor Qing’s mausoleum on the way out, which is at a seperate site a few minutes drive away on a free bus.

I had spent all day on my feet and walked for miles after a particularly tiring week, but decided to walk back through the city to the hostel to take in the atmosphere on my last night in China. I bought some street food – a bit more mystery meat on a stick, although it was a bit more ‘chickeny’ than the last one I tried; and some more of the stick haws, the little crab apples in sugar on a stick. I sat on a plant pot and ate them watching the traffic trying to negotiate the roundabout around the Bell Tower, before finding a night market and looking at just how bad some of the fake Abercrombie and Fitch fakes were. They’re quite special!

Night market

The colour and atmosphere of the Chinese night markets is always a spectacle – the atmosphere, the smells (not all good) the banter with the locals trying to sell you something you’d never need in a million years….its typically Chinese and great fun.

There was also a new thing being sold on the streets – a view of the moon. All thanks to some entrepreneur who’s managed to strap Hubble onto the back of a rickshaw…

The Nasa rickshaw!

Tomorrow I fly to the warmer climes of Thailand, but my 10 days in China had been a true experience. From arriving on the most famous train in the world and pulling into the Chinese capital with new-found friends, to seeing the famous Tiananmen Square and Forbidden City, flying around on superfast trains and whizzing up and down one of the tallest buildings in the world. It had been a packed 10 days and I felt tired, but I’d managed to see the main sights I wanted to see in this huge country. A great mix of old and new.


Shanghai, China

Shanghai by night

It was 3am on the day I was travelling to Shanghai when I finally got into bed, having had just a couple of drinks in a packed Beijing nightclub called Vics. Three hours later, I was getting up again to watch the raising of the flag ceremony in Tiananmen Square.

Chinese flag being raised at dawn

It was something that I’d seen on signs around the square, monitored by police and soldiers, and takes place twice a day, at sunrise and sunset. There’s lots of soldiers marching around, music, the flag of China being hoisted up the huge flagpole opposite Mao’s portrait, that kind of thing. I’d tried – and failed – to wake up early enough on two previous occasions, but this was my last chance as my train to Shanghai left Beijing’s South Station at 10am.

“You’ll never do it. Its crazy,” Santi said to me as we headed to bed just a few hours ago.

Plenty of early risers

Somehow, despite a slight hangover, I made it, and walked along with the Chinese public through Tiananmen Square to go and watch this most patriotic of ceremonies. Despite the early hour, there were hundreds, if not thousands of people there, all wanting their glimpse of the flag being raised. At precisely 6.45am, the national anthem began, everyone jostled for a look, and at precisely the moment the flag reached the top of the pole, the anthem came to a natural end. It was perfect timing – and obviously very well rehearsed.

And that was it – a few soldiers did a little march, but everyone was too busy heading to their flag-waving tour leader, and no doubt on to their buses, for a day of sightseeing.

I headed back to bed for an hour, wondering if it was really worth the effort getting up – it hardly gave our Changing of the Guard ceremony a run for its money!

Thankfully, I didn’t sleep through my re-set alarm, stuffed the last of my belongings into my bag and put my jacket on. I had to say goodbye to Santi and Gali here, which was a real shame as we’d become good mates, even despite the fact Gali and I could only have decent conversations through Santi acting as an interpreter!

We first met in Russia, at the backpackers in Irkutsk, so we’d spent the best part of two weeks together, with a few other people along the way. It just so happened our itineraries matched, so we ended up hanging out and booking hostels together. Sadly, they don’t leave for Shanghai for another few days. We’d had some brilliant laughs together though, and I’d like to think we’ll stay in touch.

Now, I was on my own again, for the first time since Russia which was already seeming like quite some time ago. Laden down with all my bags yet again, I headed to the incredibly modern Beijing South Station, to get onboard an even more modern Bullet train to Shanghai.


Everything is set out like an airport. Infact, you don’t see any trains as they are all beneath you, and with the huge futuristic station, incredibly high ceiling, gigantic electronic destination board and the fact you have to ‘check in’ with your rail ticket, it does feel more like you’re at an airport than Beijing’s equivalent of King’s Cross.

But if I thought the station was impressive, the actual train was like something from the future. A long, streamlined, pointed nose stretches out, while the immaculately white and spotlessly clean carriages are constantly being polished by an army of cleaners. Whether it helps with its top speed, I’m not entirely sure – but at least you could see out of the windows.

A go-faster polish!

As it whizzed up to its top speed of 307km/hr, the world started rushing past the window. It was spectacularly quick and very comfortable – a long, long way from the trans-Siberian trains I had spent so many days on.

I took the slow train

I fell asleep for a few hours thanks to the early start and late night, but thankfully my headache had started to go away. In less than five hours – 4hrs 48mins to be precise – we had covered more than 800 miles between the two cities and pulled into Shanghai. To put that into some kind of perspective, it’s the equivalent of travelling from Cornwall to the top of Scotland in less than five hours. Amazing.

A bit different to the trans-Siberian

While on the train, I’d been looking at the calendar. I’d worked out that with a clever bit of fast sightseeing in Shanghai, I had just enough time for a stop in Xi’An, home of the Terracotta Warriors, if flight schedules and prices were kind to me.

I found the hostel quite easily thanks to some much better directions from the website, and it was quite some hostel. The Rock and Wood in Shanghai is classed as the number one ‘alternative’ accommodation in the city on Tripadvisor, and it was easy to see why – fabulous fish-filled pond, decking, floor to ceiling windows onto the terrace, free pool, cheap bar, excellent rooms. It was more like an upmarket hotel – and it was just £5 a night!

The first thing I did in Shanghai? I put a load of washing on! (it was about time!)

Posh hostel

When it was all dried, I went out to explore and headed to the Bund, the main waterfront area where you can see the famous skyline.

Shanghai skyline

My journey took me along the main shopping street in the city, but it was lit up with so much neon it put Piccadilly Circus to shame.

Shanghai at night

There were street entertainers everywhere, music, groups of Chinese people singing to some crazy man acting as a conductor, and street hawkers trying to sell you absolutely anything.

On the mile or so walk, I was offered dozens of annoying lit-up helicopter things that are constantly floating down to the ground, noisy pebbles, spinning tops, laser pens, kites, roller wheels for my shoes, some funny glasses, a dog (real), various massages, some authentic Chinese tea (not again!) about three ‘beautiful women’ and one ‘gorgeous guy’.

I declined all the offers.

Shanghai nights

I eventually beat off the sales pitches and made it to the waterfront, where there were hundreds of people relaxing and taking in the view. Low cloud was getting in the way, but it was still a great sight.

Chinese street singing party

I stayed until 11pm when I decided to make my way back to the underground station, only to find out the last train had already gone. It was a really early finish for one of the leading cities in the world, so a taxi it was.

Next day was the busy day with a plan to walk around the sights from People’s Square, but that’s where I did fall for a sales pitch. The open top sightseeing bus was only £3 for the day, and I knew it would give my legs a rest.

New motor anyone?!

In the walk to People’s Square however, it became clear how this city has earned its reputation as the playground of the rich. Upmarket car brands such as Audi and BMW are just the norm here – instead, super-exclusive car showrooms are dotted around the streets. It was quite normal to walk past a Ferrari parked up in a shop window next to your head, while Gucci and Tiffany seem to be dotted around like a Tesco Express

The local backstreet car dealer

The sights were taken in by two routes on the bus, one that did a loop around Shanghai’s older areas, while another went under a tunnel to the newer financial district and all its skyscrapers.

Bus tour

It was nice to sit for a few hours and take in all the sights, both of old Shanghai and around the modern day city, one of the biggest financial centres in the world.

It included what was until recently the tallest building in the world, the Shanghai World Financial Centre, a peculiar building that rises above all the others, sticking up with a huge opening at the top like some sort of giant bottle opener.

The Jin Mao tower, me, and the World Financial Center

It was about £15 to go up to the observatory – classed as the highest observatory in the world – and take in the impressive, if a little cloudy view (the cloud line was just above the 100th floor, so every now and again a big cloud would fly by and block the view!)

Don't look down

I’d timed it to see the view in daylight, and then hung around looking through the glass floor and trying to pick out landmarks until it got dark, and then took some night shots too.

From the 100th floor

I also did a bit of research, and found out that all the signs and posters everywhere were now wrong, as a new skyscraper in Dubai has knocked the Shanghai tower off its perch as highest observatory too. They were quite proud of their record here though, so I didn’t have the heart to break the news to them!

Room with a view!

I went down in the high-speed lift to the bottom and walked to something dubiously called the Bund Tourist Tunnel. It cost a fiver to go through, and you get bunged into a funny monorail type thing and travel under the river to the Bund. You pass through all sorts of psychedelic lights and effects, and it was all a bit weird. Some inflatable people fluttered against the windows at one point.

I was really taken by Shanghai though – its very much got a big city feel about it. I was quite gutted to have to leave after just a couple of days. It gets dubbed the ‘Paris of the East’ by tour guides. Well, ive already been to the ‘Paris of Siberia’ in Irkutsk, so ive decided its more of a ‘New York of the Orient’.

Old and new

The tall skyscrapers and busy nature of the city, combined with its old architecture and ‘new living alongside old’ is something I’d definitely go back and visit.

That night, I found a cheapish flight to Xi An and a flight from Xi An to Bangkok in a couple of days. My plan had come together – I was able to fit in a bonus trip to one of the other famous architectural sights in China. But it meant leaving Shanghai earlier than planned.

At least I’ll be able to use the futuristic and exciting Maglev to the airport tomorrow though!

Oriental Pearl Tower, Shanghai