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.


2 thoughts on “Xi’An and the Terracotta Warriors, China

  1. Pingback: The end…of a chapter | afishoutofgrimsby

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