Risen from the ranks

As the terracotta warriors guard the past, Diane Armstrong finds a Xian very much in the present.

I'M STANDING in front of an old man whose hand shakes as he signs the book I've just bought in the museum in Xian.

Yang Xinman is the farmer who discovered the entombed warriors of this ancient capital when he was drilling a well on his land in 1974.

These days Yang no longer tills his meagre soil. He spends his time signing books for visitors who, like me, are thrilled to meet him.

Whenever you visit a world-famous attraction you run the risk of being disappointed but the entombed warriors are even more spectacular than expected. We spend hours gazing at the formidable army of 2000 towering archers, infantrymen and officers lined up in battle positions with horses and chariots.

With our guide's help we can figure out their rank by their uniform and headgear but what's even more remarkable is that no two are alike: some are skinny and tall, others short and chunky. Some look pensive, others arrogant or angry. Even their ear lobes and head shapes are different.

We've come to Xian to see this extraordinary sight but over the next two days I discover there's far more to this city than its terracotta warriors. Within its mediaeval walls and exotic towers, Xian is a city of intriguing contrasts.

I first become aware of the contrasts when I wander around the ancient Tang temple. Swathed in mist, the austere tower of the pagoda looms above the shrines and gardens. There is an air of spirituality over the complex, enhanced by the tinkling of bells, the serene faces of monks in ochre robes studying religious texts, and the Chinese visitors prostrating themselves before various deities.

Then I turn and see a young Chinese man with the latest model Nikon camera slung over his shoulder, praying devoutly to the god of wealth and success.


A metaphor for modern Xian.

Xian isn't usually associated with great shopping but walking along the city streets, I am astonished by the quality and variety of the merchandise.

Next to our hotel, a shop as big as an entire floor of a department store, sells nothing but luxury watches, many brands and models of which I've never seen before. At the Kai Yuan Shopping Mall, near the spectacular Bell Tower, I survey floor after floor of imported and local designer clothes, cosmetics and perfumes.

At the other end of the shopping spectrum is the Muslim Quarter, a vibrant bazaar so narrow that you're jostled by motorbikes, trolleys and bicycle rickshaws as you push your way among the stalls. This is the place to buy fake Mont Blanc pens and Rolex watches, as well as weatherproof jackets, Chinese chess sets, jade necklaces, pashmina shawls and leather wallets.

Although you have to bargain hard, the vendors are not pushy. The starting price for a Columbia weatherproof jacket is about $125.

I buy it for $25. It looks identical to one I bought in Sydney a year ago for $300.

At the end of this Aladdin's cave, we come to the food stalls and wander around enjoying the friendly atmosphere as we breathe in the mouth-watering aroma of steaming chicken dumpling soup, tiny grilled quail eggs and skewers of barbecued lamb.

Although we are tempted to sample some, we're saving our appetite for the dumpling feast at the Tang Dynasty Palace that evening. Just as well, because there are 20 types of dumpling - and they just kept coming.

The fillings include scallop, duck, pork and mushroom, chicken, tomato and cabbage.

They are a visual as well as gastronomic treat; each is shaped according to its filling, so the pork dumplings are shaped like piglets, complete with snouts and curly tails, while the fish dumplings have tails and gills.

By night, Xian becomes glitzy and sophisticated. The mediaeval walls and towers are illuminated and form a dramatic backdrop for nocturnal activities.

Thousands of young girls in miniskirts totter on stiletto heels on their way to discos and bars and the taxis are full of revellers.

Unable to catch a taxi after our dumpling dinner, we decide to walk back to the hotel.

You take your life in your hands crossing the road here: 13 million new cars were sold in China in the past year and it feels as though they are all whizzing past us right now, oblivious to road rules, red lights or pedestrian crossings.

In ancient times, when Xian had 1 million inhabitants, it rivalled Rome for the title of the world's greatest city. These days, more than 1 million visitors come here each year from all over the world to marvel at the terracotta army.

It's a pity that few of them stay long enough to discover Xian's exciting mixture of past glory and glorious modern consumerism.

The writer travelled courtesy of Peregrine Adventures.

Trip notes

Getting there

Singapore Airlines flies from Sydney to Beijing via Singapore, from $1491, 13 10 11, singaporeair.com.

From Beijing you can fly to Xian on China Northwest Airlines or take the 12-hour overnight train, which reaches Xian early in the morning. Make sure you book a "soft berth" sleeper but note four people travel in each compartment.

Touring there

Peregrine Adventures' Eastern Experience is an 18-day journey starting in Hong Kong and ending in Beijing. It includes a guided visit to the entombed warriors in Xian. The tour costs $3665 a person, twin share, land only. 1300 854 500, peregrineadventures.com.

Staying there

The three-star Skytel Hotel on South Main Street is comfortable and conveniently located in the town centre. Doubles from $US102.

More information

The Terracotta Warriors will be exhibited at the Art Gallery of NSW from December 4 to March 13. artgallery.nsw.gov.au. en1.xian-tourism.com.

Three (other) things to do

1. Xian is surrounded by crenellated mediaeval walls with four watchtowers. When the Japanese bombed Xian during World II, air shelters were hollowed in the walls and, during the Cultural Revolution, caves were dug to store grain. You can go into some of the watchtowers. For 20 yuan ($3) you can hire a bicycle to cycle the 14-kilometre perimeter.

2. Xian's famous landmark is the beautiful wooden three-tiered Bell Tower, built more than 600 years ago. Entry costs 30 yuan and includes a daily performance of music and dance at 3pm.

3. The Shaanxi History Museum is said to be one of the best in China. Its exhibits include huge Palaeolithic and New Stone Age cooking stands, burial items from the Qin Dynasty, bronze crossbows and a collection of Tang Dynasty ceramics.