Xi’an is the ancient capital of China, still surrounded by its original brick wall, built 1,100 years ago. We enjoy a wonderful couple of hours cycling 16 kms around the top of the wall on a glorious early summer day despite the misgivings of the girl hiring out the bikes. “How old are you?” You must be very careful. Are you sure you can ride this far?” We later learned that everyone, no exceptions, loses their driving licence at 65. Necessary to ensure congestion won’t increase too much with all the young people wanting licences. Those same young people are then supposed to drive you around and you also get free public transport.
We enjoy the colour and huge range of food on offer in Xi’an’s Muslim quarter located near the mosque. The stir fried yoghurt is delicious. Also on offer is pomegranate juice, lots of dried fruits and squid and crab fried on sticks.
The mound of the Hanyangling mausoleum dating from 153 BC is many times larger than the largest of the pyramids. This burial area and all its treasures is still intact protected by its toxic mercury coating. We are told it is being left to later generations with more advanced techniques to discover. Meanwhile there is more than enough work to be done excavating the 80 vaults which radiate from the mound. The emperor had different vaults created such as food preparation, food storage, animals, transportation etc.to cater to all his needs in the afterlife. Fortunately live sacrifices had been deemed to be too cruel by this time so terracotta figures were created in their place. One third of the wealth of the kingdom at that time was said to have been buried with the emperor. At present only 10 of theses vaults have been explored and presented beneath a glass floor for visitors to observe.
An hour’s drive to the south east we are fortunate to see the first Han Emperor’s afterlife preparations at the terracotta warrior site. This was discovered by farmers digging a well and has created a new life for many of them who are now engaged in tourist activities rather than agriculture. Unlike the tiny figures at the earlier mausoleum these are larger than life. Displayed between walls and protected by wooden beams, which rotted and collapsed over time, most of the warriors were smashed to pieces and are now being painstakingly reconstructed. Only a fraction of the warriors and their horses have been pieced together. There were also two bronze chariots and a chrome sword, showing how advanced these civilisations were. Also the oldest brick wall in China.
After the wonders of the buried treasures we discover the wonders of the long haul overnight train. Preparations include purchasing food to take along on the fifteen hour journey which will take us into the Gobi desert, now 40% reclaimed for agriculture. We sleep in 6 berth cabins. Bunks three beds high on either side and as we board at 11pm along with 1000 other passengers it’s straight to sleep. Tickets sell out two weeks ahead and some hopeful travellers sleep on the ground outside the station waiting for tickets. I lose my fruit knife in the security screening. China is on high alert with bollards everywhere and security screenings at all stations and cultural attractions. We are all surprised in the morning by how well we slept and relieved we didn’t need to leave our beds to visit the squat toilet. As I climb down from my lofty position wedged under the roof on the top bunk one of the locals is massaging the arthritic fingers of his wife on the bottom bunk. The view from the window in the morning in murky. The worst pollution we have seen. A combination of dust and the pollution of industry and coal fired power stations. The train takes us into the unreclaimed part of the desert as we travel towards our destination of the oasis town of Zhangye. We have been told that we will be the centre of attention here. Many locals have never seen blonde hair or blue eyes. Tourism is still in its early days in this region. Security will also increase as we enter the Uyghur region where unrest has occurred in the past.