As the full moon rose above the Drum Tower like an enormous tangerine, my wife and I stopped to catch our breath. We had just finished a 14-kilometre bike ride on top of the walls that surround the ancient Chinese city of Xi'an. It had been an exhilarating few hours, but all that jostling over the cobblestones had taken its toll. And we were starving.
A few steps away lay the bazaar and the Great Mosque—one of China's oldest, dating back to the eighth century. As we zigzagged on foot through the narrow alleyways and streets looking for a place to eat, a little girl in pigtails pulled on my shirt, trying to sell wilted roses before the market closed for the day. Two buskers leaned against a wall, filling the air with Chinese pop songs. We passed stalls selling everything from stuffed Olympic mascots to tiny terra cotta warriors. Pressing on, we finally found what we were looking for: De Fa Chang, one of Xi'an's oldest dumpling restaurants.
Once inside the restaurant, we watched, mouths watering, as waiters pushed carts piled high like miniature pagodas with an endless variety of tempting morsels. Soon our table was stacked with deep-fried, pan-fried, and steamed dumplings. We stuffed ourselves.
After dinner we followed the winding bazaar back to the Great Mosque. Xi'an is home to an estimated 50,000 Hui Muslims, many of whom live in the neighbourhood around the mosque. Entering the grounds through an arched gate, we saw a group of older men awaiting evening prayers. Long, wispy beards dangled from their chins like moss. One looked us over, adjusted his white hat, and went back to drinking tea and playing chess. The Great Mosque is a mixture of Arab and Chinese architectural styles. The main hall's flared roof resembles a Buddhist temple and the grounds contain pagodas and gardens. Soaking up this hybrid of spiritual communion, I was able to appreciate how firmly Islam has taken root in China over the centuries.
The earth around Xi'an has revealed some amazing treasures. For over 3,000 years, Xi'an has been at the centre of the Middle Kingdom, once serving as China's capital and more recently as a hub for its burgeoning space program. Twelve hundred kilometres southwest of Beijing, Xi'an was the easternmost point on the Silk Road that connected China with Europe. For centuries, caravans carrying jewels, spices, and silks bound for Central Asia and Europe departed from here. Xi'an was China's portal to the wider world, and it still exudes a cosmopolitan charm.
The following day we visited the Terra Cotta Warrior museum, on the outskirts of the city. Housing over 7,000 life-size terra cotta figures excavated from the tomb of Qin Shi Huang, China's first emperor, this is Xi'an's main attraction. Thousands of visitors flock to the site each day, so long lines are par for the course.
After waiting about 30 minutes we entered the museum compound, shuffling past a giant white statue of Emperor Qin, who, after coming to power in 246 BC, commissioned the warriors to protect him in the afterlife. We were immediately greeted by row after row of these ancient guardians, all facing us as if ready to receive orders. They looked as if they had just emerged from the earth, ready to engage in conversation if not combat. It was truly an awe-inspiring sight.
The warriors are arranged as they were buried: in rows of three inside huge covered pits. The first houses about 6,000 warriors, all meticulously crafted with individual expressions. During a raid on the tomb by General Xiang Yu's army less than five years after the death of Emperor Qin, the warriors were smashed into pieces. Many have now been painstakingly put back together, but it may take a century or more to complete the task.
Lucky for us, on the day we visited, one of the farmers credited with finding the figures decided to come to the site. Yang Zhifa took my guidebook about the warriors in his gnarled hands and scratched out his name in Chinese characters. Now in his 70s, he's a frail shadow of what he was back when he discovered the warriors in March 1974. He and six other farmers were digging a well when they struck a few of the terra cotta pieces. The farmers didn't know what they were, and after some discussion they decided to rebury them inside a temple to appease the earth gods. When a journalist from their village found out about what had happened, he reported the findings to the authorities and the excavation began.
Not surprisingly, the warriors have taken on a life of their own. Everything in Xi'an seems to refer to them in one way or another. Across the street from the Bell Tower, in the heart of the city, shops display plastic warrior mannequins sporting Polo or Lacoste shirts.
On our last night, we returned to the bazaar and met a young woodcarver selling his work. He handed me a bead necklace. Looking closely, I saw that each bead was actually a little head wearing a different expression, just like the terra cotta warriors. He explained that they were disciples of Buddha carved from peach pits, which he gathered every morning from the garbage heap at a nearby fruit market. This one had taken three weeks to complete.
Speechless, I dug deep into my pockets and gladly paid the full amount without bothering to haggle. It was a small price for such a unique reminder of the cultural richness of Xi'an.
Access: Regular flights make the two-hour run from Beijing to Xi'an. The dumpling restaurant De Fa Chang is located about three minutes from the Bell Tower, across the street from the Bell Tower Hotel. Useful Web resources include www.chinahighlights.com/xian/ and www.travelchinaguide.com/attraction/shaanxi/xian/terra_cotta_army/.