Will the real farmer please stand up?
Most travellers who come to China usually will have two things in their must-see or do list – Great Wall of China and the Terracotta army. We did the Great Wall in Beijing, so were the 3,238,576 people when we were there. After a quick stop in Datong, we finally arrived in Xi’an to witness one of the most epic UNESCO world heritage sites in China – Terracotta Army funerary.
We hired a tour guide and a driver via the hotel we stayed at for a half day tour. There are pros and cons to hire private guide and driver. Good thing is we didn’t have to worry about transport, so it saved us time from taking public transport. The guide we hired she has pretty good English, so she was pretty helpful and gave us information about the historical site. However, then there were the bad things…. firstly, we had to visit a factory that makes terracotta army souvenirs.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise, The Pom and I have joined enough (group and private) tours from our past travels to know that there would be the obligatory stop at souvenir shops or factories. Our tour guide took us to a factory that makes terracotta army statues, and the selling points were
1. all the statues are made with sand from the area, and it is the only sand that will turn black after firing to prove its authenticity. (hmm… not convinced.)
2. the factory is “government owned”, which means there is no tax on the products, which means you can buy them at a good price. (hmm… nice try.)
Anyway, we watched how the statues were made, had a quick browse of the shop, The Pom kindly bought a small statue (about AU$15) and we were out of there in no time. They made a sale, tour guide got a commission, The Pom stuck with a statue, everybody wins.
But the scam didn’t stop there…
As soon as we arrived, our tour guide kindly offered us a once-of-a-lifetime opportunity to meet one of the seven farmers who discovered the terracotta army site. We hesitated at first and thought “Why not”. We were led to this room not far from main entrance where there was this man sitting behind a desk piled with books about Terracotta Army. Right next to him was a photo of a younger him shaking hands with former president Bill Clinton, behind him on the wall was a short narration on how he discovered the terracotta army site back in 1974.
“He is the farmer who discovered the terracotta army at his farm,” our tour guide emphasised. There was a “no photo” sign in the room, but… we were encouraged to buy the book and have it signed by him, and then we were invited to have our photo taken with him. Not really something we were interested in, but it was 65RMB (AUD$12.50), we thought what the hell and agreed to it.
But, is he the real farmer who discovered the Terracotta army?
Unfortunately, no. From the little description on the wall behind him, his name is Xian Yang and born in 1945 which makes him 69yo when we met him two years ago. He was actually the owner of a factory that makes replicas of the terracotta army, and the handshake with Bill Clinton photo was actually taken when Bill visited his factory. According to an article published in 2007, of the seven discoverers, only four were still alive: Yang Zhifa, Yang Quanyi, Yang Peiyan and Yang Xinman, and they would have been in their 80s and 90s by now if they are still alive.
I did a quick google search, and this is what I found:
There were many more other imposters who were hired to pretend to be the farmers. They were actually paid to sit there, sign books and have photos taken with tourists. To have an imposter sitting behind the desk to pretend as farmer is one thing, but to realise our own tour guide was also part of the con just left a bad taste in my mouth.
Next time if your tour guide told you to take a photo with a man who is younger than your grandfather, say no.
Terracotta Army funerary
Eventually, we squeezed our way through a sea of visitors into the main exhibit hall where there was over 2,000 terracotta figures on display. It is believed that this main site has over 6,000 terracotta figures of soldiers and horses with many still buried and preserved.
The Terracotta Army was created by China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, who began the construction of the army in 246 BC after he ascended the throne. It is believed that the terracotta army was constructed to protect Emperor Qin in the afterlife.
The site itself is as big as am airplane hangar, but unfortunately the display itself was a little disappointing. The grand display of the terracotta army was distracted by plastic number tags all over the site and colourful stickers were also adhered to many of the figures. Plus, the viewing walkway around the site was actually quite a far distance from the figures, so you can’t actually have a closer look at them. But they do have a museum at the site where a few of the figures were on display behind glass cabinet.
I wish I’d have liked the Terracotta Army more, but after seeing so many replicas prior to visit the original site, I think the wow factor has long gone. But don’t take my words for it, it is still a site that worth a visit and see with your own eyes.
But the best thing I found in Xi’an, was the Muslim Quarter.
Street food at Muslim Quarter
Muslim Quarter is possibly the most interesting area in Xi’an city. Located to the north of the West Street in the city center, the quarter covers several blocks inhabitated by over 20,000 Muslims and about ten mosques in the area. But the main attraction of the Muslim Quarter that draws thousands of locals and tourists to this area is the local street food. Apparently Muslim Quarter is one of the best street food destinations in China. There are literally unending lines of various restaurants and food stalls sprawled along the main Muslim Street and also the adjacent laneways. The choices are endless.
We sampled Feng Mi Liang Gao (honey cold cake), which is sticky rice cake with layers of jujube Chinese red dates, cut into thin wedges then soaked in honey syrup. Here you can also find Xi’an version of naan bread.
Another popular local specialty, Zeng Gao, very similar to the Feng Mi Liang Gao, but this sticky rice is cooked overnight in a traditional earthern utensil, layered with sticky chinese dates. We joined the crowd and queued up for the some sweet sticky goodness.
This was one of the best sweet we tried, fried persimmon cake. This Xi’an specialty is made of persimmon then stuffed with different type of fillings including sesame, walnut, osmanthus, red bean, rose and many more.
Many locals will tell you that you’ve never been to Xi’an until you try Piang Piang Mian. It was originally part of a poor man’s meal in the countryside, the broad noodles are hand-pulled, served with vegetables, braised meat (we had lamb) and some tomato sauce. Then you can add chilli sauce according to your liking. The dish itself is nothing special, but it has become fashionable due to the unique Chinese character used it its name. The character ‘piang’, has 58 strokes, it is the most complex Chinese characters, but actually a made-up character that cannot be found in history and in dictionary. It is so difficult to write, the locals even came up with a poem to help them memorise how the character is written.
Then I had fried quail eggs skewer, brushed with chilli oil. SO yummy.
Why have chips when you can have a cub of fried teeny weeny baby potatoes. We went for the spicy version and it was doused in hot chilli sauce, so addictive.
The BBQ lamb skewers are probably the most popular snack food at the Muslim Quarter. They sprinkled lots of herbs and spices on the meat and then grilled to perfection. Again, Chinese love spicy food, there was chilli oil aplenty for you.
A guy was putting on quite a show pulling stretchy sugar in front of the shop. Here you will find hand-pulled candies like ginger candies, malt candies and many others. We joined another crowd for more Liang Gao sticky rice cake! This time was made the traditional way by an old lady who probably has honed her skills by making it all her life. The cake was covered with a thick layer of sesame seeds then doused in sweet sticky date syrup.
Last thing we tried, a yoghurt drink. Many stalls were selling this drink, a perfect drink to cool the burning tongue after all the spicy food.
I will come back to Xi’an just for the street food anytime.