And you know what?? Despite tasting all of these dishes, I barely scratched the surface of what was on offer, and I missed some of the most famous Xi’an dishes altogether. Next time I’m going to try the famous Yang Rou Pao Mo 羊肉泡馍 – Mutton Soup With Flatbreads, and Rou Jia Mo 肉夹馍 – Spiced Shredded Mutton in Wheat Bread. Next time. If only I’d missed that train…….
Those terracotta warriors are unbelievably big business here in Xi’an. Some tourists do a Terracotta Warrior FiFo – you know, Fly In, see the warriors, Fly Out, usually a 24 hour warrior fling wedged between trips to Beijing and Shanghai. Well, we’ve got the whole day, and dammit, we’re gonna take a whole, full day to really see, enjoy, and soak up the history of these incredible 2200 year-old soldiers. We’ve hired a friendly driver, Andy (not his real name) to take us there and back, because it’s about an hour and a half out of town, near Lishan village. We have an explicit arrangement that he will collect us at 9.30am, take us to see the warriors and show us somewhere we can eat lunch, then bring us directly back to Xi’an by mid-afternoon.
So exactly why, no more than 30 minutes after starting out, we find ourselves at the Official Chinese Government Terracotta Warrior Factory and Shop, I’m not quite sure. Andy has perhaps been less than open with us about the nature of our journey. And his kickback. So we see the special clay, the special kiln, the talented craftsmen, and the incredible array of warriors for sale, all including shipping. Our factory guide, Linda, tells me that the warriors make great garden ornaments, and are also snow-proof. Handy for the sub-tropics, I tell her, but she’s already moved on to the section of the factory making Tang Dynasty replica horses.
‘Don’t buy anything!’ I hiss to our group, as I see the massively inflated prices on all the terracotta, porcelain, laquerware and stoneware (this factory makes everything).
We amuse ouselves taking photos wih the headless warriors outside, while inside, one of our party, who shall remain nameless, has just purchased a massively overpriced terracotta statue, in naive Tang style, of a famous concubine. Excellent. Andy looks very happy with us.
By the time we get to far-off Lishan Village we have also somehow fitted in a visit to a Neolithic Village Archeologic Site and purchased several paintings in naive farmer style. I don’t quite know how our explicit arrangement came so badly unstuck, but Andy is beaming widely.
It’s now time for lunch, and we’re still no closer to those warriors, but Andy just happens to have a friend who conveniently owns a country-style restaurant in Lishan village. Actually the food is pretty good – country style-chicken cooked with pomegranate (growing on every hillside nearby) and shredded sour stir-fried potato, and a dish of local mushrooms. Andy is a picture of conviviality, and informs me, grinning, that he will play poker with the waitresses while we see the warriors. I nearly ask if we can have a cut of the winnings but think better of it…
Last night I went to sleep in Shanghai, and woke up this morning in far-off Shaanxi province, the ancient cradle of the Chinese dynasties and the capital Xi’an. I took the Z train, rocked to sleep all the way by the lull and roll of the wheels on the tracks. This is a trip I’ve been trying to do for a year, but at last I will see Xian, the capital of Shaanxi, and the home of the famed terracotta warriors. And just as famed, the street food. I’m not sure which I’m more excited about.
We left Shanghai in darkness, with the neon brightness of the city gradually thinning out then fading altogether. I had a little paper cup of red wine, sitting on the lower berth of our four bunk compartment, then climbed into my narrow upper bunk, pulled the white cotton-covered silk quilt up to my chin, and fell instantly asleep. Hours later, as the dark night lifted into early dawn, we passed through a landscape completely new to my eyes, and such a stark contrast to the lush, green rice and lotus paddies of south-east China where I have travelled before. Dry, brown, and ancient-looking, the villages here lie under cliffs of red earth, the houses either carved into the cliff-face, or hidden behind tall, red-brick walls with imposing stone gateways, opening onto sunny courtyards and humble low-set buildings. Golden yellow corn is laid out to dry on each flat roof, and the last of the dark orange persimmons are hanging on the trees.
As I step out of Xi’an’s crowded train station, battling through the crowds and the taxi touts, I see the old city walls rising impressively in front of me. I can feel the history.