Visiting the Terracotta Warriors

The first time we went to Xi’an, we thought it would be easy to organize a trip to see the Terracotta Warriors. Unfortunately, a catalogue of bad luck meant we had to return to Xi’an–when I was 7 months pregnant–to see the terracotta warriors.

On our first trip to Xi’an, I didn’t know I was pregnant (I just thought I was… late, y’know?). We’d flown from Nanjing Lukou airport, and stopped by the amazing Hello Kitty store, where I’d bought this beautiful (and VERY expensive, and totally unnecessary at that point as we were embarking on 2 months of wandering around the world and didn’t need more crap to carry) Hello Kitty carry-on suitcase.

When we arrived at Xi’an airport, the driver came to meet us and I took my Hello Kitty case but my husband insisted on carrying it (sweetly). We reached the airport’s underground car park and my husband was struggling to figure out where to put my new case. I tried to explain from inside the car but he couldn’t seem to understand, so in a hurry to stop him damaging this new case, I jumped out of my side of the car, ran around to where he was trying to put it in the car… and on the way, my foot caught on a 4-inch-high metal bar that served no purpose whatsoever and wasn’t marked or really visible in the dim car park. Because of the way my foot caught, I flew up in the air and landed hard on my hips, which were straight across the bar.

At first I thought I’d broken something. My hips were screaming in agony, the impact had reverberated through my spine and my hands, which had hit the concrete at speed, were also making a lot of noise. I have sensory processing issues so I shut down and couldn’t move because everything hurt too much.

When I could take in anything at all, the Chinese driver and my husband were both trying to talk to me and help me up but I couldn’t stand the idea of anyone touching me right then. I dragged myself to my feet and stumbled to the car and on the forty-minute drive to the hotel, I cried all the way because, aside from the pain, it felt like something was really wrong inside me and I couldn’t figure out what.

I couldn’t walk properly for three of our five days in Xi’an. Add to that, the ladies running the hotel didn’t speak any English at all and my Chinese wasn’t enough to ask them if they had any contacts through which to book a trip to the Terracotta Warriors (almost everything in China gets done by someone who knows someone who will introduce you).

I know a lot of people will roll their eyes and wonder why we didn’t take a bus, but I don’t do coach trips because I get very, very bus sick and the amount of travel sickness pills I’d have to take would make me too drowsy to do anything when we arrived, so we only really do things we can walk, train or car to (please don’t email me with “cures”, I’m 33 and I’ve tried them all, thanks, so I won’t respond).

So we spent the whole week in Xi’an just exploring the city itself (which had some great finds in it) and never saw the Terracotta Warriors.

That story ended a week later in Kathmandu when I got rushed to hospital in the early morning because I was losing a lot of blood, and it turned out we had lost the baby. I know that if the fall in Xi’an had been responsible, the baby would have miscarried a week earlier, but I never quite got it out of my mind that this happened in Xi’an.

That made it very, very difficult to contemplate returning to Xi’an, especially now I was heavily pregnant with a baby we’d conceived exactly three months after the one we lost in Kathmandu.

When my husband got an unexpected vacation week in May 2019, about 14 days before I was due to leave China and fly to Ireland (with the intent of giving birth there), I was 27 weeks pregnant and we needed to pick one thing to do.

There were dozens of things I hadn’t done yet in China which I wanted to. But really the choice came down to two main things that were important to me: The Terracotta Warriors, or the pandas at Chengdu. I even looked at how viable it would be to do both in one week (the answer is you can, but not if you’re heavily pregnant because you will have less energy, move slower, and need more breaks).

We decided we couldn’t leave China without seeing the Terracotta Warriors (I’ve wanted to see them ever since we did about the First Emperor of China in school when I was 11), so even though I never wanted to return to Xi’an, I found myself planning this trip.

By this point, we had learned that we enjoyed our travels best when we did luxury travel, so we booked a Marriott (the Sheraton was our other fave). Some people think you miss out on the “real” destination by doing luxury travel but I disagree. I do truly believe you miss out on a lot of what a country has to offer when you don’t sample the haute cuisine or any of the high-end amenities that are on offer.

There’s a balance to be had, but China is a trip of a lifetime. I’ve said before I don’t think people who spend days and days on cheap coaches being zoomed from one place to another with no freedom to roam or explore gain a great perspective on this mysterious country.

When we arrived at the hotel, we asked the Concierge to book us a driver to take us to the Terracotta Warriors. When you’re pregnant, you really appreciate leather seats, air conditioning, extra legroom and someone to open your door for you.

The warriors were left where they’d been found, and someone has built a protective cover over them. There are three main buildings of them. Then there’s a nicely-landscaped area between them. I was very surprised to see few westerners there. I would have thought it was the number one destination in China for western tourists.

Getting around when pregnant was hard because the site is ENORMOUS! It took a full travel day to see everything. We had to keep stopping for me to sit down, and my ankles had done this thing where they wouldn’t do stairs properly so I had to take them very slowly. And there are a LOT of places where you need to go up or down stairs, here.

Throughout my travels while I was pregnant, I never experienced anyone pushing, shoving, or touching me at all until we went to see the Terracotta Warriors. The rest of Xi’an was completely fine, but here, the usual suspects (middle aged women, mostly, but also teenage boys) were pushing and shoving like their lives depended on it. Several times, I had to shout “excuse me!” (sarcastically) or “I am pregnant!” at people in Mandarin who were trying to walk through me, and I was glad I’d learned those phrases.

I will stress that this isn’t normal for China. Everywhere else, people were so lovely about the fact I was pregnant. For example, I never had to ask for a seat on the Xi’an Metro. People in China usually treat pregnant women better than a librarian would treat an original Shakespeare document.

Disabled access to the terracotta army

There is also some disabled access to parts of the Terracotta Warrior museum site, but you won’t be able to get the same views of all the warriors if you can’t do stairs, and you will absolutely need to take a carer with you to do basic things like open doors and get you up and down entry steps.

Seeing the Terracotta Warriors with a baby or toddler

With a baby or toddler, this is definitely a place to take a baby carrier or an umbrella pushchair, rather than a heavy buggy, so you can just carry your little one up and down those stairs.

Honestly, I don’t think this is a great experience for very young children, they won’t know what they’re looking at and there is basically nothing here for them to do and there aren’t any brightly lit or colorful displays.

Taking a newborn would be best, for you to see the Terracotta warriors yourself, or wait until your children are at least five years old so you can explain what’s going on (they will probably still get bored with the indoor areas at this age but you could manage this by doing them in chunks, mixed with time spent outdoors). The barriers around the warrior pits are quite high so anyone under 10 probably would struggle to see into the pits without help from an adult.

Overall, I had a blast in Xi’an aside from getting hurt. But if we returned to China now, with our fourteen-month-old baby, and we had only one week of vacation, I would go to Chengdu to see the pandas, or Beijing, Shanghai or Shenzhen, where there’s tons on offer for little ones.

Conclusion

I am glad we returned to Xi’an. Our luck was better the second time we went and I was able to get closure on the baby we lost, by safely exploring the city while I was pregnant. I highly recommend seeing the terracotta warriors if you are childless or taking older kids; what happened to me at the airport was just a very unlucky accident. I don’t think it’s a place with a lot to do for very young children but China in general is very kid-friendly so I can foresee this area changing in the future.

10 things to do in Xi’an, China (and 7 more I wish I’d done)

Xi’an in Shaanxi Province is one of China’s most interesting cities, and a mixing bowl of old-fashioned and modern city life. I’ve been there twice, now, and these are my top 10 things to do in Xi’an! These can be divided into “touristy” things and “local” things, to give you a flavor of some of the more authentic things you can do here.

Some of these are things you can do in other cities in China, too, but if you’re in Xi’an there are excellent versions of some things they have in other parts of China, as well as the big tourist staples such as the walls and drum and bell towers which is probably what you came to the city to see, along with the Terracotta Army.

1. The drum and bell towers

These are a really spectacular sight right in the centre of Xi’an, so really easy to get to. You probably heard all about them already but if not, here’s what you need to know:
Almost 40m high, the bell tower was built in 1384 in the Ming Dynasty and is one of Xi’an’s most recognizable landmarks. It was originally in a different location, but in 1582, the Shaanxi local government ordered it to be taken apart, piece by piece, and rebuilt exactly as it was but in the place where you can find it today. The bell tower contains several Tang dynasty bells as well as the Jingyun bell.

2. The underground walkways

Beneath the bell tower is the biggest underpass I ever saw. It goes between the metro system, the towers, the shopping malls and the roads. During the Boat Festival, it was so busy, they had police officers doing crowd control! It was literally like being carried along in a tide of people.
You can get to them by taking the Xi’an Metro to the bell tower then following the subterranean passageways to your heart’s content.

3. The Terracotta Army Museum

This is not technically in Xi’an, it’s about a 60 minute taxi ride. It made me feel all cultured and historical. The place is absolutely crammed with Chinese tourists who will elbow, shove and barge through you. It’s glorious! Respect the one way system inside the big buildings full of warriors, and don’t get mad at middle-aged Chinese grandmas when they elbow you in the ribs; they do it to everyone.
You can get here by taking a taxi (use the Didi app if you’re living in China or the Uber app if you’re a tourist, or get your hotel to book you a taxi). There is no train here. When you leave, there are a ton of Chinese taxi drivers waiting to give you a ride home, just have your hotel’s address card handy in Mandarin so they know where to drive you.

4. Walk the historic city walls.

I did this walk on my first trip to China and it was excellent and made me feel all historical and cultured.
This is a fun thing to do if you are not pregnant. You will get fantastic views of the city. Give it a miss if you are 6 or more months pregnant because there are serious steps to get onto the walls and breathlessness, loose joints and swollen ankles in 35 degree July heat is not funny.
There is at least one shop selling drinks up there and you can hire bikes to cycle around if walking isn’t your thing. Just be aware there are a LOT of reckless American tourists going around on their bikes shouting and having no consideration for other people. Don’t be that guy.

xi'an walls mama adventure

5. Go past a hospital.

You will see a fascinating slice of local life as you walk past any of the traditional Chinese medicine hospitals. On the footpaths between the hospital and the city walls, elderly people walk around following rituals. I saw some people walking backwards, while others were thumping themselves or clapping. I’m not entirely sure what they were doing but it was an experience. I didn’t take any photos as it seemed inappropriate. This is a pregnancy-friendly activity.

6. See the light show and artistic features at Starry Street mall.

The malls in China are stunning, and Xi’an has some really beautiful ones.
This one has two parts, a long thin section (which is the official Starry Street mall) and across the way, a ginormous mall, much of which is underground. It has this water mist that gets dropped down from the top of the covered walkway and they project patterns onto it with lights. It’s amazing. And there’s a reading corner, some modern art sculptures, and some really good eateries. Well worth a trip if you’re nearby. There’s also a Godiva if you’re peckish for expensive chocolates and there’s a Bread Talk if you want to enjoy authentic Chinese baked goods from a clean, reputable chain store; I recommend the Hello Kitty cake for utter creamy decadence or the donuts for a taste of really good sugary fluffy deliciousness. Pregnancy-friendly especially for those eating for two!

7. Visit the little amusement park for kids

If you have kids, there’s also a mini amusement park outside that mall, in a pedestrianized area. I’m not sure if that was permanent or whether it was only there when we visited the first time, as there’s so much to see and do in Xi’an, we went to a different part of the city for our second visit.

children's play area xi'an china mama adventure

8. Go to one of the many parks.

I especially liked Xi’an Huancheng Park which is a long thin one running north to south alongside the western walls, the Children’s Park, which is near the Xi’an Children’s hospital complex. The Revolution Park, near West 5th Road, one of the main roads in the city centre. The Daming Palace National Heritage Park is also ginormous and well worth a visit.

9. See the terrarium shop at Ocean Towers mall on FengCheng Second Road.

This is really hard to find because it’s not marked properly on Google but in real life it’s the shopping mall next to the Marriott Xi’an North (which is not where it claims to be on Google maps, but is exactly where it claims on Apple maps, another reason to use Apple maps in Xi’an). Oh, my, goodness, if you can find it, you absolutely have to see the terrarium shop, it sells terraria like nothing you have ever seen before. Basically, some artistic masters have created miniature ecosystems complete with rockeries, waterfalls, bonsai trees, plant life and ponds with tiny living fish in them. If I hadn’t been moving away from China four weeks after my last trip to Xi’an, I would have bought one and had it shipped to our apartment in Changzhou for sure! The children’s bookshop on the top floor of this mall is fabulous, too. Pregnancy-friendly activity.

giant fish terrarium xi'an china mama adventure

10. Grab some street food on Muslim Street… maybe.

This is last on my list for very good reason as I have a controversial opinion on it compared to other westerners. Lately, this has become so touristy, and the food hygiene is not good.

Everyone I know who ate there in the past year was stuck on the loo for days, and you cannot readily get Imodium (loperamide) in Xi’An (although they will sell you creosote tablets at most of the traditional Chinese pharmacies… they were sort of effective, but not as good as Imodium).

Avoid eating anything here if you are pregnant or otherwise delicate of digestion. Severe diarrhea can cause miscarriage.

But do go there to soak up the atmosphere and buy cheap non-food souvenirs in the side streets; even if you’re eighty, this area will make you feel like a twenty-year-old backpacker when you walk down the street.

For excellent and authentic modern Chinese dining, choose one of the fantastic restaurants in a shopping mall instead (I 10/10 recommend the eateries in Starry Street mall), which is how all the locals eat. Don’t make the mistake of thinking because the customers at the stalls in Muslim Street are all Chinese, that they are locals. China is a huge, beautiful country with a lot to see, the Chinese year offers a lot of time off for holidays and hardworking Chinese residents love nothing better than a good staycation.

And a few things I wish I’d had time to see:

  1. The Giant Wild Goose Pagoda
  2. Little Goose Pagoda and Gardens
  3. Tang West Market Museum in Datang Xishi (on Xishi Bei Luo, which on Google maps is half-translated to Xishi North Street).
  4. Shaanxi TV tower, because it looks a lot like the Shanghai pearl tower.
  5. Shaanxi History museum beside the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda.
  6. Tang Paradise Gardens around the corner from the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda.
  7. Qu Jiang Chi Yi Zhi Gong Yuan (aka Quijiang Chi Relic Park), just below Tang Paradise Gardens (see a potential entire travel day you could spend in this area? I got quite bad asthma during my last 3 months in China as I was heavily pregnant and the pollution disagreed with me so I was not up to walking very far and had to miss out on this amazing part of Xi’an on our second visit).

We spent a total of 10 days in Xi’an across two visits, and it wasn’t enough time to even scratch the surface of what this fab city has to offer, and yet we saw very few westerners beyond the main sites, whisked between the big tourist attractions by buses! This is one city that’s crying out for off-the-beaten-track independent exploration adventure travel and like all of China, it’s a very safe city, although some people are very surprised to see westerners walking around because most just go on coach tours and never see the real China! Go there and walk around, taking in the surroundings and seeing what modern Chinese city life is really like.

Have you been to Xi’an? Did you see any of the things on my wish list? Let me know in the comments!