We've been travelling south from Beijing to a historic, provincial town called Pingyao and then on to Xi'an to see the Terra Cotta warriors. The earliest Chinese dynasties were based in Xi'an and this region.
We took a hostel tour of the Terra Cotta warriors, complete with a stop to a tourist restaurant/trinket store and the Terra Cotta Warrior Factory/trinket store. It appears that Chinese tours are not complete without mandatory walks through maze-like (think IKEA) trinket stores. We learned most of our Terra Cotta Warrior background information from the video we watched in the car on the way there. This was a super-cheap hostel tour so we can forgive our tour guide Zsa Zsa for not being all-knowing.
A Qin dynasty emporer had the warriors built in front of his tomb so that he'd have a military force in his after life. He was a bit obsessed with his military, having used it with a large degree of brutality to become the first emporer to unify China. He put the mock army in front of his tomb so he'd have a military force in the after-life. It seemed like the emporer wasted a huge amount of resources on the warriors (money, labor and human life - he had all of his laborers killed when the project was done). But if he built them for eternal protection then I guess it seemed like a good idea to him (historical note: his empire fell apart a few years after he died). Other emporers include mock armies in their tomb but this particular set is massive in terms of the number, size and individuality of the warriors.
Xi'an itself was more attractive and cosmopolitan than Beijing, but it's still a big city. It was an ancient capital of several Chinese dynasties and the start of the Silk Road. It's surrounded by the old city walls, anochronystically juxtaposed against large modern buildings inside the walls. The highlight is the charming Muslim quarter, with narrow, stone-paved streets lined with outdoor shops and street food vendors.
The Great Mosque in this neighborhood looks like a Chinese temple complex and is hardly discernible as a mosque except for the beautfil Arabic Koran inscriptions all over the wooden walls inside the mosque.
This is also the neighborhood for great street food in Xi'an and we had Yang Rou Pao Mo 3 times: goat broth with noodles, goat, and a thick, unleavened bread in tiny pieces crumbled into the soup. I'm not sure why it was so good but I think I will try to make a goat broth when I get home.
Our hostel in Xi'an was happening and busy. Everyone we met made us look like small-time travellers. It's awesome to meet other travellers from all over the world, it's like travelling to all of their countries for free. There was a good blend of people with real jobs as well as young, aimless travellers. The hostel was clean but loud at night from the people leaving the bar downstairs. I guess we're old farts at this point since we were trying to sleep instead of getting in on the action. Much to my chagrin Steve encouraged the loud-aimless-18-year-old crowd by giving them our extra, free drink tickets on our way out, instead of to the more "mature" travellers.
Before we got to Xi'an we spent a day and night in Pingyao. Pingyao has an old, walled city that is extremely well preserved and the buildings are famous for their traditional courtyard architecture. For a city that looks, smells and feels like coal dust, it's surprisingly charming. Historically it was a provincial capital and many of the old buildings are now setup as museums were you can learn about what made Pingyao such a great city in it's time, including the armed escort service and the country's (and maybe world's) first draft bank, both oriented around allowing people to trade with other locations without running a risk of being robbed on the road. Pingyao is more slow-paced than Beijing and Xi'an, and there are hostels at every corner with restaurants, bars, etc., so you never have to worry about making any decisions. It's a nice, mellow alternative to the bigger Chinese cities.