By David Bowden
IT'S hard to imagine just how large an area the famous Terracotta Warriors and Horses of Xi'an cover.
Think of a huge enclosed sports stadium and you start to appreciate the archaeological significance of the 7,000 life-size, pottery soldiers, horses, chariots and weapons located here beneath a high roof.
Even more amazing is that what is considered to be the eighth wonder of the world was only unearthed by accident in 1974.
The discovery created one of the greatest archaeological frenzies the academic world has ever seen and now these terracotta masterpieces dating back some 2,200 years ago are on display for all to see.
Like the Terracotta Warriors, which is a work-in-progress with more treasures continually being unearthed, Xi'an is an evolving city.
Recorded in the history books as eastern most point of the fabled Silk Road, Xi'an was once the ancient capital of China and a gateway for travellers arriving and leaving in camel caravans for thousands of years.
Xi'an, the capital of Shaanxi Province, is now a starting point for tourists curious about the ancient Silk Road.
The Terracotta Warriors, which are located just outside the city, are listed as a Unesco accredited World Heritage Site and are the main draw for most visitors.
There are, however, many other attractions in this culturally diverse location. For example, the nearby site of the Tomb of Qin Shihuang, who was the first emperor of the united Chinese people, was hidden from sight for over 2,000 years.
Indiana Jones wannabes could spend all day here and barely scratch the ancient surface of the terracotta sentinels.
Plan on allocating at least three hours as seeing the figures often requires a bit of jostling during peak periods.
Xi'an's second-most popular attraction is Banpo Neolithic Village, which is the earliest known agricultural settlement in China.
There is evidence to suggest that the site was farmed as far back as 4,500BC. Parts of the excavated village are housed under a large hall and there are artefacts on display in the museum.
Don't just rush to Xi'an's archaeological sites and then set off along the Silk Road.
Plan for at least a day's sightseeing in Xi'an. The Great Mosque is another Unesco site situated in downtown Xi'an and exhibits both traditional Chinese and Islamic architecture.
Also visit the Big Wild Goose Pagoda and China's best-preserved city wall that encloses the older parts of the city.
I enjoyed scaling the rickety steps of the pagoda for a good view of the historic heart of Xi'an - there is an additional charge for this on top of the entry fee.
Other places to seek out in the surrounding districts are natural attractions such as Mount Hua, Zhongnan and Taibai.
For a scenic detour, head to the Hukou Waterfall in the Jinxia Grand Canyon. Naturally formed when the Yellow River narrows from over 400m to just 50m, the fall is a spectacular 40m drop that reminds one of water being poured from 'the mouth of a kettle', from which it earns its name - Hukou.
◊ Skip the hotel buffet and beat the crowd to Lintong, 30km from Xi'an, to be at the front gate for the 8am opening of the Terracotta Warriors. To photograph its full enormity, consider using a tripod or adjusting exposure to an ISO reading of more than 800.
◊ If you can withstand the harshness of the Chinese winter, visit Xi'an from Dec to Feb when entrance fees are lower. Average temperatures reaches a low of 0 deg C in winter and a high of 40 deg C in summer from June to August.
◊ At 'official' souvenir shops, slash the quoted price by 90 per cent to get a reasonable base from which to start bargaining.
◊ For travel bookings and enquires, call ASA Holidays at 6303-5333. For international medical assistance, call OCBC Concierge at (65) 6322-2588.
This article was first published in The Straits Times Special. It is produced by the Special Projects Unit, Marketing Division, SPH.