The Magnificent Terracotta Army of Emperor Qin

2 Jun

In 1974 the peasant farmer Zhifa stumbled upon an army of life-size terracotta warriors buried under the earth as he dug a well on his family’s land located on the outskirts of Xian. Upon this discovery the hero farmer did what any good Chinese citizen would do and reported his findings to local Government officials. The Bureaucracy quickly mobilised historians and archaeologists who had a field day digging up and piecing together the broken statues and the marvelous mysteries of their origins. These experts concluded that the 8000-strong terracotta army was created under the orders of China’s first Emperor Qin and entombed in his mauseleum when he died in 209BC to afford him protection in the afterlife.

In the early 1980s Emperor Qin’s magnificent army of terracotta warriors went on display to foreign dignitaries and paying members of the public at the site where they were originally found. Xian has appeared on every tourist’s ‘must see in China’ list ever since.

To see the Terracotta Warriors was the main reason that Alex and I visited Xian. Although the City is apparently one of China’s best connected by air, it is a long way from anywhere by train. Feeling a little bit grumpy on the sixteen-hour long rail journey to Xian from Chengdu I thought to myself that this bit of history better be worth the bloody effort. I was particularly sceptical of the Warriors’ ability to impress after a traveler I met in Chengdu told me that he was disappointed by these relics. He explained that entry tickets were expensive and actually seeing the ancient army with his own eyes didn’t prove to be any more exciting than looking at their photographs in glossy coffee-table books.

It was cold and raining on the day we set off to see the Warriors with our new Irish friends Dermit and Aedemar, which further dampened my spirits (get the pun?). Although we got lost on the way to Xian’s huge North Train Station, it was very easy to find the public tourist bus that leaves from here every twenty minutes to the Terracotta Warriors.

When we arrived we found a theme-park like atmosphere which seems to characterise the majority of China’s historical and environmental attractions. For no clear reason most vendors sold dog and cat furs in addition to miniature terracotta armies at the hundreds of stalls that lined the walkway from the main bus stop / car-park to the entry of the Warrior site. We were certain that one of the pelts had belonged to an Alsatian. These bizarre souvenirs were so awful that I would have liked to buy a couple as funny presents for my animal-loving friends. However in addition to the impracticalities of carting-around such gifts, I noted that said friends may not share my sense of humour in this instance and refrained from purchase on this occasion.

Three pits full of Terracotta Warriors are open to tourists at the site. On the advice of Dermit we saw the smallest pit (No. 3) first, and saved the biggest and most impressive pit (No. 1) last.

Fortunately the first thought that jumped into my head when I entered pit No.3 was ‘Wow! How could anyone be unimpressed by this?’ I stood staring with my mouth wide open at this truly awesome sight, absorbing what was before me. On one side of the pit, the Terracotta Warriors lay broken in partially-buried pieces, as damaged as they were when re-discovered in the 20th Century. You see, in his lifetime Emperor Qing was an effective but fierce and inhumane ruler. Soon after his death peasants rebelled against the Emperor’s successors and broke into his tomb with the intention of destroying it. After stealing valuables and smashing the Terracotta Warriors in a symbolic ‘screw you’, the peasants set fire to the mauseleum. On the other side of the Pit, the Terracotta Warriors stood pieced together by archaeologists, standing as proudly as they had when initially interred. Our guide Jao Ping, whom we we contracted at the entry to the park, told us that the soldiers in this Pit captains in this Pit were Officers, and were standing opposite each other as if engaged in a war strategy conference.

At Pit No. 2 we were able to get close to four warriors encased in glass. It was amazing to see the detail of each. When I finally stood at Pit No.1 I stopped myself from making the mistake of so many of the tourists that surrounded me; that is seeing the magnificent army only through the lens (or LCD screen) of a camera. Surely one of the most widely known facts about the Terracotta Warriors is that each individual statue is unique. With this in mind I tried to focus on the hairstyles, facial features, dress, armor, height and pose that distinguished each figure.

I was surprised to learn that over thirty years after they were first discovered, archeologists still continue the painstakingly tedious work of recovering the Terracotta Warriors today. To put it in Donald Rumsfeld’s worlds, as far as the pits go “there are known unknowns and unknown unknowns”; an unknown number of Warriors are still to be removed from large sections of Pits No. 2 and 3 that are slowly being dug up. Who knows how many other Pits full of treasure remain buried in the fields surrounding the identified pits. Looking on the bright side, if we return to Xian in 20 years there may be more to see.

I found it entertaining that Dermit (Irish) was incredibly excited about the merchandise on sale at the tourist site. He seemed to be intrigued by the true to size replicas of the Warriors were on sale for 18,000 yuan, not including postage which would surely cost a fortune. Earlier Dermit had bought three 50cm tall warriors for 100 yuan and interrogated our guide about whether this was a good purchase. Jao Ping explained that the cheap replicas were of dubious quality and that Dermit should have bought an official replica made at the tourist site. These cost a small fortune but come with a certificate of authenticity. Dermit persisted – was it a good price? The guide used a metaphor of buying Nike shoes to get his point across; one may purchase fake Nikes at a market for a very good price, but their quality is not so good. A pair of Nikes bought at a genuine retailer, on the other hand, last for ages, but they are expensive. He then conceded that yes, 100 yuan for three little statues was a good price. Dermit was also keen to buy a photoshopped image of his head on the shoulders of a terracotta warrior. Alex and I conspired with his girlfriend to talk him out of wasting his money. It would have been an amusing, if ridiculous, souvenir. I hope he doesn’t hate us forever for denying it to him.

As one of China’s four ancient cities Xian is home to a number of other important historical buildings inside the Ming City walls. The Bell Tower and the Drum Tower in the middle of the old City are impressive structures. It is great to hear the ancient heart of Xian continue to beat as the sound of the old drums echo through the bustling modern City centre.

The Big Goose Pagoda in the South of Xian is definitely worth visiting. The main attraction here is one of the largest musical fountains in Asia. What is a musical fountain I hear you ask? Imagine a huge public square, filled with a great number of water jets. Huge speakers surrounding the square blast out deafening tunes including Beethoven’s 9th and Chinese symphonies. Jets of water spurt out of the ground at an astounding variety of angles and twist and turn as though they were dancing to the music. More entertaining than the fountain itself are the crowds that flock to watch it. An ideal spot to people-watch if that is your thing.

While in Xian we couchsurfed with Amy Edwards, a VSO volunteer from London. Amy was a very generous host, giving us her second bedroom for two nights and trusting us with a key to her nice apartment. Amy thankfully has an adventurous attitude towards food and was able to make great suggestions for eating in this part of China. She highly recommended we visit the Muslim Quarter for dinner and we eagerly agreed.

The Muslim Quarter was certainly a highlight of Xian. The Great Mosque at the heart of the community is one of the oldest in China. To avoid persecution Xian’s Muslims designed the building to conform with local Chinese architecture so it would be less conspicuous so the building itself isn’t very exciting. Besides selling the biggest range of souveniers in Xian at the best prices, the Muslim Quarter is the place to find the best street food in town. On one glorious evening Alex and I tasted tasty Xian lamb kebabs called ‘Ro Ja Mo’. This translates directly to ‘meet between bread’ and we were told to remember ‘Roger Moore’ as not to forget the name of this local speciality. ‘Pa Mo’, a thick soup eaten with huge chunks of bread soaked into the bowl, is one of the most famous dishes in Xian which we also tried in the Muslim Quarter. Luckily we only ordered one bowl between us because the meal was quite filling. Finally we tried a kind of ‘plof’ / pilaf, a rice meat dish cooked like a risotto. The woman we bought it from was very amused that we came to her stall at the back of the Muslim Quarter.

After dinner we set out to find tasty deserts. First we tried little glutinous rice cakes served dipped in sweet jam and nuts, which gave them a lolly flavour. We tried a small slice of a yellow cake that was being sold and eaten everywhere, but it didn’t live up to expectations. The main part of the cake, which was pudding-like in texture, tasted strongly of rice, and the chunks of what I thought were fruit in the cake had no flavour. Amy later reassured me that this was an accurate account of Persimon cakes famous in Xian, and she couldn’t understand either why people liked them. Lastly we bought a selection of sweets for 10 yuan, mainly different types of nutty brittle and sesame snaps. Luckily we had someone (Amy) to share these with as a late night snack, and what was left over we finished on the train to Nanjing.

The last meal of note in our Xian eating adventures was a breakfast we enjoyed at stalls outside Amy’s apartment away from the tourist part of the City. We really enjoyed what I will call the Shaanxi crunchy omlette. This consisted of a large round eggy pancake cooked in front of us, covered in a chili paste with traces of meat and a handful of fresh coriander. The omlette is then rolled up around some broken pieces of crispy-fried bread sticks. The contrast between the textures and flavours is maximised when you take a big bite of the hot omlette wrapped up like kebab. When we sat down to eat these a lady at the next stall brought us over two big bowls of soft tofu and mushroom soup. These were only 2 yuan each, and tasted great.


Bus 306 from North Railway station to Terracotta warriors costs 7 yuan each way. The ride takes about 45 minutes.

Entry into the site costs 90 yuan for adults or 45 yuan with a valid student card. Make sure you buy your tickets when you get off the bus in the carpark, before you walk all the way to the entrance gates.

Tours to the site are a rip-off coting 200 yuan upwards including entry, transport and guide. The main disadvantage of tours is that you are rushed through the site and not able to visit at your own pace.

If you do want a guide, their services are available at entrance to the site. We paid 50 yuan for a few hours of a guide’s time and were not at all rushed.

It is hard getting onward train tickets from Xian, especially to Shanghai and Beijing. Book these as soon as you arrive to avoid missing out on sleeper seats or having to hang around the city for longer than you planned.

2 Responses to “The Magnificent Terracotta Army of Emperor Qin”

  1. Mum June 3, 2010 at 12:34 am #

    Hi Kristie
    I have just read your latest entries. They are great. Very funny about the ear cleaners, I might have to take Dad there soon. Do they remove hair as well?
    Your food adventures are interesting too. I bet Ash will be glad you didn’t buy her a dog fur!
    Dermot sounds funny. I would have like to see the photoshop picture, you guys are spoilsports.
    Love Mum

  2. Michael June 6, 2010 at 12:42 pm #

    Are pitching for a job as a travel writer Kristie?! Very entertaining, and love the helpful tips 🙂 Hope you and Alex are having a great time – it certainly sounds like it. BTW, does the ABC News website work in China? Just wondering, given the coverage they get sometimes like with Stern Hu.

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