Eager to get out of Beijing, we hopped a high-speed train over to Xi’an in the Shaanxi Province. The walled part of the old city has a nice little shopping district called the Muslim Quarter where you can sample all kinds of halal street food and shop for handicrafts.
But the real reason to visit Xi’an is the Terracotta Army. It’s located about an hour outside of town, making it an easy day trip. Upon arriving we headed to pit one straightaway. Of the four pits that you can enter, it is by far the most remarkable. We were taken aback by the sight of 6,000 Warriors all lined up in formation.
The Terracotta Warriors were built in the third century BCE by laborers and craftsmen directed by China’s first Emperor, Qin Shi Huang. The army was meant to protect Qin in his afterlife, so the soldiers were built with horses and sophisticated weapons.
They were covered in sixteen feet of dirt until 1974 when they were rediscovered by farmers digging a well in rural Shaanxi. One of the farmers wrote a book about the experience and now hangs out in the gift shop as a local celebrity. You can meet him and take his photo if you make a purchase.
Around the back of the excavation site you can see Warriors in various stages of restoration. Archaeologists are still uncovering more and more remnants and piecing them together in what must be the world’s most complicated jigsaw puzzle.
To learn more, check out the Shaanxi History Museum located inside the city. It’s a free museum but we ended up spending something like two hours standing outside in the heat waiting to get in. They only let two groups enter daily rather than cycling people through, making the whole experience rather painful. Once you’re inside, though, you can see the Kneeling Archer – the only Warrior that was found in one piece.
If you decide to brave the crowds I’d recommend going to the museum first. Once you’ve seen the pits you won’t be that impressed with what’s on display here. But you can definitely get much closer to the Warriors here than at the main excavation site and get a sense of how detailed they are.
It should be noted that some conspiracy theorists believe the Warriors are an elaborate hoax set up by the Chinese government to lure in tourists. It is true that they were discovered right when China was first opening its doors to Western visitors.
Skeptics are also quick to point out that no other terracotta works have survived in such good condition for two thousand years and that piecing them back together into what we see today would be an impossibility. Furthermore, legend has it that in order to keep the army a secret, Emperor Qin had all 700,000 builders put to death. But no mass grave sites have been found anywhere in the vicinity.
We like to believe they’re authentic, though. If so, they paint an extraordinary picture not only of an Emperor’s extreme sense of self-importance, but also of ancient arts, belief systems, and ingenuity.