Xi’an and the Terracotta Warriors

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.

[ptcPhoto filename=”XianFans.jpg” title=”Fans” caption=”Chinese fans in the Muslim Quarter.” position=”center”]

[ptcPhoto filename=”XianFood.jpg” title=”Street Food” caption=”Street food in the making.” position=”center”]

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.

[ptcPhoto filename=”TerracottaWarriors-4.jpg” title=”Pit One” caption=”After thousands of years in the dark, the Warriors now greet millions of visitors every year.” position=”center”]

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.

[ptcPhoto filename=”XianSam1.jpg” title=”Weapons” caption=”At one time they all would have had weapons in their hands.” position=”center”]

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.

[ptcPhoto filename=”XianFarmer.jpg” title=”Farmer” caption=”We didn’t, and had to settle for this photo of his photo.” position=”center”]

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.

[ptcPhoto filename=”TerracottaWarriors-9.jpg” title=”Head” caption=”These guys need a lot of glue.” position=”center”]
[ptcPhoto filename=”TerracottaWarriors-7.jpg” title=”Headless” caption=”They used to be painted in bright pigments that made them look even more realistic.” position=”center”]
[ptcPhoto filename=”TerracottaWarriors-8.jpg” title=”Title” caption=”Their height signified rank – the tallest were generals.” position=”center”]

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.

[ptcPhoto filename=”TerracottaWarriors-1.jpg” title=”Archer” caption=”His short stature may have saved him from being crushed when the pit caved in.” position=”center”]

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.

[ptcPhoto filename=”TerracottaWarriors-2.jpg” title=”Close up” caption=”Each soldier is different from the next.” position=”center”]

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.

[ptcPhoto filename=”TerracottaWarriors-11.jpg” title=”Line” caption=”The Emperor’s tomb is nearby, but has yet to be opened.” position=”center”]

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.

[ptcPhoto filename=”TerracottaWarriors-3.jpg” title=”Hoax?” caption=”A massive schvindel?” position=”center”]

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.

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