I have always been intrigued by the legend of the Terracotta Army.
The Terracotta Army is a collection of terracotta sculptures depicting the armies of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China. It is a form of funerary art buried with the emperor in 210–209 BCE and whose purpose was to protect the emperor in his afterlife.
The figures, dating from approximately the late third century BCE, were discovered in 1974 by local farmers in Lintong District, Xi’an, People’s Republic of China, Shaanxi province. The figures vary in height according to their roles, with the tallest being the generals. The figures include warriors, chariots and horses. Estimates from 2007 were that the three pits containing the Terracotta Army held more than 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots with 520 horses and 150 cavalry horses, the majority of which remained buried in the pits nearby Qin Shi Huang’s mausoleum. Other terracotta non-military figures were found in other pits, including officials, acrobats, strongmen, and musicians.
Terracotta Army - Wikipedia
The figures, dating from approximately the late third century BCE, were discovered in 1974 by local farmers in Lintong…
On March 15th, I spontaneously flew from Hong Kong to Xi’an, China — the home of the Terracotta Warriors. This would be my second-ever solo international trip (read about my first in Central Vietnam), and my second time in mainland China (over a span of 1 month).
Other than my interest in seeing the Terracotta Warriors, I had no real impetus for visiting Xi’an. Ironically, though, the physical city of Xi’an amazed me in so so many different ways (while the actual archaeological site fell beneath my expectations).
Xi’an, to my surprise at the time, is a booming economy with a growing population of over 12 million people. For context (Americans take note), NYC boasts roughly 9 million people. California (the massive state) reports around 40 million people. Visiting Xi’an was a true reminder of how big (and accelerating) China really is.
My hostel (the Han Tang Inn) arranged for a driver to pick me up from the airport. When I arrived, I quickly signed up for a ‘Terracotta Army Tour’ for the following morning, dropped my bags off in the room, and ventured out into the city.
Completely alone — with no cellular service — I went out with just a map and a naively optimistic attitude.
I walked down the city’s main road, alongside beautiful towers and bustling markets.
I stopped to eat in the Muslim Quarter of Xi’an for what was one of my favorite meals I have ever eaten. While the language barrier posed serious difficulties, I managed to order a few incredible dishes:
I went to sleep soon after eating my body weight in dumplings and spicy dishes.
I woke up the following morning exhausted from exploring and very behind-schedule. I nearly missed my bus (massive thank you to the hostel-worker who knocked on my door!). Oh, and…it was pouring rain outside.
Luckily, I got dressed in seconds and hopped on my bus just-in-time for the half day tour of the Terracotta Army. Our guide was awesome! And led us a small group (about 10 people from all over the world: Italy, India, USA, UK, etc.) to and inside of the site. On the bus ride, I learned a lot about the history of Xi’an.
- The Silk Road starts from Xian City. (source)
- Xian is the birthplace of Chinese civilization. (source)
- The name Xi’an, as it is written in Chinese has a meaning. ‘Xi’ means west and ‘an’ means peace. In full, it is translated as peace in the west. (source)
While I will say that the rain tainted the experience, I’ll add that I was just generally unimpressed by the archaeological site of the warriors. The “pits” are not so much an unbelievable spectacle — like I felt the Great Wall in Beijing or Western Wall in Jerusalem were — but moreso just giant pits of dirt.
One thing I did not know about the Warriors before visiting was that every warrior statue (besides one — the archer) was destroyed — So what you see at the site are restorations of the original monuments.
Can you imagine that? Every statue is in the process of being put back together.
There are many other really interesting nuggets of history that you’ll find while wandering around the site:
Preservation Power Archaeologists have unearthed roughly 40,000 bronze weapons from the terra-cotta pits. From spears to battle axes, crossbows to arrowheads, these exquisitely made pieces have been preserved with the help of a protective chromium coating. Though both the Germans and Americans invented this chrome-plating technology in 1937 and ’50, respectively, it existed in China 2,200 years ago.
Thinking Big When Emperor Qin Shi Huang was just 13 years old, work began on his extravagant tomb. According to Chinese historian Sima Qian’s account, Records of the Grand Historian, more than 700,000 men took 36 years to build the grave. It was one of the Emperor’s great accomplishments, but he is also known for his political and cultural feats: Qin implemented a standard written script, joined the states with canals and roads, unified warring states, considerably advanced metallurgy, standardized weights and measures, built the first version of the Great Wall and then later connected tactical parts of the Great Wall.
Bad Medicine Emperor Qin feared death and is said to have searched frantically for medicine, potions, concoctions — anything that promised everlasting vitality. Allegedly, he sent 8,000 people, including his royal herbalists, to find him a magical elixir. While he awaited a tonic, Qin turned to mercury tablets. As it turns out, the habit is said to have contributed to his death at age 50.
To truly appreciate the magnitude and importance of the Warriors, you must, *I think,* really dive into their history. Though the “views” — to me — were not particularly memorable…the stories were well worth the trip.
If this type of history interests you, I’d recommend watching/reading as much as possible on the subject:
After the tour, I returned to the hostel and met up with a few *new* friends whom I had just met. We planned to explore a few of the remaining sites in the city.
The Drum Tower
The Drum Tower of Xi’an (西安鼓楼), located in the heart of Xi’an in Shaanxi province of China, along with the Bell Tower is a symbol of the city. Erected in 1380 during the early Ming Dynasty, it stands towering above the city center and offers incredible view of Xi’an.
Drum Tower of Xi'an - Wikipedia
On the Drum Tower's first floor, lies a hall which hangs many large drums. Each was decorated with intrinsic and…
The Bell Tower
The Bell Tower - the Geographical Center of Ancient Xian
The Bell Tower in Xian (Xi'an) was built in the XIV century at the intersection of roads that led to the main gate of…
The Fortifications of Xi’an
Similar to other Chinese cities, the ancient city of Xi’an is surrounded by a fortified wall. As a tourist, you can actually walk along (or even bike) the top of the wall. I was visiting shortly after the Chinese New Year — which I spent in Hong Kong — so there were still decorations left over!
Giant Wild Goose Pagoda
Our final stop for the night was at the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda — I would highly recommend visiting during a fountain show (that I believe they have every night). It reminded me of the Bellagio’s fountain show — on steroids.
We returned to the hostel shortly after and passed out after a long, tiring day of exploration.
I spent my final day in Xi’an walking around the city-square. As I mentioned previously, I was alone and without a cellular connection for the majority of the trip. You can imagine this would lead to some interesting (and in the moment) frustrating circumstances.
For instance, I randomly walked towards a really popular food market. I’ll emphasize — everything there looked incredible. It took me an embarrassing hour to figure out what to order and another hour to figure out how to pay (turns out you either need AliPay/WeChat Pay or go exchange cash for tokens). But…the frustration was well well worth it —I found some of my favorite food from all of abroad! And had some funny laughs trying to figure things out.
I spent the rest of my time similarly walking around city — running into malls, markets, and restaurants:
I saw a lot of “bike pollution” as well:
And…that was my trip to Xi’an! I hopped on a flight back to Hong Kong that night and called it a weekend.
Overall, it was an awesome adventure — traveling alone was, again, a very interesting experience. Would recommend the trip!