Many tourists that head to China stick to the Great Wall and Beijing area, especially those on a short time frame. We decided, as we usually do, to try to pack in as much as possible during our adventure to China, not really knowing when and if we will ever make it back. The group agreed that it would be interesting to try to fit in a visit to Xi’an (pronounced shee-ahn), a city in what would be the “heart” of China’s “rooster” shape. Xi’an is famous for the Terracotta Warriors, which attract millions of tourists annually. This year, that included us.
Xi’an is nearly 600 miles southwest of Beijing, and requires either a long drive, or in our case, an overnight train. The train turned out to be a bit more cost effective than air travel, particularly because it saved us two nights of lodging costs. This meant we changed hands from our Beijing hotel to our Great Wall tour company to the overnight train and then to another guide in Xi’an – all in a mere 72 hours. As you might imagine, there were a lot of emails and pre-trip logistics planning that made all of this happen smoothly.
We used a very flexible tour company called Odyssey to help book our Xi’an excursion. My contacts there were really helpful in setting up exactly what we were looking for: a quick but comprehensive non-charter-bus day tour. Odyssey handled our train tickets, personally delivering them to our hotel the first night in Beijing, and arranged for our guide to pick us up on arrival in Xi’an.
The train cars were a lot like the ones in Vietnam, with four beds to a cabin/room. The ones in China were a bit cleaner, and a bit more comfortable, but then again, we didn’t actually sleep overnight in Vietnam. The group had differing opinions on comfort level, and I am admittedly a very hard sleeper, so take my thoughts with a grain of salt.
Upon arrival in Xi’an, we met our guide, Peter, who first took us to the McDonald’s across the street. Though the train attendants had come around with food options, we stuck with our pre-made oatmeal packets. However, after 2 days of hiking, we were thrilled to see the golden arches for some “normal” (read: hot, Western) food to start the day. We had a nice little compact van to ride around the city and explore the sites on a damp and chilly October day. Oddly, our first stop of the day was not the Terracotta Warriors, but a shop that manufactures replicas of the warriors.
Outside you could become a clay warrior for a moment, certainly solidifying your tourist status – as if being foreign wasn’t obvious enough.
The walk through of the shop was actually pretty neat, seeing the molds used and the final shaping of the individual warriors. There were some other items for sale, including beautiful wooden jewelry boxes and traditional painted screens, as well as little zodiac ceramic statues, including mine, having been born in the year of the dragon.
The large replicas are manufactured in pieces, as you can see below, and you could also purchase a horse and chariot set to accompany your warrior(s). Horse and chariot sets were also part of the original terracotta statues found in the tomb with all the warriors, which we would see later.
It blew my mind to think of the sheer number of small-scale imitation warriors that must be produced here each year to sell to tourists. These aren’t even the real thing, nor is this shop very close to the actual location of the real thing. So I can only imagine that the amount of money tourism brings to this economy is staggering.
And yes, we bought some warriors for our bookshelf. Before actually laying eyes on the real ones.
First, the fake ones, then it was off to see the “real” deal. Going into it, I think most of us were aware that there are conspiracy theories about whether the Terracotta Warriors are legitimate or a rouse by the Chinese government to increase tourism. A hoax. Little did we know that our analysis would raise a significant number of questions as well.
The story goes that a peasant farmer named Yang Zhifa was digging a well back in 1974, and discovered fragments of a terracotta soldier. Not long after, found the tomb of the first emperor of the Qin Dynasty, dating back to 200 BC. Inside this massive tomb was an army of more than 8,000 clay warriors along with horses and chariots, all individually created with different facial features, attire and positions within the “army”.
When we arrived at the site, our first activity option was to go in the bookstore and purchase a book to be signed by the farmer who discovered the pits containing the warriors. Oddly enough, the farmer was only 29 at the time of discovery. Since the government owns all land in China, the farmer did not stand to profit much from his discovery. He was given a small cash reward and a permanent job signing autographs for tourists for the rest of his life.
The first of the oddities started to set in – why, in a culture that so values age hierarchy, why wasn’t his father or grandfather credited with the discovery? Presumably they were farmers in the area too. Other reports have said Mr. Yang was a peasant farmer living on a co-op at the time. Why weren’t the farm leaders granted the spotlight? Still other reports say multiple farmers were involved in the discovery. What happened to them? …Perhaps the government needed one young fellow who could help sell the whole idea and sign autographs for many decades to come? Maybe. Maybe not.
Wandering into the first pit, swallowed up by (small-ish) crowds of other tourists, we soon got the scope of just how many warriors there are.
So. Many. Warriors.
As we started to learn more information from our guide, the skeptical questions kept coming. For instance, how did a site THIS massive and this pivotal to Chinese culture go almost undocumented in ancient texts? Based on my admittedly feeble research on the subject, I could only find one ancient author who generically described a large tomb built in the same dynasty.
And, is it really feasible that a reported 700,000 residents of ancient Xi’an – 75% of the population at the time – were all employed to create these statues? Could a city survive on only 25% of its residents to feed, clothe, and otherwise support life?
Fundamental questions aside, it is still an incredible site to see, especially if you take for fact all the information given by the posted signs and your guide. When we start to talk about the restoration of the statues, though, more uncertainties come to light.
The warriors, again, were discovered in 1974. Aside from the oddity that it took so darn long for them to find this (ok, I get it, it was underground), questions arise about what happened once it was found. Reports say that once the tomb was opened to fresh air, the ornate painted colors that once adorned all of these soldiers quickly “evaporated”(??) somehow.
I grant the fact that the technology of 1974 was very different than current day, but wouldn’t someone see this and say, “Hey wait, guys, let’s make sure we preserve this thing and get an expert out here!” Not to mention, a few select soldiers had been well preserved to show this color that mysteriously fades within minutes of exposure to fresh air. Hmmm.
Then there is the question about obtaining said expert(s). It’s hard to believe that nowhere on God’s green earth was there an expert who could be brought in to preserve this paint before it all magically vanished.
Furthermore, many of the warriors were found in pieces – I think because a subsequent emperor raided the tomb. This again begs the question of how it was forgotten until 1974, but put that aside for a moment.
The restoration experts are painstakingly putting the pieces back together, which takes on average 3 months. Given that restoration began in 1974, based on the number of restored warriors at this time, the guys calculated that an average number of four people have been working to restore the statues at any given time. Why in a country of 1 billion people, are there only an average of four people working on this? Certainly international archaeologists and art history experts could assist as well.
Still, the incredible details of the warriors is undeniable. What a sight they would have been in full-color glory. Perhaps one of the sealed pits, one of which theoretically contains the emperor’s body, will someday reveal itself when China gets the money.
So went the tale of exploring China’s Terracotta Warriors. Would I go out of my way to see them had I known the information above? Perhaps, but I can’t say for sure. I am by no means an expert on the subject and more diligent study could probably answer some of these questions more definitively.
One thing I can say, though, is that despite the cold, we thoroughly enjoyed the next activity: traversing the old city walls of Xi’an on tandem yellow bicycles.
Notice that somehow all the guys ended up on the front of the bikes.
Inside the old city walls are many old buildings that still serve as housing for local residents as well as the cool gold-roofed temple you see above. Definitely an eye catching sight on a dreary day.
I’m pretty sure tandem biking, like tandem kayaking, could quickly drive a wedge into a relationship if you let it (coughJacobcough), but we got along pretty well. 😉
You guessed it, poorly-timed group jumping photo required:
J-Mar sets the timer as we again all argue with him about when to jump. The camera eventually proves him right, as usual.
But, we did actually get some good ones. Guess it just took us until the last day of the trip to get our act together.
I’m just proud of the amount of air and ninja-ness I got in that last one. A for effort. J-Mar’s favorite is the one where he obnoxiously took the spotlight with his ninja-ness.
We forgot to bust out the GoPro on the wall, so we only had a few iPhone clips to work with. Unfortunately this means the footage is really shaky. After a few hours of attempted editing with mixed success in stabilization, I have finally succumbed to the reality that the video below will ruin all of your eyes, so please, whatever you do, don’t play it full screen.