A 2,200-year-old stone army and more: a brief visit to Xi’an, China

20160527_132453-01Maybe you can’t take it with you, but Qin Shi Huang (QSH) sure tried. The first emperor of a unified China, QSH directed the construction of thousands of terracotta warriors, assembled to protect him in the afterlife. This stone army — consisting of not only soldiers but also horses and even chariots — was interred with him in a vast necropolis when he departed from the mortal world in 210 or 209 B.C.

Eventually the burial site was lost to history, and it remained no more than the stuff of legend for over two millennia. Then, in 1974, QSH’s terracotta protection force was serendipitously discovered by a group of farmers who were digging for a well in what is today the city of Xi’an. The archaeological site has become a museum complex where you can explore some of the massive pits that have been unearthed, and view the terracotta fighting units arrayed therein.

When I made my first voyage to China in May 2016, an excursion to Xi’an was on the agenda, principally so that I could view the terracotta army — although Xi’an is actually a city of nearly 9 million inhabitants that offers a variety of attractions. Because I was there for one main reason, I hadn’t alotted much time for the city, and consequently I didn’t see very much of Xi’an’s other points of interest. Here’a an account of my activities during my two night stay.

These soldiers are stone-faced

Thousands and thousands of warriors

Beholding the countless warriors arrayed in battle formations in the pits was every bit the bucket-list experience I’d anticipated. Three pits on the site are currently open to the public for viewing, although the first pit contains the greatest number of intact soldiers. (In the other two pits, far fewer soldiers are in good condition, and many are currently undergoing restoration to the extent possible. Considering that the warriors are over 2,200 years old, it’s remarkable how many of them have survived their march through time unscathed.) Some additional pits, beyond the three that ordinary tourists can enter, have been excavated but aren’t — at least as yet — included in the public tour.

Here are some glimpses of what I witnessed in the publicly accessible pits:

A panoramic view inside the first pit.

A panoramic view inside the first pit.

A close-up inside the first pit.

A close-up inside the first pit.

A view in profile.

A view in profile.

The site of the well where a farmer discovered the archaeological site in 1974 after the warriors had been buried for over 2,000 years.

The site of the well where farmers discovered the archaeological site in 1974 after the warriors had been buried for over 2,000 years.

Inside the second pit, far fewer soldiers are on display, and restoration work is ongoing.

Inside the second pit, far fewer soldiers are on display, partly due to the condition of that pit’s army; extensive restoration work is ongoing.

Detail of some of the restoration work in pit 2.

Detail of some of the restoration work in pit 2. The rebuilt army should provide QSH with much better protection in the afterworld.

For some reason, the powers that be don’t want you to photograph the top-secret repair work being conducted in this location in pit 2. But it takes more than a sign to stop the H-Bomb!

Inside pit 3, there's far less to see. Here are some of that pit's contents.

Inside pit 3, there’s far less to see, even as compared to pit 2. Here are some of pit 3’s contents.

Detail of four of the warriors in the preceding photo, who originally held reins linking them to the horses in front of them.

Detail of four of the warriors in the preceding photo, who originally held reins linking them to the horses in front of them.

Some of the soldiers in pit 3 are in truly terrible condition -- thus proving that war is hell.

Some of the soldiers in pit 3 are in truly terrible condition — thus proving that war is hell.

Chariots to the underworld

Not all of the terracotta soldiers were expected to navigate the realm of the afterlife on foot. Buried among them in QSH’s tomb complex were some chariots, most of which were constructed of wood. Wood not being the most eternal of materials, a large percentage of the chariots have long since rotted away, just like QSH himself. (Well, okay, we’re not sure of the state of QSH’s earthly remains, as his actual tomb has yet to be opened, and we don’t know whether his corpse was embalmed. However, it’s likely that he has, in fact, decomposed.) Anyway, some of the chariots were fashioned from the much more durable material of bronze and therefore haven’t decayed; and in an exhibition hall nearby to the pits, you can gaze upon a couple of surviving examples of horse-and-chariot combos that were excavated at the site.

One of the wooden chariots in the museum.

A horse-and-chariot set in the exhibition hall.

Another horse-drawn chariot in the museum.

Another bronze horse-drawn chariot in the exhibition hall.

More fabulous finds await the future archaeologists who will unseal QSH’s tomb (assuming that the current objections and obstacles to excavating it can be satisfactorily addressed.) According to contemporaneous accounts, that tomb is much more than a mere burial chamber; it’s a veritable underground palace, laden with abundant treasures. In addition, it’s believed that the ground in the vicinity still holds thousands more terracotta soldiers beyond the multitudes that have already been found.

But there’s no need to await such further discoveries before planning your own trip to QSH’s final resting place. While the Great Wall gets all the love among Chinese landmarks (and not without justification), the terracotta army is equally deserving of a visit — particularly since Xi’an is quite easy to get to from Beijing. The two cities are just 906 kilometres (563 miles) apart as the crow flies. Flying time for a human in an airplane is only about two hours, depending on direction; alternatively you can zip between Beijing and Xi’an via bullet train, a journey roughly six hours in duration.

Around the wall

Encircling the old city at the centre of Xi’an is the City Wall, also known as the fortifications of Xi’an, which stands some 40 feet tall and loops around for nearly 8.5 miles (14 kilometres). As with the vastly more extensive Great Wall of China, you can hike along the top of Xi’an’s City Wall. It’s a fun way to get exercise while gaining diverse views of Xi’an. Well, unless you’re driven in the tram (more on that below), in which case you still get the views but you don’t get any exercise. (In case, you’re wondering, construction of the wall dates to the 14th century — during the Ming Dynasty — and the wall actually incorporates elements of an earlier fortification that was initially built during the Tang Dynasty in the 7th century.)

One of the gates that provides access to the top off the City Wall.

The Changle (east gate), one of the quartet of gates that affords access to the top of the City Wall.

On a foggy late afternoon, I gained access by climbing the staircase at the Changle gate on the wall’s eastern side. Once atop the wall, several options for traversing it presented themselves. While of course you can walk it, you can also rent a bicycle; or you can do what I did, which is to grab a seat on the tram. (The purchase of a ticket is required to board the tram.)

One of the trams that ferry people around the top of Xi'an's city wall.

One of the trams that ferry people around the top of Xi’an’s City Wall.

Well, to be more accurate, I partially rode the tram.

My plan was to let the tram transport me roughly halfway around the wall, to the Anding gate (the west gate). The reason I wanted to do that: from the base of Anding gate, it’s a quick taxi ride to the Kaiyuang Gate, which is not part of the wall but is said to have been the eastern terminus of the fabled Silk Road. And being a history buff, I thought it would be cool to visit a site that once served as the beginning of a legendary trade route. But things weren’t fated to go exactly according to plan.

A view along the top of the City Wall.

A view along the top of the City Wall.

Upon reaching the Anding gate, I disembarked from the tram. Then I descended the staircase at that location, only to discover that the gate was locked for the night and it was therefore impossible to exit from that point. (Apparently, the Anding is locked every day at 5:00 p.m.; and it was slightly past that hour when I reached it.)

I hustled back up the stairs, but the tram was long gone. I was going to have to hoof it to the next gate — a distance of some 3.5 kilometres, or over 2 miles — and hope that that gate (the south gate, also known as the Yongning) was still a viable point of egress. My nightmare scenario involved all of the gates being shut until morning, and my being forced to spend the night atop the City Wall. Admittedly, my information was that the Yongning gate was open much later than the other three; but what if my information was wrong?

Finally, after hustling one-quarter of the way around the wall, I reached the Yongning Gate. I ended up having walked for a greater distance on Xian’s City Wall than I had on the Great Wall a few days earlier.

Approaching the Yongning Gate on the southern portion of Xi'an's city wall as dusk falls.

Approaching the Yongning Gate on the southern portion of Xi’an’s city wall as dusk falls.

Happily, when I descended the stairs at the Yongning Gate, I was able to exit the wall. The Kaiyuang Gate was too out of the way to hit up at this point, particularly in light of how late it had gotten; but at least I knew that I would be sleeping in my hotel room and not on the city wall.

Seeking out comestibles at the night market

As you may recall from my experience in Taipei, I’m a big fan of the night markets in many Asian cities, in which you can find cheap but savoury street food. Xi’an boasts several such night markets. On the advice of a cousin, I checked out the Muslim Quarter Night Market (also commonly known as simply the Muslim night market). I enjoyed my stroll through it, as well as the food I acquired from some of its vendors.

A view inside the Muslim Quarter night market in Xi'an.

A view inside the Muslim Quarter night market in Xi’an.

Another view inside the Muslim Quarter night market.

Another view inside the Muslim Quarter night market.

My single favourite item that I purchased at the Muslim night market was a box of persimmon cakes. (I found it in one of the stores that line that market’s streets, rather than in one of the stalls that dispense street food.) I sought out these cakes on the recommendation of my cousin, and they didn’t disappoint.

When I was finished wandering through the night market, rather than jump in a conventional taxi to my hotel, I was fortunate to find an auto rickshaw. It reminded me of the similar (and similarly adorbs) conveyances I’d enjoyed riding in India a couple of years earlier.

An auto rickshaw in New Delhi, India, seen during my visit to India in 2014.

An auto rickshaw in New Delhi, India, seen during my visit to India in 2014.

. . . but no karaoke

Earlier during my stay in China when I was in Beijing, my hotel’s concierge gave me the contact information for what he characterized as a karaoke bar in Xi’an. Upon my arrival in Xi’an, I was excited to check out that venue, which I expected would serve as the scene for my mainland China karaoke debut. But when I entered the premises, it quickly became clear that I’d been as misinformed as the dude who came to Casablanca for the waters. The place turned out to be just another restaurant with a live band providing the entertainment. I was told, however that if I wished I could pay to perform a song with the band. That’s not karaoke. And yes, I know there’s an event called “live band karaoke” that’s offered at some establishments in the United States; but this wasn’t even that. And in any event, I don’t do live band karaoke, and I don’t even consider it to be real karaoke. (In my view, the essence of karaoke is singing along to a prerecorded backing track.) On that particular evening in Xi’an, I remained at the restaurant and dined on some thoroughly undistinguished victuals before heading out.

Eventually I would succeed in checking off mainland China on my World Karaoke Tour; this occurred whilst I was passing through Beijing again later on during the trip. But it wasn’t happening for me in Xi’an. Still, for the terracotta army alone, Xi’an was a very worthwhile excursion.

Another selfie of me in the gift shop at the archaeological site containing the terracotta army in Xi'an.

Another selfie of me in the gift shop at the archaeological site containing the terracotta army in Xi’an.

Would you like to see the terracotta army?

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Categories: Asia, travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 22 Comments

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22 thoughts on “A 2,200-year-old stone army and more: a brief visit to Xi’an, China

  1. Michael

    H-Bomb, very informative post. My only visit to Xi’an was in 2001 and I’m not sure if I was aware during that trip that it was possible to gain access to the wall. I’ll remedy that during my monthlong trip to China this August, when I’ll be passing thru Xi’an a few times.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Wow, the terra-cotta stone soldiers look like a remarkable scene. They could have provided a powerful backdrop for an epic karaoke session. Something like Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall” or Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • @McCool Travel: More of a remarkable scene in pit 1 than in the other pits, which are more sparsely populated while repair work proceeds. Regardless, I would have been happy to find a karaoke place in Xi’an that had a backdrop of four white walls. ๐Ÿ™‚


  3. Wondering what one man’s obsession could do! So much of rich history! Some day I would like to look into the eyes of one of the warriors there ๐Ÿ™‚ Excellent pics, they have the historic ambience in them.


  4. You got to experience and learn so much history! That’s what’s so great about visiting new places. Great pictures. Hope to make it out here one day!


  5. Very informative post, Harvey. I’ve never been to Xiโ€™an – or China itself – but I’d love to go one day. I’ve always been intrigued by the terracotta army, so it would definitely be an unforgettable experience. It’s so much bigger than I thought as well – you can see how tiny the people standing next to the first pit are compared to the pit. The details on the soliders are quite remarkable too!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Katie @ Zen Life and Travel

    I’ve always been fascinated by the terracota soldiers. I got to see some back in the 80’s when they did a “tour” called Son of Heaven

    Liked by 1 person

    • @Katie: Yes, groups of the soldiers frequently go on tour around the world. I saw some of them at an exhibit in NYC about five years ago, and that’s what first elevated their home site in Xi’an to my bucket list.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Vicki Garside

    I’d love to see the terracotta warriors in real life. Such an impressive endeavor to build so many – and the chariots and horses too! That’s dedication! I think the sheer size of the complex where they are housed would be super impressive.

    Liked by 1 person

    • @Vicki: The size of the complex is definitely impressive, especially when you consider that the complete necropolis is much larger than what you see in the three pits that are open to the public.


  8. I have seen the Terra Cotta warriors, and instead of a tram we rode bikes on the Xian wall. So far, and I still have a lot to see I know, Xian is my favorite Chinese city.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Saying that Xi’an is your favourite Chinese city is saying a lot, considering how many large Chinese cities there are. ๐Ÿ™‚ Have you been to Shanghai? That’s my personal favourite.


  9. I would love to see the Terracotta Army – just think it is such a fascinating site, hard to comprehend but your photos do a great job of helping show what it is like. How interesting – great post!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. sg

    We haven’t made it to Xi’an yet, just Beijing and Shanghai. Looks like such an interesting place to visit, if only for the Terracotta warriors. Strangely, we saw a few terracotta warriors during a visit to Bintan Indonesia, but these of course look much more impressive! Great, comprehensive guide.

    Liked by 1 person

    • @Skye: I think the terracotta warriors are like the Easter Island moai, in that you can run into them in the most unexpected places. One time a few years ago, I saw a moai in a museum in a high-end cemetery in the Los Angeles area.


  11. I would love to see the terracotta army. It looks intimidating from the picture itself. Moreover, the statues are mostly destroyed but it is good that the restoration process is going on. 2200 year old gem!

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I have seem them and they are very impressive! Also, I am fascinated by the story of the emperor’s tomb (learnt new things thanks to your external link), hope it will possible to explore it one day!

    Liked by 1 person

  13. We had a preview of the Terracotta Army in Porto, Portugal of all the places! It was a traveling exhibition, and we were lucky to get an opportunity to catch it while we were in the city. Of course, the real deal would be entirely something else. This would be the primary highlight for me in China.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. gokulr27

    The stone army is a famous artifact in China. A remarkable piece of art. But I won’t want to explore the place alone. Looks kind of creepy.


  15. Loved your story and all the details. I would expect nothing less from my Jeopardy loving friend. ๐Ÿ˜‰ Xiโ€™an would be a dream and I would be right there iwht you getting my selfie in the midst of the terra cotta army. How cool! Glad you enjoyed but I was worried when you were stuck with the gate locked.


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