Maybe 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:
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.
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.)
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
. . . 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.