Xi’an: The Warriors
Right off I need to let you know the Terra Cotta Warriors are not really terra cotta. They are made of a completely different kind of clay called loess and are a much lighter sandy color. Apparently when they were first discovered by farmers in the mid-1970s, National Geographic identified them as terra cotta and in English, the moniker has stuck; in Chinese it’s totally different.
Seeing the warriors is definitely a highlight of the trip, and because I had read quite a bit about them, they were just as I had imagined. They are actually located about an hour outside of Xi’an in the district of Lintong, and we were on the road early in an effort to beat the crowd and have some time alone in the first and largest pit. It was in fact, excellent planning by our Tauck Director to have us there by 8:30 AM and we did, in fact have time to take in the enormity of the site, and its incredible detail and artistry. We also had ample opportunity to get some photos (even though signs say you can’t, you can). The soldiers are actually a little larger than life – averaging about 6’5” in height and definitely represent people from the northern provinces of China.
We already knew westerners were referred to as “big noses” due to the size of the bridge of our nose (considered a desirable feature here), and today we learned about the “rice face” rounder, flatter features from the southern parts of China and the “noodle face” generally belonging to the taller northern Chinese.
The clay army dates back 2,200 years to the reign of Qin Shi Huangdi. Built to guard the emperor’s tomb, the project took hundreds of thousands of workers 36 years to complete, before his death at age 49. The massive tomb complex has barely been excavated, but even so, around 8,000 figures have been found. In addition to the warriors and the famous kneeling archer (housed in the Shaanxi Museum), there are the well-known officers, fat general, horses and even entertainers and administrators.
Pit One is the largest and features 6,000 figures. Archeologists were working at the site while we were there, and we had the opportunity to speak (through a translator) with one of them. Since excavations had revealed remnants of lacquer and color that began dissolving within minutes of being exposed to air, authorities decided to stop work and wait a few years until technology allowed a way to preserve what is found. They are currently working with scientists in Germany and elsewhere to resolve these technical issues.
Pit Two is much smaller, and houses the officers who commanded the stone warriors; Pit Three has more soldiers and horses. Half-size bronze chariots that were uncovered are on display in the exhibition hall. As we progressed the crowds kept growing. It has only been in recent years that the Chinese people have been able to travel, and most of that travel is within their own country. So in a country with 1.5 billion people you can just imagine how popular the ancient and historical sites have become.
Taking in all this history worked up an appetite, and so we headed back into central Xi’an for a dumpling lunch at Dafacheng Restaurant. For the uninitiated, in the northern part of China, dumplings are made of wheat and in the south, dim sum are dumplings made of rice. Today’s dumplings were really wonderful, and my husband and I tried absolutely everything we were served. I can’t say there was anything we didn’t like and it’s hard to pick a favorite; a couple of items packed quit a punch and the sweet dumplings with chocolate and nuts and sweet flaky pastry were especially delicious.
After lunch we visited the Shaanxi History Museum where 370,000 relics from prehistoric time forward are on display. In addition to the beautiful pottery and artifacts, we had the chance to really see the detail on the warriors. Even the soles of their footwear, and lines in the palms of their hands were individually crafted. All had mustaches, headgear, and every hair on their heads was meticulously carved. It really is a marvel.
I knew Xi’an had a restored city wall dating from 1370 and wanted to see it. So after finding out we would have difficulty finding any sort of cab to bring us back to the Shangri-la Hotel where we were staying, we hired a car service to take us over and wait. You can walk, rent bikes or take a golf-cart type vehicle around the 9 mile wall. We decided to walk as much as possible for about an hour. This wall was originally around the Imperial Palace, and an even larger wall was constructed around the 30 square mile city during its heyday years in the Tang Dynasty. It was the largest city in the world, and the eastern end of the famous Silk Road, a thriving marketplace and an ancient melting pot of various cultures.
The walls were solidly built by the first Ming emperor, very wide, beautifully constructed and something I would recommend taking the time to see. I felt like we’d seen a glimpse into the soul of Xi’an-a look past all the high rise modern buildings. Known as the Xi’an City Wall Scenic Area, the area is very green and surrounded by trees and parks. You can see nice restaurants and bars nearby; the views were terrific, and the flowering trees provided a really lovely fragrance.
A little over heated, we got back into our cool, black Audi A 6L, the preferred transport of the local politicians and dignitaries, and held our breath for the wild ride back to the hotel. Our driver was great, and it was interesting to see the traffic cops magically part the masses for us. It was a great conclusion to a very interesting day. Dinner at the hotel tonight – we are up before dawn for an early flight.
Tip of the day: people who eat wheat are taller than those who eat rice. Even on a tour you can carve out time for special, unique activities.