Hard to Get to, Worth the Effort

Terracotta Warriors are best site in China
Terracotta Warriors preserved by having been buried

In my opinion, if the Terracotta Warriors were easier to get to, they would be an even more popular Chinese attraction than the Great Wall. For those unfamiliar, Terracotta Warriors are a vast unearthed tomb with thousands of sculptures and now a sprawling museum. The Great Wall and Tiananmen Square are both in Beijing, the most frequently visited city in China. The Terracotta Warriors, a World Heritage Site, are one-hour outside the City of Xi’an, a two-hour plane ride from Beijing. The Warriors site has been developed by the Chinese tourism authorities into a huge tourist park-like area that could easily keep a captive tourist busy for more than a day. Most visit for a few hours, enough to exhaust an avid tourist.

Terracotta is the English name for the area, designated such from the Italian for the type of clay sculpture found here. The official Chinese name is the Emperor Qinshihuang’s Mausoleum Site Museum. Visitors are required to park in an offsite lot and are taken into the museum area by a large trolley.

Upon arriving at the entry point to the museum, your first task, if you are not part of a group, is to negotiate the long lines to buy tickets.

The first Chinese Emperor, Qin (pronounced “Shin”) united the Chinese under one umbrella government which he controlled, but he died in 210 B.C. A mound of dirt near the museum is Qin’s tomb. Historians believe he is buried in his palace with priceless treasures, but no plans for excavation exist. In 1974, a farmer in the surrounding land was digging a well when he discovered the museum site, which has since been partially excavated. Qin, as it turns out, wanted to maintain his lifestyle after death, so he ordered clay soldiers to stand guard around his burial palace in vaults that were covered by a roof supported by wooden beams.

Five years after Qin’s death, the wooden beams were set ablaze, caving in the ground on top of the clay soldiers, mostly destroying them. But the earth that buried the soldiers also preserved them. So, when they were discovered in 1974, archaeologists set about putting the vast pieces together as in a huge jigsaw puzzle. To this day, an area 200 by 700 feet has been uncovered, but no one knows how much more there is. Once uncovered, the clay figures which were painted in bright colors began to fade. Until a preservation method is developed to stop this decay process, China has decided to stop further exploration as colors remain in tact until exposed to oxygen.

What has been unearthed and pieced together is thousands of life-size soldiers, each with a different face and finely detailed clothing, arranged according to rank as they would be for battle — cavalrymen, archers, infantry, charioteers, officers — with clay horses and weapons included. Most are standing, but some are kneeling. They stand mostly in straight lines almost as far as the eye can see. Some of the officers are conferring in meetings.

Entire brigade uncovered in Terracotta Warriors site
Terracotta Warriors includes horses

The museum includes three buildings. The main one has 6,000 warriors, with 1,000 completely restored. Two bronze chariots with ornate gold and silver ornamentation that were unearthed are on display in an exhibition hall along with other specimens of pottery, jewelry and carvings.

A short distance from the museum at a nearby factory, you can learn how the clay figures were made in ancient times, and reproductions in many sizes made using the ancient artisans’ methods can be purchased. Inside the museum grounds there are people hawking some of the same wares. I suggest seeing a factory to understand the process which ancient artisans used.

Historians tell us Qin used 700,000 workers over a period of 40 years to construct his tomb. It is suspected that the workers were buried alive inside the tomb to prevent Qin’s secret afterlife from being revealed and robbed by gravediggers.

Today, this site is truly one of the most remarkable things you will ever see, well worth a special trip to Xi’an for that purpose.

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