On Endless Guard – Xi’an and the Terracotta Army

Xi’an is the base to discover one of the top archeological sites in the world: The famous Terracotta Army. However, also Xi’an itself is worth to dive into.

Highlights:
  • The Terracotta Army
  • One of China’s best preserved city walls
  • Ancient Bell and Drum Tower
  • The Muslim Quarter with Chinese mosques and muslim food
  • Shaanxi History Museum with Terracotta Warriors up close
  • Big Goose Pagoda with fountain show at night

Not being aware of seat and berth contingents yet, I had booked a seat only traveling from Pingyao to Xi’an. This turned out a great experience with locals but also quite hard – I could not sleep a minute. When I entered the car, every single person looked at me, pretty bewildered what a westerner does in the cheapest part of the train. In the first minutes, about 100 eyes were closely watching how I found my seat, took off the backpack, prepared lovely instant-noodle dinner, and got settled. After that, my Chinese follow travelers got used to the fact that I sat among them and did not turn into a werewolf…

After a long night, I finally arrived at Xi’an main station. Via internet, I already had booked my hostel this time and made straight for it by foot (very recommendable: Ancient City International Youth Hostel). Once again I was finding myself walking under a great city wall early in the morning. As in Beijing, I found several public pieces of sports equipment in the park beside the wall, full of mostly elderly Chinese exercising.

After I had found some hours of sleep in the hostel I made for one of Xi’an’s main sights: The Muslim Quarter. Being quite amazed to see Chinese muslims wearing headscarves and long dresses as well as taqiyah and (more or less) full beards I explored the area slowly, mainly watching out for butcher shops (or stands), muslim bakeries and mosques.

Finally I found myself in the city center, guarded by the drum and bell tower, some hundred meters apart. I climbed the former, getting a nice view around the main square (not much more though, the ancient city planners did not take modern high-rise buildings into account). I also came in time to enjoy a booming drum show. Before I headed back to my hostel, I found a little back-alley place that offered traditional Chinese shadow play – my first time to see that. And although quite shrill it was exciting to see how true-to-life the artist could handle his puppets – you could see even the smoke out of his pipe…

Xi’an’s highlight site is of course the Terracotta Army, about one hour by bus. I was actually a little worried that it would not live up to my expectations, having seen it several times on tv as well as hearing from other travelers you are through the site in about 1-2 hours… I should not have worried however. Being interested in history and archeology it was a wonderful sight to see. As recommended by the Lonely Planet, I started with Pit 3, the smallest one, housing the Army’s headquarter (just a couple of soldiers and horses, mostly high-ranking officers and guardsmen). I was not extremely impressed by it but tried to find out if the soldier’s facial expressions and uniforms really never were the same…

Pit 2 was next, and although it was much bigger in size, it did not impress me much more, it’s Army mostly mot unearthed yet. However, what was very interesting to see is the exhibition of several figures besides the pit: An archer, a foot soldier with a horse on the rein, a general – all in great condition and made in unbelievable detail. From ever-different facial expressions, hairstyles, uniforms down to the soles of kneeling soldiers, that displayed different patterns.

Terracotta-Facts: 700.000 workers needed 38 years to finish the whole burial site for China’s first emperor. More than 8,000 life-size figures of army soldiers and 670 horses guard the spirit of their master in the after world.  Not one of them looks like the other, all are made in extreme detail. Although material and especially weapons are more than 2,200 years old, many of them seem in perfect condition – metal alloy in ancient China reached nearly today’s standards.

Pit 3 however struck me with awe. 230 by 62m in size, it houses thousands and thousands of soldiers, chariots, and horses. Although most are still unearthed, what I saw was already totally breathtaking. One row after another, the first three of more than 200 archers making up the vanguard. Looking to the sides several rows providing flank protection. And between them sheer endless rows of soldiers in battle formation – ready for battle if their supreme commander (Emperor Qín Shǐhuángdì) should make that call in the after world he believed to slip in upon his death. I guess it took me 3 hours to circle the pit, so many details were to discover there.

When I finally came out I already saw the crowds leaving for the exit. Walking there as well, I suddenly remembered I hadn’t seen the museum yet, so I sprinted there, thinking I would have to run through. Just that I couldn’t. When I reached the basement, I stood as if struck by lighting. Two bronze chariots stood there in dim light, about half the size of original chariots. They were made so beautifully, that it was again breathtaking. Every single detail was made in perfection. I watched them about 10 minutes, then headed out to the exit. I didn’t make it there as I turned back and again circled around them. They were just too wonderful.

Chariot facts: Both chariots were crushed and needed several years of restoration upon discovery. Each weighs 1,200kg and is made up by more than 3,000 pieces. 1,720 pieces of jewelry adorn the second chariot, weighting more than 3kg of gold and 4kg of silver. As the warriors, the chariots are made in extreme detail, even eyelashes are recognizable. The reins are still moving, even after 2,200 years. And the best: It believed that these two are part of the imperial column, made up of more than 80 chariots. The rest has still to be unearthed…

Very impressed I returned to Xi’an that night. Next day, I met two English teachers from England and Scotland who came to Xi’an for two days. Together with them I checked out the Shaanxi History Museum (where I found even more terracotta warriors) and the Big Goose Pagoda. There we also enjoyed the fountain and music show after nightfall.

The next day I ended this first part of discovering China and took off by plane to my next destination, South Korea, where I met my friend Maria.

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