Jewels of Xi’an: The Terracotta Warriors

This is the last installment (for now at least) of my series about the highlights of my temporary home town- Xi’an, China. I saved the city’s biggest attraction for last…

China’s underground army.

I actually visited the Terracotta Warriors during my first trip to Xi’an back in October, but I never really wrote about them. I meant to, as an archeology buff I was really excited to see them, had even been to the exhibition in London, but in person I felt kind of underwhelmed. Unlike the Great Wall of China, where I literally couldn’t find the words, for the Warriors I just didn’t have much to say.

That doesn’t, however, mean that they aren’t worth seeing.

I think ultimately the story of the Terracotta Warriors is the most exciting part of the experience. The Emperor Qin Shi Huang was 13 years old when he ordered this elaborate tomb for himself to be constructed. It looks pretty much like what most 13 year old boys might wish for: there were originally 8000 soldiers, 670 horses and 150 chariots. It was a vast clay army for the ruler to lead into the underworld. That’s not all: there were literal rivers of mercury, palaces, riches and 100 live concubines buried with the Emperor.

So what happened after the emperors people spent 36 years building this amazingly opulent tomb? They completely and utterly forgot about it. For 2000 years nobody had any idea it was there, lying underground. Then one day in 1974 a group of farmers digging a well happened upon the site and well… the rest is history. Today it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the major tourist attractions in China. It is the first, and to most people probably the only, thing that Xi’an is known for outside of China.

So if you come to my city in China you will go to see the Terracotta Warriors, no doubt about it. And there’s no denying that the very first moment is amazing, when you walking into Dig Site #1 an see an area the size of a football field housing a literal army of life size warriors. There are hundreds of them and each one is slightly different (and originally they were all painted as well- can you imagine the man hours that went into this?). There are foot soldiers, archers, generals and more- huge battalions of clay people at the ready. You kind of have to wonder who this Emperor thought he was going to be fighting post-mortem.

And it was pretty cool to see the Chinese archeologists working to restore the soldiers. As you can imagine, being buried underground for 2000 years resulted in a lot of crushed men that now need to be carefully piece back together.

In the end though, there are only so many giant stone soldiers you can look at. As a whole the setup is amazingly elaborate, but the truth is there’s not a whole lot to see just now. Most of the huge burial site, including the Emperors actual tomb has not yet been excavated. The Chinese simply don’t have the technology to explore the site without totally wrecking it, so they are keeping it safely underground for now. What we see today is really just the outskirts, who knows what lies inside the main tomb.

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