The Clay Guards of China’s First Emporer

Xi’an, located in Shaaxi province near the center of China, was the country’s first major capital and served as such under the Qin, Han, and Tang dynasties. It has become a very popular tourist destination over the years largely because of the discovery of the Terracotta Warriors, located near the tomb of Emporer Qin Shi Huang, the first emporer of China. Qin Shi Huang unified China after the Warring States period by conquering the other kingdoms. He ordered the construction of a large, life-sized clay army to protect him in the afterlife at his death.

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The Terracotta army soldiers had horses and weapons and even unique hairstyles and facial expressions. The details in these soldiers become even more amazing when considering that they are over 2,000 years old. It is estimated that there are 8,000 soldiers in total, but only 2,000 have been excavated so far.

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The mausoleum of Qin Shi Huang, a large complex that the soldiers guard, has not been excavated. Apparently because fear that excavation will cause damage, and also because high levels of mercury were found at the site (the story has it that rivers of mercury were created for the tomb). The entrance fee for the Terracotta Warriors covers the mausoleum, and there are free shuttles going between the two sites. I chose to skip the tomb though, since it hasn’t been excavated there isn’t much to see there from what I read.

The story of how these figures were discovered is also noteworthy, and pretty sad, to be honest. They were discovered by a group of farmers digging a well in 1974, at the height of the Cultural Revolution and Mao Zedong’s rule. According to this article, the original farmer credited with the discovery of the warriors committed suicide in 1997 and he and the other farmers didn’t reap the benefits of this discovery, only government officials did.

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The site of the well.

The article also says that the 2,000 year old village was razed to make way for souvenir shops. That is very unfortunate to me, because an old village would have been much more pleasant and interesting to stroll through to see the warriors than the endless strip of tourists shops and restaurants.

I actually didn’t come upon this article until after I had visited the warriors, though I did read online that the current “farmer” that “discovered” the warriors and who signs autographs for tourists, is not authentic, so don’t bother paying for an autograph or book.

Now, all of this isn’t to say that I don’t think the Army is worth visiting. I found the soldiers interesting and their age and detail is very impressive. I don’t agree with the Chinese government’s actions of stripping away a historical village to make way for tourist traps, but stripping away history seemed to be a common occurrence during the Cultural Revolution in China. And, if I’m being realistic here, China probably isn’t the only country that has done this kind of thing before.

Anyway, while quite a few tourist scams surround this army, I managed to get to it fairly easily without falling for any of them. The warriors are located about an hour outside of Xi’an city. A lot of hotels, hostels, and tourist offices run tours to the Terracotta Army but I decided to avoid these. From reviews I read online, generally these tours involve very long shopping stops at fake warrior factories and little time at the actual warriors.

To go to the army independently from the Xi’an downtown area, I was told by my hostel’s staff to take tourism bus 5 (306) from the Xi’an railway station. Since so few in China speak English, I decided to go into the Xi’an tourism office to see if I could get any extra information. The staff knew some English and wrote down “I need to take bus 5 (306) to the Terracotta Warriors” on a piece of paper in Chinese. This proved very useful for me the next day when I made the trip since the bus is located in the eastern part of the railway station and I wasn’t sure exactly where that was. I showed the paper to a few people that eventually pointed me in the right direction.

There is a sign in front of the bus that reads 5(306) where some people were lined up to get on the bus. The cost of a ticket is 7 Chinese yuan. I have also read online about a fake 5(306) bus that is a scam — so do NOT pay any more than 7 yuan for the ride, as it is probably the fake bus if they charge more. The bus makes a stop at a hot spring before going to the warriors, which is the last stop. (Visit this site for more information.)

The bus drops off at a parking lot. There were signs pointing in the direction of the Terracotta Warriors and Horses museum from there. On the way, there is a large tourist village of restaurants and shops (as I mentioned before).

When I arrived near the ticket gate, I got a few offers for a guide. I turned them down, but one woman was particularly persistent. She first asked if I wanted a guide and I said no. Then she insisted that it was a big place and I couldn’t possibly find my way by myself. I doubted her claim but I asked her how much. She told me the price was 150 yuan (same price as the Terracotta Warriors museum entrance fee) and the tour was two hours. I again turned her down, since I wanted to save money, and I had read up on the history of the warriors previously. Then she said I could name my price and we would negotiate. I said I didn’t know what my preferred price was.

She brought the price down to 120 yuan and promised that I could pay her after her service only if I was satisfied. I really didn’t want to pay extra for a guided tour (and honestly, given how many scams are looming around these warriors I was very wary of ending up overcharged, though I think she may have been legitimate, but her constant badgering really caused me to not want her as a guide).  She kept reiterating, “Miss, this place is very big! I have been a guide for years and I know where to go!” “You won’t know what you’re looking at if you don’t know the history!” “You need a guide!” Ugh. And she kept following me a lot farther than I expected. Eventually she did give up. Very annoying.

The entrance fee to the warriors is usually 150 yuan (very high compared to entrance fees in Beijing) but I paid 120 since it was low season.

Once I finally got rid of the annoying lady I made my way to the Terracotta Warriors.

At the Terracotta Army site, there are a few excavation pits. Pit 1 is the largest and most impressive, the first building I came to after going through the ticket gate. The warriors in this pit have been pieced mostly back together and stand in rows.

Pit 2 has another pit of warriors being excavated, and some lone warriors in glass boxes for closer inspection.

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The kneeling warrior is I believe the only soldier that was found intact.

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Pit 3 is the smallest and has a few broken up bits of the warriors, chariots, and horses.

Despite the annoyances and high entrance fee, I was glad I went overall. It’s certainly a sight to see, not to mention thousands of years old.

After checking out the terracotta soldiers, I was hungry for lunch. According to the Travel China Guide website, the restaurants around the warriors aren’t good quality, and it recommended eating at the nearby KFC if hungry. I had planned to go to the KFC but decided to stop at a small cafe area in the gift shop to get some coffee first.

The clerks told me to sit down to drink at a large table, which had a few teas and some other souvenirs on it. One clerk asked if I wanted to try small samples of tea. “How much?” I asked, and she answered that it was free, so I agreed. I sampled two teas and liked both.

Then came the sales pitch, which I expected. I do like tea and sort of wanted to buy some, but turned her down as I was trying to save money. Of course she tried to be persuasive but I finished the coffee and then left.

After the annoyance of being  followed and pestered by the guide that morning, I was tired of pushy vendors but it’s something that has to be dealt with in a lot of places.

I ate lunch at KFC and then made my way back to the parking lot, where I took the same 5(306) bus back to Xi’an railway station.

Luckily, I didn’t encounter any annoyances at the same level in Xi’an city as I did near the warriors. In addition to the warriors themselves, I recommend going to the Shaanxi History Museum in Xi’an to learn more about the warriors (and other parts of the region’s history). The museum has a few warriors on display that can be viewed up close.

I will go more into detail about Xi’an city in the next post.

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