Visiting the Terracotta Army in Xi’an

The pieces of terracotta statues discovered in a field outside Xi’an in 1974 changed the course of Xi’an, a second tier Chinese city with a population of almost 9 million. When we told people we are headed there on a school holiday, we mostly received blank faces – you know, when they expect you to utter words like “Bali” or “Phuket” but you say “Xi’an” instead. We were pleasantly surprised by Xi’an and would recommend you spend a few days to experience this welcoming and well-run Chinese city and will share our tips later. But of course, the Terracotta Army are the superstars!

We had arranged a guide to take us to the Terracotta Army site in advance, and the fantastic Bryanbai lived up to all the great reviews on Tripadvisor. He recommended an early start and we just managed to get everyone ready by 7.30am. The site of the Terracotta Army is under an hour’s drive from the city, and we arrived spot on for the opening time at 8.30am. The tour buses start pouring in soon after, but we had a good half an hour of quality time with these guys before we needed to start using elbows to get a good view:

The warriors stand in orderly rows in their original spots, many still without having been reunited with their heads. In a nutshell, Emperor Qin Shi Huang, the unifier of China as it is now known, seemed like a crazy visionary. He not only had plans for the region that seemed outlandish at the time, but he also wanted to live forever and spent much of his life and resources trying to make it so. Apparently it took decades to finish the Terracotta Army, and hundreds of thousands of craftsmen worked on the soldiers, horses and other characters that were a part of this heavenly army and court. Those who were too familiar with the location of the underground city, did not see tomorrow, we were told.

Terracotta Army

The emperor died and was buried in 210 BC – hence the warriors and their horses have been buried underground for over 2000 years. No two soldiers are the same, and the level of detail is incredible. They all have different hairstyle, facial features from different parts of China, shoes that tell the rank of each soldier and even lines on their palms. It is mind boggling to imagine the process of making them, and the fact that they are an actual surviving testimony of what people wore, looked like and did thousands of years ago. The archeologists have not yet excavated the tomb itself in the fear of doing irreparable damage, although that must be every historian’s wildest dream.

When the statues were found, they were broken in small pieces. The painstaking work of the archeologists is visible in the pits that showcase different stages of reconstruction. This part was referred to by our guide as the “terracotta warrior hospital”.

What better introduction to a work of an archeologist than watching them collect pieces of statues from the muddy pit as the first part of that seemingly never ending puzzle! Apparently many areas are left intact on purpose. The warriors were originally intricately painted, but when uncovered and getting in touch with oxygen, the paint rapidly faints. Hence they have decided to leave some of the statues in the ground until technology becomes available to help in preserving the paint.

The bronze chariots and horses on display in the modern museum, the Qin Shi Huang Emperor Tomb Artefact Exhibition Hall, are also incredible and lifelike. Some high-ranking officers are also on display for a closer look. Part of the items in the exhibition are replicas, as our guide pointed out.

Practical tips for visiting the Terracotta Army

  • We visited the Terracotta Army with a guide and would recommend doing so to anyone. There is some information in English onsite, but we learned so much more from the guide than we would have without him. When traveling with kids, a good guide is also invaluable in knowing where the western toilets are, shuffling through crowds and pointing out the things the kids find fascinating (like the skinny warriors done by apprentice craftsmen).
  • It is a good 10 minutes walk from the entrance to the pits. The site includes numbered pits where the warriors are on display, and an indoor museum of the (very impressive) bronze chariots, weapons and other items. There is a fair bit of walking involved, so come with a sling or a light stroller if you have little ones in tow. Our 8 year old appreciated the history and significance of the site, that was perhaps lost on our first grader.
  • Pit One is the largest and most impressive, with most warriors on display, and is the most crowded with tourists. We got there early so had a good half an hour to admire the statues in relative peace. Our guide told us that later on in the day there are so many people that it is practically impossible to secure a spot next to the railing. By the time we got to the bronze chariots it was so crowded you needed to elbow your way to get a glimpse of the exhibits. Apparently lunch time is a bit quieter.
  • There are loads of shops and restaurants around the site, including western chains like Starbucks. Our guide walked us through the main street to a small restaurant where we had a cheap and cheerful meal of typical Shaanxi biang biang noodles, dumplings and a local burger consisting of yummy greasy bread and shredded pork. And some scorpions, but more about that later.
  • The shops around here are a rip-off, as can be expected. We picked up a set of miniature warriors from the city centre for 10 yuan.
  • All hotels offer guides or transport to the warriors, but you can also get there by public transport or taxi. We had combined other sights to our day and really enjoyed having a driver and guide for the day, and found it good value compared to the service offered through the hotel.

This photo by the Children’s museum is a good starting point for kids that are curious about the terracotta warriors:





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