CHINA - Xi’an and the Terracotta Warriors - October 2019

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Asia » China
October 4th 2019
Published: October 5th 2019
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We took the high speed train from Beijing to Xian which still took 6 hours as we made 13 stops en-route! However we did travel at speeds of 190 miles per hour which was pretty fast. Although not as fast as a plane as far as travel time goes, you save so much time and stress by avoiding having to get to an airport 2 hours in advance, long security lines and the queues would be long this week as we were now in the middle of the ‘magic holiday week’ in China - even more so due to the 70th year celebration of the People’s Republic of China.

We had comfortable seats with plenty of leg room and we just relaxed and looked out of the windows as we passed through many towns and long stretches of countryside. Every spare bit of land was planted with crops right up to the edge of the railway, we did not see any waste land anywhere. Huge tower buildings were being built to house the population and keep the precious space for agriculture. Many of the side roads and lanes were covered with newly pulled rice, drying on the hot concrete with locals raking it out evenly and turning it over. I must say it did feel good to be away from the city and heading out into the green countryside at last.

We were collected at Xi’an railway station by another local guide called Susan and she said our driver was called Tom - but she had only just named him this! Of course no-one could pronounce their Chinese names so they used these western titles for us tourist. So we now had Helen our National Guide and Susan and Tom whilst we were in Xi'an where Susan was born.


Xi’an has a population of over 7 million and although not as big as Beijing with a population of 25 million it is still growing fast with huge reconstructions and new builds everywhere you looked. There were so many supertalls and megatalls buildings everywhere, similar to what we had seen in the countryside but on a much larger scale. Susan said that the city had changed beyond recognition over the last few years and was being brought in line with other cities of a similar size.


Located in central northwest China, Xi’an has played a pivotal role in China’s extensive history. Called Chang'an (meaning the eternal city) in ancient times, it is one of the birthplaces of the ancient Chinese civilisation in the Yellow River Basin area. It is also the eastern terminal of the Silk Road and the site of the famous Terracotta Army of the Qin Dynasty. As the capital city of ancient dynasties, more than 3,000 years of history can be seen here but of course we were here to see the Warriors which was one of the highlights of this tour.


We headed just outside the city to view one of the world's most famous archaeological finds, likened to Howard Carter’s great discovery in Egypt when he found the tomb of Tutankhamen in 1922. The Terracotta Warriors were built in 210 BC to guard the soul of China's first emperor on his journey into the afterlife, so similar to the pharaoh’s tomb burials.

It is amazing that the Warriors were discovered at all having lain beneath the ground for centuries until in 1974 four farmers digging a Well unearthed them. Many years of agriculture had taken place above the ‘hidden army’ but they were buried so deep that the ploughs had not reached them. However digging a well the farmers went deeper and found a pottery torso and head. They did not realise what they had stumbled on as they thought they had found a broken Buddha! However what they had found was a life-size army of warriors and horses built to accompany China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, in the afterlife.

The Xi'an Terracotta Army is a representation of the Qin State's troop formation with soldiers and chariots strategically arranged in pits below ground. About 8,000 warriors, 100 chariots, 400 horses, and more than 100,000 weapons have been found but even today, decades later only a small fraction have been unearthed.

The museum in Xi’an is directly on the site where the warriors were discovered and it is massive covering an area of nearly 17,000 square meters. It is divided into three sections, known as Pits 1, 2 and 3 - being tagged in order of their discoveries. Pit 1 is the largest and was first opened to the public in 1979, five years after the farmers found the site, the other two pits were opened in the 1990s. These pits are vast underground chambers in which different sections of the army were discovered.

We were able to wander around and take photographs but nothing can prepare you for the sheer scale and number of Warriors facing you as you step inside Pit 1. Your eyes are automatically drawn downwards to the floor of the pit below, and immediately in front of you are row after row of austere, standing brown clay figures, staring intently ahead, battle-ready - quite strange to see and truly amazing. The floors where they stood were rammed with earth 45 centimetres thick and paved with bricks before the warriors were placed in their position ready to defend their Emporor.


Inside Pit 1 there were thousands of life-size figures in this vast silent army and all are arrestingly lifelike with different detailed facial expressions and clothing. The size of grown men, some of their hands are curled around thin air, their spears and other arms they originally held having long since rusted away and they just reach out into thin air … …

It's thought that each warrior bears the face of the workman who created it, perhaps in the hope of preserving something of themselves in the afterlife but much is still unknown. Astonishingly no two warriors are alike, which is just mind boggling. There must have been a variety of moulds for the hollow bodies but all the heads were individually created, the workforce must have been huge. What happened to them we asked, and were told that they believe the workmen were all killed afterwards so as not to give away the location of the tomb.

In fact several builders graveyards have been located about one mile from the Mausoleum of the Emperor, these Han and Tang graves are crowded together and over 100 skeletons were squeezed into small areas. Examination proved that most of the dead were young males. A man, a woman and a child, possibly a family forced to work for the Qin government, were also found buried together in one grave. The heads of all the skeletons were facing different directions, indicating a hasty burial at that time. Some heads had clear stab wounds, which showed that their owners were barbarously killed probably after they built the Qin Mausoleum.

The warriors were arranged to stand in imperial battle formation, a vanguard of archers, flankers at the sides, charioteers in the middle, their wooden chariots long gone, but their horses still by their sides. We noticed the different ranks and roles mainly by their hair styles but also by their breastplates and tunics. Some figures stand in line without a head - their heads never located. After getting over the ‘awe’ of seeing the standing army you start to notice so many more warriors and horses buried in huge piles all mixed up with legs and arms, heads and bodies sticking out of the ground.

It was fascinating walking around the pit viewing the warriors from many different angles. At the back of the hall there was a ‘warrior hospital’ where archaeological work painstakingly takes place restoring the broken artefacts. We had thought that the army had been found intact but apparently all the figures, apart from one (more on that below) were found broken into jigsaw-like fragments so each must be reassembled piece by piece. We spotted one such hospital bed complete with clay-fired soldier laying down but no archaeologist were working the day we visited - of course it was holiday

Our guide had told us to look out for the spot where the well was being dug by the farmers which was in one corner of the museum but nothing much could be seen of this.


In the other two Pits we saw the only warrior found not broken, known as the Kneeling Archer and other reconstructions displayed in individual glass cases. These displays allowed you to inspect the details of the craftsmanship, you could see the ripple of muscle on the archer’s shoulder, and the fine tread on the sole of his shoes. We saw a General in all his battle regalia with his elaborate double-knotted hairstyle - it was amazing to note the hairstyle distinction between the different warriors.

A photograph on a wall in the museum showed how the warriors were originally brightly painted until 32 seconds after they were unearthed, when the colours disappeared so quickly due to oxidation. Archeologists are working on new ways to preserve this giant army in their original full colour.

In another Pit there was a mass of collapsed and petrified wooden beams, with broken figures and horses scattered all around it looked like they had all just been brutally killed in battle. You could then appreciate why it took so long for the museum to open after they were initially discovered as putting all these pieces back together was indeed a mammoth task.


In a separate building within the complex we viewed two large scale models of bronze chariots and horses which became unearthed in December 1980, about 22 yards west of the burial mound of the Qin Shi Huang Mausoleum. Intended to serve as vehicles for the inspection tours of the Emperor in his afterlife, these two chariots and horses are half size scale models of the real ones used in the Qin Dynasty.

They were originally encased in a wooden box which was buried 26 feet down in a trench for over two thousand years. They were constructed in bronze and cast bullion, but there was also some gold and silver pieces. Decorated with geometric and cloud patterns, the two square shaped carriages with a single shaft and two wheels were beautifully painted in various colours of red, violet and blue.

These chariots are the earliest found, largest, and best-preserved bronze carriages to be found in China. Both of these required extensive restoration before public display and they were now on show to the public in glass cases. It was really hard to photograph them with the reflective glass and others camera flashes constantly hitting the glass windows.

We thoroughly enjoyed our short time at this unique on-site museum although it was heaving with other tourist. Chinese domestic tourism is booming and, understandably, the warriors are a prime attraction notwithstanding the fact we were here in the middle of their national holiday. It would be good to come again when it was less crowded but we did get to see everything we wanted - you just had to wait a little while for people to move on so that you could get a clear view of this ancient army - just awesome.


In the evening we walked around the city streets which were buzzing with noise and people all out having fun enjoying the fountain and light show outside the Big Wild Goose Pagoda - we would see many Pagoda’s in our travels around China. Including the Small Wild Goose Pagoda which dated back to the Tang Dynasty 707 AD - a former centre for translating Buddhist scriptures from India, this pagoda was said to have survived one of the strongest earthquakes in history. Although due to many earthquakes its top was completely damaged which reduced its originally 15 storey height.

Near the Wild Goose Pagoda we were taken on a tour of local artwork which doubled as a small museum, gift shop and classroom. We sat down at small desks with our own ink and several brushes and had our first Chinese calligraphy lesson. First, how to hold the calligraphy brush and then we practiced the different strokes that, when combined in different ways, make up the characters of the Chinese alphabet - it was not that easy but we did manage to complete the task!

We watched a very talented artist at work and bought a special dragon painting for our granddaughter to celebrate her 16th birthday at the end of the month. Chinese dragons are powerful and benevolent symbols and seen as lucky and good — quite different to the dangerous fire-breathing dragons of most Western stories … …

In the museum we were shown a typical ancient Chinese house layout. A small room with a hard wooden frame which served as a table in the day and a bed at night. A empty chamber underneath this frame was for a fire and this would keep the family warm in the winter months. The bed was hard and we had noticed that even today nearly all the bed we had stayed in were indeed rock hard - but our hips had just about got used to them now. The ancient Chinese also did not have a pillow like we would have today but a hard wooden neck block. Our guide said that her grandfather had such a pillow and over the years it had left his neck mark in it - she said it was now a treasured possession in her family museum.

We also visited the main Xian Museum but lots of the exhibits did not include an English translation which was a shame but we did see an excellent display of antique silver and jade. On the lower level there was an interesting map showing Xi’an City during different dynasty periods.

The next day we were intending to take a cycle ride around the nine miles of the Ancient City Wall but part of this was closed due to the holiday celebrations and because of the heat we decided to take a walk around part of the wall instead. Dating back to the Ming dynasty in the 14th Century it is one of the best preserved urban fortifications in China. I must say though apart from the good condition of the wall there was not much to see from this vantage point high above the town and we were glad that we strolled rather than cycled. Along the way we met many Chinese tourist also walking the wall who wanted to stop and have their photograph taken with Paul - not me!

Later we strolled through the Muslim Quarter this long narrow street was crammed packed with eating places with tourists and locals milling around together. Long queues formed at some of the stalls, particularly the one selling shredded beef burgers, not sure about the fried quid on sticks covered in sesame seeds though.


Early the next morning we left our hotel and as we waited for our departure we were not the only people leaving the city. We were literally surrounded by thousands of people all heading for the railway station. We sat for over 30 minutes and the queue of people did not stop they kept coming and coming it was 1 October and their national day they were all leaving work and heading off to celebrate the 70th anniversary of The People’s Republic of China with their family and friends.

We enjoyed our time in Xi’an but it was time for us to move on to - luckily not to the Railway Station where everyone else was heading as we were taking a two hour internal flight to Guilin one of China’s most beautiful spots in the south of the country - see you there.

Additional photos below
Photos: 36, Displayed: 32


5th October 2019

Terrific blog, warriors high on our to do list, love the detail photographs.
We are settled in Lanzarote now, researching Madagascar. Jim has undertaken to update his French before we go. Enjoy the rest of your trip & keep the blogs coming. X S & J ps How is food?
5th October 2019

Warriors were indeed awesome ...
You mentioned food well you can easily find a Chinese Restaurant here !!! seriously though the food has been much better than expected and in places superb. Will seriously think about Madagascar particularly as we will have a 'fluent' french translator or Jim now ... ... Must admit we have used our electronic translator many times in China - it has been very useful indeed. Love S&P
6th October 2019

such a nice article.. pof inbox
6th October 2019

Thanks for your comments Faizi - Regards Sheila
6th October 2019
Terracotta Warriors

Were you permitted to take photos?
I was in Xian many years ago. Then it wasn't permitted to take photos of the terracotta warriors. Everybody still did and I have plenty of photos from there. How was it now? Is photography still officially forbidden or can you snap away as you like? You know, the terracotta army is part of Qin Shi Huang's grave. The actual grave mound is quite far away from there. Makes you wonder, what else is hidden under ground? Probably a lot. /Ake
11th October 2019
Terracotta Warriors

Terracotta Warriors
Hello Ake - yes you can take as many photographs as you like as they know that this does not cause any problem to the relics already lifted. Loosing their beautiful colour occurs as soon as they are lifted out of their 'grave' and I think that the archaeologist are trying to find ways to alleviate this problem. We were also lucky to see the grave mound which was further away from the site and yes I wonder what else they will discover in the future - must be really exciting to be an archeologist in Xian. Regards Sheila
7th October 2019

Eye for detail
As powerful as the image of the sea of warriors is, thanks for sharing the close up details too... it's nice to see the individual human details on the statues. What an amazing body of work they undertook with this endeavor :)
11th October 2019

Its all in the detail
Hello Ren and Andrew - yes seeing them in their battle formation was awesome but having the time to study the little details was fascinating. Regards Sheila
12th October 2019
Terracotta Warrior Workshop

Rich in history, skill and so intricate. Wow.
13th October 2019
Terracotta Warrior Workshop

Warriors skills
Thanks for your comments and yes it was fascinating to watch this young lady - such a talent.
23rd October 2019

Amazing Xian!
Gosh, your trip is truly inspiring. Such amazing places to see in China, and I love the way you intermingle a snapshot of history and culture in between your travelling tales. I look forward to reading more ?
24th October 2019

Thanks Alex - I love to research many aspects of the countries we visit but sometimes get carried away with so many interesting facts to dissimilate and the blogs do have a tendency to become quite long.

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