The un-historian’s guide to the Terracotta Warriors

While travelling around China and Vietnam, much more so than in the United States or Japan, I was constantly wary of being scammed or otherwise taken advantage of. There was the white-knuckled night taxi ride to my hotel in Xi’an, the rogue Hanoi taxi companies I read about on Wikitravel, and the friendly man who sold me a newspaper in Hoi An who shrugged helplessly as he backed away, pretending not to have the correct change for my note.

In following some sketchy directions on how to get to the Terracotta Warriors museum from my Xi’an hotel, I took a public bus to a really confusing bus depot, and wandered around until I found the next location in the directions I was given. There, I was faced with about four different buses each purporting to take me to the Terracotta Warriors.

There were small clusters of men hanging around the front of each of the buses. A couple of representatives from each bus saw my hesitation and approached me, enticing me to pay a fare to board their bus. I can’t remember how I made my decision, but I eventually chose one, handed over my money and took a seat across the aisle from a benign looking boy playing on a handheld console. Before the driver started up the ignition, I leaned over to the boy, guessing he might speak a few words of English because of his age, and asked him if the bus was going to the site of the Terracotta Warriors.

He smiled and climbed into the seat next to me. After repeating my question, he replied in halting English said that it was. He ended up teaching me how to say ‘Terracotta Warriors’ in Mandarin, though I’ve completely forgotten now, and instructed me to show my ticket when the attendant came down the aisle to conduct his checks.

The boy didn’t speak very much English, so we couldn’t really hold a conversation. Nevertheless, as the bus began to pull away from the depot he remained sitting next to me, absorbed in his console screen.

He disembarked about an hour later and I thanked him in the only words of Chinese I knew – apart from ‘Terracotta Warriors’, thanks to him.

The bus rolled on, picking people up along the way. One of the more unusual stops was a giant spa resort comprising numerous buildings with fa├žades the colour of sandstone. Banners featuring Maria Menounos blew in the breeze outside; just one of a number of Western faces I’d come to see on billboards.

We arrived, to my relief, at the site of the Terracotta Warriors not long after being graced by the smile of Ms Menounos and about two hours since I’d hopped on.

Although I had eschewed paying for a guided tour at the Forbidden City, I decided to do things differently while trying to find my way to the museum entrance. I was, again, concerned about being scammed; either being charged more than was reasonable or agreed upon, or, as I’d heard about some travellers succumbing to, landing a guide who seemed to speak passable English only to spend the next two hours politely listening to incomprehensible yammering while being walked around various locations.

I was approached by a couple of working guides, but settled on a man who had a professorial air to him. Gentle, pleasant, and visiting academic-quality English. I agreed to his fee, which he indicated he would not seek to collect until the end of the tour.

There were five buildings associated with the museum accessible to visitors. The first which we visited was the main excavation pit, Pit 1 – a cold, cavernous room with a domed ceiling that contained the bulk of the unearthed warriors on display. Before entering that room we stopped at a diorama of the land that we were on as it might have appeared centuries ago, bare of any man-made settlements.

Peering through the plexiglas, my guide pointed out the hill under which Emperor Qin was buried – Emperor Qin being the man who ordered the construction of the Great Wall of China and creation of the great terracotta army that still guards him in his afterlife. My guide indicated on the diorama the locations of the pits we were to visit, and the pits yet to be excavated. He talked about why this particular site was chosen by the Emperor as his final resting place, and explained the strategic positioning of his terracotta militia; how the entire army was facing the east, where the enemy lay. He said that the tomb of the Emperor was surrounded by an underground moat of mercury; a moat of such a considerable reserve that to this day the tomb is too dangerous to be excavated.

I let all this information sink in. And then we went inside.

Winter is not peak tourist season in places like Xi’an, so Pit 1 was not very crowded that day. I watched a small group of foreigners, who sounded European, get taken on a guided tour of their own.

The warriors stood as they did in their rows of four, hands cupping weapons that were no longer there, like Lego men. The terracotta horsemen had their arms outstretched towards their horses, grasping at absent reins. If you’re wondering if the trip out to Xi’an is worth it, just to behold this 6,000 strong terracotta army – it is. Most definitely.

Now, a good tour guide doesn’t just feed you information. He or she encourages active engagement with the subject. As we looked down at the army, my guide explained the different combat roles the rows of men played and the battle formations they were arranged in. Then, he challenged me to infer what various figures were based on where they were in their rows and the weapons they might have carried given the position of their arms.

Having been traditionally disinterested in war and history, I utterly failed at the task. But I was intrigued by the answers, at this interactive history lesson, while in the presence of monuments of a very significant era.

As I was led around one side of Pit 1, my guide continued to convey pieces of trivia about what we were looking at. He showed me the exact spot where a young pomegranate farmer had dug his well and ended up finding the beginnings of this treasure trove. He talked about how the terracotta figures stood about 6 feet tall, were constructed to human proportions – with the exception of the legs, which were shorter and thicker. I gazed sadly upon soldiers missing their heads, and their comrades lying in fragments too small to be pieced back together.

He said that much of the destruction occurred when the pit was looted – hence the missing bronze weapons. The looters set fire to the pit, but it was thought that the thatched roofs over the soldiers’ heads protected them from more serious harm.

When we stopped in front of some figures whose restoration was in varying stages, my guide explained that the bodies, arms and heads were hollow but the legs solid, to support the great weight of the bodies. He talked about how the warriors had all once been painted in vivid, life-like colours, but that upon excavation, the pigmentation begin to fade immediately through exposure to the air. Now, although the locations of more tombs are known, they have remained buried as to keep them preserved in the earth.

The archaeologists and the government, he said, are waiting for science to provide better solutions for preserving the pigmentation. Until that happens they will remain in the ground.

We visited the two other pits, and the history lesson continued. I had some successful guesses, such as the reason for scattered animal remains in Pit 3 – animal sacrifices. Otherwise, I was content to just listen and ask questions.

My guide walked me to the more museum-y part of the museum – full of blown up photographs tacked to the wall, dim lighting and other displays. It was a tad boring after having been through the most spectacular aspect of the visit. However I nodded and smiled when my guide paused in front of one display, pointing out the name of one Australian on a list of significant people to have visited the museum.

After leaving the museum proper, I was excited to check out the gift shop. I knew that I wanted to take home a little terracotta warrior – I’d already seen some nice imitations at hawker stalls set up on the fringes of the museum.

I was told by my guide that over the years, the pomegranate farmer who discovered the warriors occasionally stops by the gift shop and greets customers. And, it just so happened that while I was there, the farmer was also present – seated somewhat sombrely behind a white cloaked table. He nodded at me when I said hello – my guide said that the farmer didn’t speak any English. The meeting was something of a non-event, though interesting.

I lingered over the range of four-inch figurines; little taller than my mobile phone. I was all the more encouraged to purchase one from the shop given that they were made from the same terracotta as the originals. Terracotta is no doubt found in abundance in that location, but I was willing to be suckered.

I had two options based on the size that I wanted, based on how much I was willing to pay (around $45). There was the General… or the Kneeling Archer. Really, there was no contest. I think that decisions like that say something about a person like the way a Dolly quiz illuminates whether you are an autumn person or a summer person. Anyway, I chose the archer. I liked the idea of having someone to watch over me; of that someone being the first line of defence, doing away with enemies from great distances. I didn’t like the idea of buying some up-himself General who didn’t really serve much of a practical purpose. All orders and no action.

In addition to learning something of the history of the terracotta warriors, I picked up a factoid or two about my guide as well. He studied Chinese history and tourism at university. He loved being a tour guide. He kept up his English by watching lots of Hollywood movies and mentioned that he’d recently seen White House Down. We talked about Mulan – I can’t remember now how we started on that topic. He recounted the legend for me, down to how she eventually died.

We walked past a building that was under construction which he said was going to be a new theatre complex. He said it was going to stage a year-round production about the terracotta warriors – and a musical no less. I was astonished.

We parted ways after lunch. I thought we were going to dine together, and that we could talk more over some food in a warm environment. But he left me to eat by myself, in a restaurant with only one other customer – another girl travelling alone but also with a guide. He caught up with me afterwards, and walked me to within view of where I had to wait for my bus. This time, I had clear advice on which bus to catch.

There could be no more appropriate way to describe how I was ferried from the museum grounds than to say that I was being taken back to the future. Away from 210 BCE and towards modern Xi’an. Which isn’t to say that I was disappointed to be returning to a more familiar environment. But I was sure glad to have with me a small piece of the past in the form of my little archer.


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