Friday, October 30, 2015

The Terracota Army


After Beijing, Xian is an essential stop on any trip to China. It is home of the Terracotta Warriors, an army of about 8,000 soldiers in actual size and in battle formation, ready to defend the first Emperor of China Qin Shi Huang in his afterlife.

Xian was the first and oldest capital of China. Its history began in earnest in 221 BC, when Qin Shi Huang, the current ruler of the Qin kingdom, conquered the last independent state in the turbulent period of the Warring States, and unified China, which previously was divided into seven kingdoms. Thus, he became the first Emperor and established the first dynasty in Chinese history, the Qin Dynasty (pronounced "Chin"), the origin of the name China.

Pretty cool, so far. What no one imagined was that the guy was a crazy megalomaniac, obsessed with life after death. With only 13 years, Qin Shi Huang began to build his own mausoleum, and once turned Emperor, was consumed by finding the elixir of eternal life. And he did everything he could to prolong his existence, whether hiking to the top of sacred mountains, or ingesting all kinds of magic potions, included mercury, gold and jade.

But the most important of all his achievements was undoubtedly the Terracotta Army. The belief at the time was that, what was buried next to the tomb, would accompany the person in the next life. And Qin Shi Huang spared no expenses for his hereafter to be as comfortable as possible. Legend has it that his tomb - which has not yet been unearthed – contains a replica of his imperial city, with floating rivers of mercury and a ceiling full of precious jewels, simulating constellations. And to protect his Empire, he ordered a terracotta army (baked clay) because he knew that this material would last for years to come.
And he was right. 

Over 2,000 years later, in 1974, local farmers digging a well uncovered what would be the greatest archaeological find of the twentieth century. As crazy as that sounds, the well was dug just at the beginning of the battle formation. Two meters further ahead and we would never know about the existence of this wonder, as inscriptions never made any mention of the army.

It is estimated that 700,000 people were needed for the crafting of the statues, which can be considered as the first production line in history. Molds were used for the body, arms and legs. As of the faces, eight different molds were used, with clay added after assembly to provide individual traces. The figures range in weight, hairstyle and clothing, according to the patent of each soldier. 

They were also painted in bright colors, but unfortunately the paint dissolves and peels minutes after exposure to the dry climate of Xian. For this reason, the vast majority of the army is still below the ground, waiting for the scientists find the necessary technology to unearth the statues without damaging the original color of warriors.

We did the trip by ourselves having in mind that, like any attraction in China, entrance tickets are extremely expensive and a guided tour, an armed robbery. And it was all very easy. We took the bus 306 near Xian train station. Hard to miss the huge queue of people waiting for the buses, that leaves every 15 minutes or so. The fare is 8 yuan (1.20 USD) per way, and the trip takes about 45 minutes without traffic. The bus drops you off in the parking lot of the complex, and then you have to search for the ticket office. Each ticket costs 150 yuan (25 USD), including a free shuttle service to the mausoleum of Emperor.

And if you want a tour guide, no problem. In front of the ticket box you will be ‘attacked’ by hundreds of official guides offering a 2 hours tour, for additional 150 yuan (rate for a couple). We still opted to do the visit by ourselves in our own pace, considering we had already read and seen many documentaries about the life of the Emperor and the Army. Otherwise, we strongly recommend the guided tour, since the English explanations – both at the pits and in the museum – are extremely basic and incomplete.

We decided to start by pit 2 and 3, and leave pit 1, the best for last. Hard to describe the feeling of walking through the excavation hangars. The size is something overwhelming to say the least, and I can only imagine the excitement of the first archaeologists who have worked here. 

Pit 2 contains different military forces, such as archers, war chariots, cavalry and infantry, although about 80% of the statues are buried, leaving a lot at the mercy of the imagination of visitors. Still, I found pretty cool to understand the structure of the bins, posts, ceiling, corridors and the way in which the army was organized. There are also several displays of the most preserved statues, swords, vases and other articles.

I was amazed to see the flawless condition of the weapons, which were subjected to a chromium process that allowed the sharpness and brightness to remain 2,000 years after it was forged. By the way, this technique was developed in Germany only in 1937. 

The pit 3, the smallest of all, was the command post, housing generals and high-ranking officers. Unfortunately this pit was looted and badly damaged, and today we can see just a small sample of what once was.

Pit 1 is home of the infantry, and the largest and most impressive of the complex. It is estimated that houses a total of 6,000 soldiers, although ‘only’ about 2,000 have been unearthed, restored and placed in original formation. Here, one can observe the differences in the ranking, perceive facial expressions and the unique character of each warrior. Impossible to not be automatically transported back in time to ancient China, 2000 years ago.

In pit 1 it is also possible to see some of the restoration work, and get a firsthand look on how hard it is to piece back each and every warrior, since the statues are hollow inside (like an Easter egg) and are broken into a thousand pieces.

Besides the pits the complex has a museum, which we found to be very weak, considering the admission price and the absurd number of visitors 365 days a year. The best part of the museum are the bronze chariots, however the groups of Chinese tourists pushing and taking photos, makes the experience unbearable. At the 360˚ cinema you can see a reproduction of the history of the mausoleum, the crafting of the terracotta army and how it was looted and burnt after the death of the Emperor. Chinese and English sessions are interspersed. Again, a little slow, but quite informative.

Finally we took the shuttle bus to Qin Shi Huang tomb, which is included in the price of the ticket. Honestly there is nothing to see there beyond a pyramidal shaped mountain where the Emperor was buried and a huge park, which was hard to enjoy after so much walking. It is known that here was the location of the mausoleum, in view of the high concentration of mercury in the soil. Again, if you are too tired, you're not losing anything in skipping this part of the tour. Also, you can take the bus back to Xian early and avoid the rush hour (it took us more than two hours stuck in traffic on the way back!)

(turn on captions for English subtitles)

The Terracota Army


  1. Xian looks like such a beautiful place. I just love the Chinese culture, particularly the vivid colors they use in everything and the unique architectural styles.

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