Terracotta Warriors

After an evening of Muslim street food adventures on our first day in Xi’an, the next morning we’re up early to get to the terracotta warriors. Outside, the street is still quiet.

The first person we meet is a girl is taking the opportunity of a relatively empty pavement to relieve her bladder. She must be 11 or 12, not a child really, and thinly dressed against the bite of the morning cold. We gingerly step over the stream, and don’t know what to think. Is this usual here?

A few doors down a couple step out of a gaudily ostentatious hotel, straight into their waiting shiny-white 4×4. She is much younger than him, and wears a fur coat. Their shoes shine too. The car is parked close to the hotel’s glass doors. There’s no need to step on the pavement.

Turning left onto the street leading up to the station, the pavements are suddenly busy. Shops are open, pavement sellers doing a brisk trade, people hustling towards their trains. We find snacks to purchase, waste the obligatory 20 minutes finding a functioning ATM.

But soon we’ve found our bus on the station forecourt. It’s even labelled Terracotta Warriors in English. We seem to be the only people on the bus who need the translation.

The site of the terracotta warriors is about an hour from central Xi’an, so we settle down to nibbling on steamer goodies and sweet, nutty cakes, and watching the videos everyone else on the bus has blaring on their phones. The nice young couple in front of me are watching one of a man pretending his arse is an ATM, in full boxers-off detail. Oh how we laughed.

After about thirty minutes the bus is getting empty, so the driver pulls over and ditches us. 

It does not matter how slowly you go so long as you do not stop — Confucius

His bus journey is no longer economically viable, clearly.

We have only the slimmest conception of where the hell we are.

An unexpected bus stop.

But it soon transpires we’re not being abandoned, just shunted onto the bus behind, which is also half empty. Efficient.

When we eventually arrive at the site of the terracotta warriors, it dawns on us that it’s Sunday, and that’s why there are approximately 112,000 other people already there.


Actually, it turns out the crowds we experienced were nothing compared to how busy it can get. This is a picture of a busy day that’s on display in the onsite museum.

Many of our co-visitors opt for a golf buggy ride from the carpark to the museum. It’s a ten minute walk, so we baulk at paying for a ride. But it’s good that vehicles aren’t allowed any closer to the conservation site. Plus the risk of being flattened by a golf buggy adds interest to the walk.

Here’s the history bit (skip it if you want!)

The terracotta warriors were apparently discovered in 1974 by farmers digging a well. Imagine their disappointment.

The site of the warriors is close to the burial mound of Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor who ruled over something that could be called China, around 2200 years ago. There’s not much to see at the mound itself — it hasn’t been excavated. But the emperor’s burial site turned out to be just a small part of a huge necropolis, which the terracotta warriors were interred in when the emperor died. The necropolis covers 40 square miles, and is now almost entirely hidden underground, buried under 2000 years of dust storms.

To me, what’s most interesting about the terracotta army is the work and skill that must have gone into crafting such a massive… thing.

There are more than 8000 soldiers, and each of them is unique. They differ in height, facial features, hairstyle. Different ranks of soldier have their own uniforms, helmets, and even different shoes. Plus there are horses, chariots, weapons, jugglers, musicians, admin staff… Everything a self respecting army needs.

And visiting the warriors, the scale of the thing is definitely what hits you most.

We decide to start with the smallest pit (number three), and build up to the biggest (number one), to create some suspense. And it’s definitely a good call. Pits three and two are interesting — you can see some of the excavated warriors up close, and some explanation of the structure of the pits and so on.

The warriors were made in a kind of conveyor belt process, with the arms and legs made just like clay pipes, then built upon by many artisans in turn, one adding feet, another a head, then hair, and so on, until each unique person was fully sculpted and painted. When they were new the warriors would have been brightly coloured, but most of the colour was lost in chemical reaction with the air when the pits were opened.

The warriors on display have mostly been pieced back together since excavation — the original necropolis was constructed with wood beamed roofs, which would have been topped with reed mats and soil, and have protruded above the ground.

At some point in the 2 millennia since the roofs were built they’ve collapsed onto the warriors below, and metres of sandy soil has formed on top, hiding the whole construction. You can see the imprint of the original wooden beams in the earth in the photo above, as well as a few warriors in the position they were found: mostly knocked over, and usually headless.

So pits two and three have got some interesting background on how the warriors were made and discovered, but because of the disarrayed state that most of the finds are in, the pits themselves aren’t very wow.

Pit one though…

I mean, wow.

See the people walking round the edge? The place is huge. And each of those life-sized soldiers, oxen, horses… all unique.

There’s a lot of hype about the terracotta warriors, and for me that’s a red flag for heightened expectations, which will inevitably lead to disappointment. You may call me a cynic, but I’m not the only one.

But, when it came to it, I was definitely not disappointed to see the terracotta army. It’s epic. Shivers down your spine, history at your feet, swamped by something much bigger than yourself, epic. If you’re thinking of making the trek to Xi’an for this, I strongly recommend you do it, and have a tofu bao while you’re there. They’re really good.

After looking at the excavation pits we had a quick wander through the onsite museum, which wasn’t particularly enlightening — English signage is lacking, but it was entertaining. Mainly because it was full of the joy of vintage photographs.

It’s a sad loss to me, that digital photography means we’ll usually have a good photo to choose, among the weirdly wonderful ones. I prefer official photos where people look where they shouldn’t be, or have their tie out of place, or pull out of place expressions. Like the sheepish grin on Bill Clinton’s face in the picture of his visit to the terracotta army, displayed on the museum wall. When you’ve only got a couple of photos to choose from, somebody’s bound to come out looking foolish and human. Now we end up with scenes that tell no story beyond the intended one.

Terracotta warriors excavation staff.

As well as the museum, there’s a sort of cinema next to the excavation pits. A round room of projections on walls and polished concrete floor, showing a chopping-changing montage of imagined scenes of the attack of the warriors that’s thought to have occurred when the tomb was raided a few years after it was sealed. Flames and smashing, overlayed with music, then quick flicks to scenes of the warriors’ creation.

Destruction, creation, destruction. It’s very arty. I’m unsure if the old man in a grey brown jacket and flat cap, sweeping us out of the room with a straw broom, is part of the piece. The movie cuts out. and the only sounds are his gentle echoing broom strokes.

It’s time to go.

Back to Xi’an, and to more street food. (We demur the McDonald’s placed helpfully at the park’s exit.) To get to the bus we have to run a gauntlet of eager pomegranate sellers, ten or more of them, shouting over each other. Why so many pomegranates? We never learn.

On the way back the bus is crammed full to standing. The standing passengers get a discount. That’s nice, I think.

Ten kilometres down the road our bus careens to a halt and the standing passengers are all ejected. They run after us, more in resignation than desperation. There’s a sense of camaraderie to their group jog along the muddy hard shoulder in the smoggy dusk.

The bus, going at a fraction of its previous speed, passes a police car. Then the crowd of standees passes it too.

100 metres down the road the bus pulls over and re-admits the panting passengers.

I guess standing on highway buses isn’t legal here after all.

3 thoughts on “Terracotta Warriors

  1. I love the anecdote about passengers having to run to keep up with the bus while the police car goes by. It says so much about the culture. I’d love to see the terracotta warriors- your pictures help give me an idea of just how massive the pits are and how incredible it can be. Thanks for writing!

    1. Yeah, exactly. I definitely feel like the bus ride showed us more about Chinese culture than going to the warriors, though they were fully epic. It’s these little things that add up to a picture of a place isn’t it. Observing all the small bits of strangeness. This (apart from budget) is the main reason we try and get public buses everywhere – they’re so interesting!

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