Distance Travelled: 9487 miles
Date: 28th July
The Terracotta Army is located at the site of Qin Shi Huang’s tomb, some 30 km outside of Xi’an. There are two ways to get out there- get onto an organised tour, or just head to the bus station, and attempt to work out which one is the correct bus, and which is the hugely overpriced tourist bus.
Fortunately, Nick – my companion for the day – had been living in China for a couple of years so spoke the language well, albeit with a strong northern accent, and we managed to get there with a minimum of hassle.
Billed as “The Eighth Wonder of the Ancient World” (an epithet that loses a lot of it’s value when you realise how many other places get the same designation around the world), the Army is truly spectacular. It’s not every day you are confronted with thousands of unique, larger-than-lifesize clay soldiers from 210 BC.
It was in Xi’an that I met the most boring man in the world. I don’t remember what his name was, but he seemed to view everything as utterly rubbish and not worthwhile. On the Great Wall of China: “eh, it’s just a big wall- you can’t even see it from space”. On Szechuan food (my favourite in China- to be discussed when I get on to Chengdu): “too spicy”. On Chinese food in general: “It’s gross. They eat bugs and stuff. I’ve been eating in McDonalds everyday”. On pandas: “they’re always asleep. Boring”. I honestly have no idea what he was doing in China. I immediately found I disliked him intensely, and I avoided him as much as possible.
Annoyingly, he was also American, which I felt was a bit on the nose as far as stereotypes go. Just far too easy.
His opinion of the Terracotta Warriors was “meh, they’re ok. You can’t even get that close to them, and loads of them are broken”. Surprisingly, unlike everything else he said, this view was shared by a lot of other people I spoke to.
In case I hadn’t made it obvious before, this guy was an idiot. The warriors were one of the most impressive things I saw in all of China, and well worth going to see. I’d gone to see them at an exhibition in the British Museum some years ago, but it was another thing entirely getting to see them in situ, and in such great numbers.
They were constructed during the 3rd Century BC, at the orders of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China. His name literally means ‘First Emperor of Qin’, and it was he who united what we now think of as China after a series of brilliant military campaigns; extending the province of Qin, and conquering the other warring states.
He seems to have been obsessed with, and tremendously fearful of, death- spending much of his life searching for the elixir of life. Ironically his final elixir turned out to have been mercury, which killed him. Another aspect of his death fixation was the construction of his own city-sized mausoleum (this was the man who had the first stretches of the Great Wall built, so clearly he was used to vast engineering projects), and the Terracotta Army that guards it. This tomb was started soon after he ascended to the throne at 13, and was hugely impressive. From Wikipedia:
“The main tomb containing the emperor has yet to be opened and there is evidence suggesting that it remains relatively intact. Sima Qian’s description of the tomb includes replicas of palaces and scenic towers, “rare utensils and wonderful objects”, 100 rivers made with mercury, representations of “the heavenly bodies”, and crossbows rigged to shoot anyone who tried to break in … Modern archaeologists have located the tomb, and have inserted probes deep into it. The probes revealed abnormally high quantities of mercury, some 100 times the naturally occurring rate, suggesting that some parts of the legend are credible. Secrets were maintained, as most of the workmen who built the tomb were killed.”
The Army stands guard about a mile from the main burial mound. There are an estimated 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots with 520 horses and 150 cavalry horses. The First Emperor certainly didn’t do things by halves.
The first pit is housed in a huge hangar-type building. We walked into it, and were met by the Army. It’s easy to throw that name around without really thinking about what it means, but this really was an army. Rows upon rows upon rows of soldiers facing you, all intricately sculpted and highly detailed. It was one of those moments where your brain is confounded, and all you can think is ‘wow’.
“You know what these remind me of?’
“Dominoes. All lined up and ready to topple.”
“Ha ha, I doubt you’d even be able to get out of the building before you were arrested. You’d never be heard from again.”
“You know, a lot of Chinese people think these have been faked. Some sort of elaborate scheme by the government.”
“I suppose that it’s within their power to attempt such a massive conspiracy. But I highly doubt they’d be able to do that and cover it up.”
“I know, and it would be such a vast undertaking, with little tangible reward. Why bother? But I think it says quite a lot about the mindset of people that they think that it’s possible.”
Leaving Pit 1, we continue on to pits 2 and 3. These are far less impressive than the first, and it was a mistake to visit these distinctly less exciting excavations after seeing the main one.
Pit 2 is only a little smaller the first one, but most of the warriors have yet to be reassembled. Around a hundred years after the death of Qin Shi Huang, the Terracotta Army was broken into and looted. This was probably to steal the bronze weapons that were held by each warrior, but it’s possible that it was also an act of defiance against the first emperor. His dynasty ended with him after the assassination of his son, and it can’t have been much fun living with a whole army standing and stoically watching the moves of the ruling classes.
Unfortunately for us, this looting was accompanied with the wholesale smashing of the army, and burning of the wooden roof of the pits. Only one warrior was discovered completely intact. Because of the way they were constructed however, only the faces of each statue are individual and unique, so the process of reconstruction is relatively straightforward, and not too much historical value is lost by rebuilding parts of the bodies with modern clay.
The third pit is by far the smallest, and is believed to be the war chamber, given the relatively high proportion of officers. There are also reconstructed warriors in glass cases surrounding it, so you can get up close to them.