The must-see Terracotta Warriors of Xi-An, China

The terracotta warriors of xian

Wet. Very wet. Incessant torrents pouring from the sky, a grey downpour of drops bouncing up off the pavement with a vengeance, splattering ankles and soaking shoes. Shiny pavements and sodden road surfaces, wobbly flagstones hiding underground lakes that flush up and over your feet as you step on them, splurging out with speed and vengeance. Distorted reflections in inch thick washes over grey, shining pavements. Oil spill rainbows beneath the wheels of taxis, buses washing foaming waves over the curb, each replaced by a new one every few minutes as the sky continues to empty. This is what greets us in Xi-An after a 12 hour sleeper train. The people crowd towards the cab rank, bundling and shoving in the typical Chinese queuing style. Pushy umbrella sellers stand in brightly coloured plastic rain ponchos, shoving their cheap pastel wares towards you as you battle through the crowd.

It would be nice to say the rain clears up for our stay here. But it would be untrue. This seems to be a place of perpetual rain. During our two and a half days here, it literally doesn’t stop once. But we have come here, as do many who visit Xi-An, for the army. The famous Terracotta Army, standing guard on the tomb of a king now less well known than they are themselves, life size and numerous.

The first huge hall of warriors

The first huge hall of warriors

The main hall holds the best and most famous finds. Here it is hard to get to the front through the pushing, elbowing masses desperate for a photo of what is now one of the world’s most famous sites. Once you are through the crowd and pressed up against the railing you look out into a huge iron hanger, the curved roof training your eyes downwards towards the hundreds of proud, strong warriors standing to attention beneath you. There are soldiers of every rank and horses on parade, each one crafted with great care. There are battle formations of strong soldiers with fearsome stares and dutifully set jaws. Their power is palpable – it is what makes it worth putting up with the pushing and it is what brings people here day after day.

The scale of it is quite incredible. Every statue has a different face, different features, a different expression. The poses are varied, the detail is key. What an immense undertaking – what an astronomical number of people must have been involved in this. And yet there is no record. This hidden army slumbered for centuries beneath hills and fields until unsuspecting farmers decided to sink a well and made the discovery of our times. What a moment it must have been, to see that tip of the iceberg emerging from the crumbling soil before them.

Horses and soldiers standing guard

In the first hall you come to, you can walk all around the warriors and even see some of them in the process of being painstakingly restored. Somehow, although it’s impossible, you wish you could get closer, to walk amongst them and really get a sense of the ancient hands that shaped them and the long faded minds that conceived them. There’s a frustration in being so close and yet so far, you can see them but you are necessarily removed from them. Yet you want to examine the faces at closer quarters, see the expressions and imagine the men they could have been if not cloaked in clay, the men who perhaps inspired them. You want to witness first-hand the detail of the uniforms, the hair and the strength of their stances.

Beautiful details on every single statue

In one of the other halls you can get that bit closer – some of the more famous figures are encased in glass boxes, on display for the hungry masses. Here and in the third and final hall, you can also see smaller excavation pits, half full with semi buried figures. While not as impressive as the main hall, they do give an insight into the scale of this discovery – a discovery that is still not sleeping as more and more excavations produce new and undocumented remains.

The impression you leave with, despite the incessant rain and throbbing crowds, is one of gentle awe for the scale of this army, buried beneath the soil for so long, forgotten and hidden from the flesh and blood inhabitants of the world above. A vision so grand is something worth remembering. An entire army built to guard a deceased king, and hidden for so long beneath the soil and now the biggest draw calling people to the rainy city of Xi-An. It makes you consider just what may still be lying undiscovered beneath our feet, slumbering in the darkness just waiting for research, providence or sheer dumb luck to uncover it.

Tips for getting there: Most hostels and hotels will offer tours, which are an easy option but often cost a lot more than you really need to pay. The easiest way to get there is to get bus 306 from outside Xian train station. If you stand with your back to the station, the bus goes from the parking lot  to your left. It is a special tourism bus, and there will be a sign with the number in the window. Its always worth having your destination written down in Chinese if you can to show the driver/conductor just to double check. You don’t need to buy a ticket in advance, just take your seat and someone will come and collect your fare – just 7Y one way. On the return journey you can find buses waiting in the parking lot. Here you will also find coaches running back to the railway station that are different from the 306 – these cost just a few yuan more, but didn’t seem as efficient and got incredibly overcrowded with the aisles crammed with seated and standing Chinese tourists, so its up to you whether you prefer to jump on one of these or wait for the 306. Entrance fee is 150Y.

Words and photographs copyright of Bonnie Radcliffe.