The Terracotta Warriors
When I sit back and think about the wide array of cultural experiences that took place during my time in China, visiting the Terracotta Warriors Museum was a pivotal moment in the forming of my overall opinion on what the country had to offer. Lovers of ancient history and architecture would find these mass discoveries to be mesmerizing, but it comes at a price. As it is with any tourist destination in China, the crowds of people can truly restrict the capability to explore, or at least lengthen the process. My memory of the Terracotta Warriors does not reside with the hundreds of perfectly sculpted, expressionless statues. It resides with the thousands of expressionless faces pushing and shoving for the perfect angles for selfies and photos.
Leaving Xian early that morning proved particularly difficult, mainly due to the lack of sleep I had been restricted to the night before. It turns out a member of our tour group had a chronic sleep-walking problem, which lead her to locking herself out of her room at 5am without any clothes on. The roaring screams of “HELP! SOMEONE HELP ME!” was shortly followed by excessive banging on her hotel room door. This was eventually met by her confused (and probably still drunk) other half. Although I did mange to drift back into sleep after the initial confusion, 7am came around a little too quickly.
Breakfast consisted of some delicious omelettes, hand crafted on a street food cart opposite our hotel. The delicious aromas of smoking vegetables and sweet sauces was enough to wake you from a coma. Although still half asleep, it was a perfect way to begin the day. Shortly after, our mini bus had arrived to drive us out of the city, heading towards the Museums of the Terracotta Warriors.
Our tour guide Richard provided us with extensive knowledge on the Terracotta Warriors whilst we calmly traveled out of the city. However, I decided this would be an ample moment to kick back with a bit of Passenger and rest my eyes for a while. The mini bus speeding past buildings, vehicles and crowds of people blurred into a gradient of muted colours as I drifted into a soft, relaxing sleep.
Virtually no time had passed at all, at least in my mind, before we were pulling into the gates of the Terracotta Warriors Museum Complex. Swiftly gathering our things and exiting the bus, Richard talked us through the day, explaining our route and what it was that we would be seeing. He led us into the snaking queues of Chinese tourists, as we presented our tickets at the heavily guarded turnstiles and passed through the gates into the huge concrete park.
The complex consisted of 5 individual buildings. Each contained a variety of artefacts and historical findings. Richard directed us to the first Museum on our right-hand side, which had a long line of people waiting outside, twisting into a large opening that seemed to be the entrance. He allowed us some free time to explore the two floors of Museum, which displayed various sculptures protected by large glass panels.
Within the space of fifteen minutes of wandering around the gloomy, over crowded passageways, I managed to lose sight of everyone in my tour group. Trying to catch a glimpse of any familiar face was extremely difficult in such a populated environment and it wasn’t long before I was queuing to leave the building and escape the confined spaces inside.
It was an extremely hot and humid day and the beating sun made it difficult to focus on the thousands of faces sweeping past me each second. Deciding that it would be virtually impossible to find my new friends in the expansive crowds, I decided to explore the other Museums situated in the complex. While keeping an eye out for any members of my group, I wandered into the largest building in the centre of the park. It seemed more appealing than the others from the outside, as the queues seemed to be a lot shorter and easier to manoeuvre through. It was a very different story inside.
I had apparently stumbled across the main event. Hundreds of people were crowded around a metal barrier, suspended over a 30-foot drop into a huge cavernous pit. From the inside, the building resembled a vast aircraft hangar, with towering metal arches supporting a plastic panel dome ceiling. All spatial awareness went out the window inside the dome, with hundreds of Chinese people pushing and shoving each other for the perfect photo opportunity. As I strode through the waves of the people surrounding me, I eventually reached the edge of the balcony to see what all the fuss was about. Below us, stood rows and rows of lifeless soldiers, lined up in trenches of dirt and rock.
If anything, the most amazing element of the Terracotta Warriors was the amount. Hundreds of statues lined up in military formation, all with different expressions. They stretched almost beyond the naked eye to the far end of the dome. These sculptures depicted the armies of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China. Built with the purpose of protecting the emperor in his afterlife, the Terracotta Warriors date back to as early as 210BC and were buried with the emperor upon his death. They were first discovered by local farmers in 1974 and contain 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots and 670 horses. It is understandable why this discovery was considered to be one of the best findings of the 20th Century.
Having realised exactly where I was, I fought to the front of the crowds for a good photo spot. This was before I was shoved out of the way by a surprisingly strong elderly Chinese woman. At the end of my tether with the over powering crowds, I slowly moved around the edge of the barrier, which followed the left-hand wall of the dome. I slowly circled the huge pit of Terracotta Warriors, catching different angles and views of the outstanding Chinese craftsmanship.
The walkway around the edge of the hangar eventually led to the exit, which I was extremely pleased to find. The fresh air caused a sigh of relief as I broke out into the centre of the complex and enjoyed the soft wind cooling me down. Out of sheer luck, I had somehow come across my tour group while strolling around the park. I returned to giggles and amused expressions. “We thought we had lost you forever!” Isabelle whispered to me as Richard continued to walk us around the Museums.
He began to lead the group into the large dome I had just exited from. There was no way I was going back into the room of spatial suicide. So, I chilled under the shade of a nearby tree and waited for them to appear from the exit at the far end of the building. Most of the group seemed to have a similar reaction to my own; interesting to experience, but the crowds made it difficult to fully enjoy.
If you’re reading this with an intent to visit China in the future, my advice would be this; the Terracotta Warriors isn’t a must do. It’s difficult to enjoy the experience when you are almost being moved along like cattle in each of the complex’s buildings. Although the artifacts and warriors themselves were incredible to behold, the massive swarms of people made it an almost forgettable experience in my opinion. There are much more beautiful parts of China that you should spend your time indulging instead. Perhaps that’s just a personal opinion, or maybe it is sound advice. I will let you be the judge.
After an already long day of walking and excessive sweating, we were all back on our private mini bus heading back into Xian to carry on with the rest of our day. When we eventually reached the centre of the city, we hopped off the bus into the busy streets and followed Richard to our next location. He directed us to the local street markets, situated adjacent to the famous “Giant Goose Pagoda”. Unfortunately, the Pagoda was closed for the day, so instead we explored the markets, selling a variety of foods and nick-nacks. I used the time to focus my photography on the people of Xian and how they were spending their days.
Once our free time had ended, Richard led the group around the eastern wall of the Pagoda, where the daily water fountain show was taking place. It was actually quite a magical experience. Hundreds of water fountains, sat in the middle of the park facing the Pagoda, had been synchronized to the beats of Chinese flute music as they shot out of the ground. Sprinkling the crowds with fresh water, the fountains shot up into the sky like bubbles from a champagne bottle, dancing to the sound of soothing music. In contrary to the Terracotta Warriors, I would consider the water fountain shows to be a “must do” when visiting Xian. For an even better experience, visit the evening water shows, which are usually illuminated by vibrant neon lights.
Once the show had finished, the group regathered by the Pagoda. It was getting later and later in the day and we had an overnight train to catch! Our private mini bus had returned to collect us, taking a short detour to our hotel to collect our rucksacks. Then it was onto the train station in the heart of the city. With our heavy rucksacks loaded onto our backs, we gathered outside the station as Richard handed us our train tickets. More queueing ensued as we headed towards the entrance and waited for the wardens to stamp our tickets.
We had a little bit of time to spend in the station before catching our train. This was consumed by purchasing our dinner, snacks and a few beers for the overnight journey. Naturally, you were limited to what food you could make on the train, so dinner on our overnight journeys usually consisted of delicious Chinese style pot noodles and large bags of crisps. Not the most nutritious meal, but a meal none the less.
Once on the train, the usual ritual of stuffing our luggage into the overhead shelves and getting ourselves settled began. Sometimes just finding the correct carriage and bed number was problematic, due to the trains very confusing numbering system. Nonetheless, we all found where we were supposed to be and finally began to relax. We swapped stories and opinions of the day over a few beers and mountains of snacks, chatting away until the daylight faded into the dark of night. Before you knew it, the warden was parading the carriages instructing us to turn off our lights and get into our beds.
It had certainly been an interesting day. I’m so grateful that I was presented with the opportunity to visit the burial site of the Terracotta Warriors, yet I was also grateful to be driving away from the insane crowds that surrounded them. The water fountains were certainly my highlight of the day, providing me with a much more memorable experience.
As the train silently sped through the darkness, I felt the excitement running through my blood in anticipation of our next destination; Suzhuo – “The Venice of the East”.