Terracotta Army….forward! March!

Wednesday 25th May

Firstly a disclaimer……

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are our own. Everyone has different perceptions and in no way do we speak for the population, just ourselves. Please don’t allow our observations to cloud your judgement to visit or see things. Visit and form your own views……. That’s what travel is all about.

With that said…………

One of the challenges we have found over the past week when visiting some of the famous attractions in China is having an expectation based on what we have only seen in images or documentaries. It is built up to the point where the reality can be slightly different to what we had expected. The Great Wall surpassed our expectations and felt simply surreal in that we were on it. The Forbidden Palace left us feeling a little underwhelmed .They say a picture is worth a thousand words which we have since amended to a picture is worth a thousand lies and can be easily manipulated. The main reason for coming to Xi’an was to see the famed Terracotta Warriors, the question now was would the experience be as we had envisaged.

The hostel like all hostels offers tours and although these can be slightly more expensive than the DIY approach we prefer they do allow us minimise loss of time and not put undue stress onto the kids but what we have also found is that they are a great opportunity to meet and kick around with likeminded people. The site of the Warriors is around 60km from the hostel so it also meant a direct route there rather than numerous buses.

So decision made and paid we were met by the hostels guide at 9am and walked down to the sister hostel to meet the rest of the group for a total of 20 travellers from various countries (especially Canadians) all with different ages and backgrounds. As usual the kids were questioned by the others and were made to feel part of the group.

The Terracotta Army  is a collection of  sculptures depicting the armies of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China whose purpose was to protect the emperor in his afterlife.

It is a work of precision every body parts are different


The figures were discovered in 1974 by local farmers.They vary in height according to their roles, with the tallest being the generals. The figures include warriors, chariots (which have since disappeared given they were originally made of wood) and horses. Estimates were that the three pits containing the Terracotta Army held more than 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots with 520 horses and 150 cavalry horses, the majority of which remain buried in the pits. We have been told a 4th pit has been discovered.

We were informed only 1 figure were excavated in perfect condition and the rest of it had to be put together like a jigsaw puzzle. It takes 3 – 4 months to restore one figure


These headless figures were unfinished due to the death of the Emperor

The trip via minibus took around an hour and although we had left the city, it was urban all the way with the usual scenery of cranes, development and high-rises with the trip passing quickly with introductions and conversations taking place.

Our guide for the day introduced herself and spoke good english and didn’t appear to have as many eccentricities as our Great Wall guide. She was however an organisational demon and kept everyone together & on time even making us march in 2 lines through the entrance gate. We weren’t quite as polished as the guards in Tiananmen Square but given time we could have been a formidable unit.

Like all well known points of interest we have been to so far this one was to be no different. We were not the only ones who were visiting. Although other foreigners were present in tour groups or as individuals the Chinese domestic tourist was the majority. People everywhere. Our guide ushered us through the entry gate and security screening with precision and then once getting us back together proceeded to give a history of the find that has been described as one of the most exciting of the 20th century. Unlike other groups she told us she preferred to take us around the 3 pits back to front in order to keep the best for last.

In order to preserve each pit they are covered looking not unlike aircraft hangers that provide a walkway around the circumference of the pit. One of the misconceptions (that we didn’t realise) is that the find is not fully excavated. Only a portion has been uncovered with day to day excavations taking place at nights.

Although they have been excavating for over 40 years already they estimate it will take another 60-70 years to to fully complete the task. The other misconception (again we didn’t realise) is that the relics when unearthed were all complete. In fact most of them are unearthed damaged and broken and archeologists then have to find the pieces that belong and repair them back together. Each figure takes around 3-4 months. This is a jigsaw on a massive scale.

Restoring work in progress


The main reason being (that we were given although different accounts are available on and off line) that the wood beams holding up the tamped earth ceiling concealing the figures had long since disintegrated causing the damage. Stories of villagers after the Emperors death destroying the tomb also may ring true but who is really to know.

The 1st pit we visited appeared to be only about a 3rd excavated with many figures in pieces and in varying degrees of being unearthed. They have worked out this pit contains around 2000 figures. The 2nd pit was the smallest and reputedly the headquarters of the Generals where they planned their battles. There were 68 figures assumed to be in the pit. We could not see that many but many of them that we could see were without heads. The supposed reason for this is that the emperor died during the construction of this pit and as a result the figures were not completed. (personally this raises more questions for us than that statement answers)

An interesting fact was that the figures bodies were made separately to the heads which allowed a gap for the hot air to evaporate after being taken out from the kiln/s.  We had told the kids that if they found 2 identical figures then we would give them 100 yuan…….that was a pretty safe bet.  They have preserved fully restored figures in glass cases where you can get a real sense of the detail that went into the production of them right down to fingernails and facial features. The colour has washed out so they are all of that reddy clay (terracotta) colour.

The final and largest pit (pit #1) is the one that is most prevalent in pictures and books. The size of the pit is massive and all fully enclosed. Around 50% is still un-excavated  with various figures at the far end being jigsawed together. Other areas are in a state of digging with lines and tools laid out. The front of the pit has a viewing platform that overlooks the entire pit and gives the scene that most are familiar with…..the rows of the figures lined up in formation. They also have a sign that marks the location of the well hole that was being dug and as a result this discovery was made.  We spent around 45 minutes in this pit then were rounded up by our guide.

Pit 1 – being the largest pit which contain 6000 warriors as we were told


This was a non-shopping tour and our next stop was a on-site cinema that shows a 20 minute movie about the discovery and archeological efforts. It just so happens that whilst waiting for our session to start there is a shop at the cinema selling souvenirs including life size replicas of the different warriors made from the same local clay. The price included shipping to your country and we both agreed one would look great in the garden so Noelle spent around half an hour negotiating on price. They showed us documentation of replicas of figures sent to NZ already by the other customers.  They actually pack it in a crate and fill it with expanda-foam which upon arrival you play amateur archeologist and excavate it. In the end we got him down to $1800 NZ but pulled out as it would have maxed out the credit card and left us with no lifeline for another 5 days (until the new month) if we ran out of cash so we reluctantly walked away and settled on the book of the site that although much cheaper is not quite as impressive if we put it in the garden.

We then made a quick visit to a museum on the Emperors chariots that were all replicas so most of the group including us was through in around 10 minutes.  By this time it was getting towards mid afternoon so we were offered lunch by the guide at a restaurant.  It would cost extra (35 yuan each) which we all agreed to and man what a lunch. Around 10 dishes with us at 2 tables of 10. Value for money and some great dishes.

Delicious lunch and great company too

It conveniently (you reckon!) happened that below the dining floor of the restaurant was a large tea shop and then we were treated to the making of various teas and some tastings. It was all similar to what we had done in Penang but no less enjoyable. We were then given an opportunity to purchase tea and equipment if we wished (This is shopping by stealth) but again we didn’t really mind as it did involve an activity that we all (seemed to) enjoy.

Then it was back onto the vehicles and a visit to the Emperors Tomb before returning to the hostel. We pulled off the highway onto the side of it and were shown a small hillock (not the big one but the one with the 2 willows, not the…..sorry a bit of Monty Python humour there) in the distance that was the Tomb where the  Emperor is buried. It has never been excavated due to to high levels of mercury recorded inside as the Emperor apparently had rivers of mercury  running through it. (wouldn’t this leach into the ground over the years??)  Apparently once the tomb was completed the 700,000 workers were then encased inside(reputedly alive) so as to prevent thieving of the valuables upon the Emperors death. Our guide also told us that one person made each terracotta figure and were then killed on completion of it.

That was it – the green hill is all we got to see which apparently the Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s tomb is underneath it


Upon returning around 5.30pm we took a breather in the common room and signed up for Mahjong lessons at 8pm. We went out for a small snack and found a place that you purchase skewered food which you cook in a stock then eat and drink the stock. Each skewer was NZ$0.17 and we got through 47.  It was a nice way to eat some veggies and tofu.


8pm saw us sit down with the staff at the hostel to learn how to play mahjong.  I have often seen it played but have no knowledge of the objective or how it works so a perfect opportunity. With an English couple, a German and a Canadian assisted by the staff we were scratching our heads in how they explained it and what we had to do.

A few fun games of Mahjong finished the day with plenty of laughters


After a few hilarious games we then began to understand the concept and it became very enjoyable. It is similar to playing with a deck of cards.  After over 2 hours we were shattered and called it a night. Some of the others from our trip carried on until around 3am  drinking……oh to be travelling like the old days (they did look a bit worse for wear the next day)

So to my original statement at the beginning…. Did our visit to the Terracotta Army meet our expectations?  Well yes and no. Yes in that we saw what is undoubtedly an amazing archeological site and discovery along with tremendous efforts to restore the find.

It was again great to see in person what we had only read about. It was enjoyable and we had great company which really made the day.  I answer no in that some of the information given to us raised many questions and it had us questioning the validity of that information insofar as how do they know all this.

You can’t help but wonder if a history has been created to fit the narrative you are expected to believe. Cynical of me to suggest this but we are in a country where history has been adjusted at times to fit the purpose needed.  The general consensus from all and other we have spoken to after was that they expected to see a larger army so to speak.  The number of figures on view is quite small and when they say 6000 figures in pit one this is based on guesstimations of what they have already uncovered.

Overall it was a great day, great people and I’m conflicted in whether it makes my list of top 3 things done so far at the expense of our biking on the X’an city walls…….honestly….probably not, the biking just edges it on the basis of it involves a bike, a single speed tandem no less but these were still spectacular so lets call it 3rd equal on my top 3 list.



One comment

  1. Thanks for the descriptive report on your journey to view the soldiers. – very interesting and honest appraisal of your venture – I would have preferred the Mahjong and the drinks!!!!! Sadly we wont be seeing a Chinese General guarding your front gate!!! Meanies!!!!!
    Striker got pricked yesterday and is all okay.

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