The Terracotta Army in Xian is surely one of the greatest must sees on Earth. And standing at the end of Pit 1, staring into the unique faces of thousands of ceramic soldiers is incredible. But do adjust your expectations, and remember that the Chinese tourism industry is not very sophisticated.
We went out to the site as part of a day tour from the Soffotel, which also included the Wild Goose Pagoda and the excavations of an ancient Chinese village. Our guide, Simon, was quite good and full of plenty of amusing anecdotes and facts about the site, if not all entirely accurate.
One such story was the preparation for Bill Clinton’s visit during his presidential visit to China. The Government taught the farmer who found the warriors a brief exchange in English. He was to say, “hello, how are you?”, and in response to Clinton’s expected response of, “fine thanks, and you?”, the farmer was then supposed to say, “me too”. Unfortunately the wheels fell off when the farmer got nervous and he greeted Clinton with, “Hello, who are you?” Finding this hilarious, Bill replied, “I’m Hillary’s husband.” You guessed it, the farmer replied, “me too”.
Anyway, Pit 1 is the main exhibition, with row after row of terracotta warriors lined up in their ranks in an area the size of a football field, covered over by a giant hangar roof. To the rear of the pit lay still unexcavated chambers and broken pieces that are gradually being restored by the archaeologists. It is an amazing spectacle to be sure, but be careful not to let your expectations run away with you before you walk through the doors. I was wildly excited before stepping through, and found myself left a little flat for not having my breath taken away.
Moving onto Pit 2 in the next hangar is somewhat less impressive. Much darker inside, a small detachment of about 25 terracotta warriors stand in formation, forming the headquarters for the main army in Pit 1. Around the edge of the pit are several soldiers in glass cases, and even the opportunity to have your face superimposed onto a photo of the warriors in the main pit as a tacky souvenir. Mine’s on the bookshelf in our dining room.
Pit 3 is darker still, with the broken remains of archers and other items at the beginning of their excavation and restoration. There is in fact very little to see here. And finally, we were taken to the museum, which was even darker and more crowded than the previous pits. The main attraction here is the half size golden chariots. Although on our visit, one of them was a replica as the original was on tour somewhere else.
If you have any control over how you visit the site, I highly recommend that you begin with the museum and work backwards through the pits, ending with Pit 1. The main pit is definitely the highlight. Simon’s lack of showmanship had us progressively seeing less and less, which did take some of the shine off.
It’s a bit of a market scene outside the pits on the way in and out of the site. There’s plenty of dodgy souvenirs and opportunities to get something to eat or drink. However, animal lovers will need to brace yourselves, because the sight of dog furs hanging up in a number of the stalls can be quite confronting. Simon did try to convince us that the furs were mountain wolves, but having one at home ourselves, there was no mistaking the German Sheppard skins grotesquely on display.
When we got home, we saw a documentary on TV about the Terracotta Warriors, that I quite frankly got more out of. In deference to Simon, the information presented was certainly more reliable, if not as colourful. And the images of the warriors themselves was better through the television than it was for us going shoulder to shoulder with the throngs of Chinese tourists behind the barriers. But still, being there in person…
If you’re in China and you have the time, it is worth making the trip to Xian to see the Terracotta Army. Just be prepared.