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China Deep Dive: The Terracotta Army

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Xi'an's army of terracotta warriors is the most famous sight in China outside of Beijing. Although Mei Ling and I are quite leery of tourist attractions it seemed inconceivable to visit Xi'an and give the army a pass. Mei Ling had kept the contact information of our taxi driver from the airport and he offered us a decent deal to take us to the site about an hour's drive from the center.

We stopped to fortify ourselves at a busy morning market outside the Hanguang Gate on the southern section of the city wall. Unlike the Muslim quarter this was a very local scene, a place for people in the neighborhood to fuel up before a full day of work. A long row of produce vendors and butchers extended along the wall. The kids got steamed buns and pork sandwiches and then Spenser helped me buy a bag of peaches.

The terracotta army was crafted over two thousand years ago to accompany the soul of Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China, into the afterlife. Construction of the army began soon after Qin ascended to the throne when he was still a teenager, so it seems the ancient Chinese believed in being prepared. The figurines were discovered n 1974 by a group of farmers digging a well and the land was immediately seized by the government with little compensation to the farmers. The chambers containing the warriors were collapsed and most of the figures are reconstructed from fragments. They were originally painted in a variety of colors and lacquered but when the mud caking the statues was removed and the paint was exposed to air it curled and flaked off within minutes. For this reason the central tomb at the site has still not been opened while authorities investigate methods of preserving the paint. When we arrived at the complex we were greeted by the sight of huge crowds of Chinese tourists milling in the open area outside the gates. Mei Ling went inside the office to deal with tickets while I kept the kids entertained outdoors. After about half an hour she emerged and we inched our way towards the entrance through the typical broken and disorganized lines of Chinese tourist attractions. After passing through the turnstiles there was a ten minute walk on the footpaths to reach the pits.

There are four excavation pits, each of them enclosed within a large protective structure similar to an airplane hangar. We started out in one of the minor pits where there were just a few statues and it was easy to get to the edge of the viewing platform. We could see workers continuing the painstaking archaeological work at the bottom of the pit. From a distance the clay figures looked small but they are life-size or even larger than life. Different body parts were made separately, occasionally using molds, and then joined together using clay slurry as an adhesive. Terra cotta is a term for a basic form of fired clay, typically of reddish or brownish color, that was by far the predominant form of pottery in the world until the seventeenth century when porcelain emerged as a higher end variant.

The real madness began when we entered Pit 1 which contained by far the largest collection of warriors numbering over six thousand. There was a narrow perimeter that was thoroughly clogged with tour groups, but it was clear that the best view of the statues was from an elevated platform at the far end of the pit. Since we had already come this far we grabbed the kids' hands and plunged into the throbbing mass of humanity that was streaming in both directions without any sign of courtesy or organization. The general approach of the tour groups was to band into a phalanx and drive forward mercilessly through the center of the walkway, forcing anyone coming in the other direction to the edges. I was generally fine with this and we hugged the wall until we eventually reached the staircase to the platform. The railing at the edge offered the best view of the warrior army but once visitors had endured the struggle to reach it they were reluctant to give up their positions. I would see people snap a few pictures and then seem puzzled as they contemplated what to do next, not wanting to retreat from the railing having left some important task unfinished. Sometimes they would just stay there engaged in casual conversation with someone else in their party. I just waited patiently and eventually someone gave up and abandoned the railing close enough to me that I could quickly slide in with the kids. I quickly snapped my pictures, absorbed the full scene for about thirty seconds, and then allowed someone else to get their turn. I already knew that there was no epiphany to be experienced here. There was hardly any difference between seeing the terracotta army from the railing and looking at a photograph or a video taken by someone else. The enormous shed had no atmosphere whatsoever and the ridiculous, unregulated crush of gawkers had already eliminated any sense of connection to the ancient civilization that had created the statues.


It was quite a relief to put the pits behind us and head for the exits. I'm not sure I would say that I regretted having made the trip. We had plenty of time in China so we hadn't passed up some other sight or activity to see the warriors, and the experience had been memorable although not in the way that one might have hoped. Like it or not, the oppressive way in which the warriors have to be viewed is a part of Chinese culture in itself. Of course there are plenty of tourist sights in the Western world that are equally overcrowded and unpleasant, with the Mona Lisa and the Statue of Liberty being two that immediately come to mind. A tourist market extended between the pits and the exit where we picked up some very succulent watermelon. Otherwise there was nothing to distinguish it from the more interesting and entertaining markets in the Muslim quarter.

On the way back to Xi'an we stopped at Huaqing Palace. There has been a palace here at the base of Li Mountain for more than two thousand years but the buildings that currently occupy the site were built centuries later. The complex is also known as Huaqing Hot Springs because of the geothermal springs that the palace was built around. At the street level entrance to the palace there was an impressive fountain with a large sculpture of a male and a female figure with human upper bodies and spiraling tails instead of legs. These figures represented the Tang dynasty Emperor Xuanzong and his consort Yang Guifei, who used the palace as their primary retreat to indulge in a romance that weakened the empire and caused a major rebellion. The figures are stylized according to the Chinese legend of Fuxi and Nüwa, a brother and sister who were deities or the only human survivors of some natural disaster, depending on the version of the legend. Fuxi and Nüwa were allowed by the gods to marry and populate the earth. Below the couple was one level occupied by statues of dancers and musicians and then another with groups of warriors and laborers. It was quite detailed and impressive.

I was under the mistaken impression that visitors could still use the hot springs and we had carried bathing suits with us, but fortunately we hadn't built it up too much and the kids weren't aware that this was the original plan. The buildings and pools were quite beautiful but not substantially different from gardens and palaces we had seen in other parts of China. We took a shuttle bus driver up on his offer to drive us around the complex for a small fee although I think I would have preferred to walk.

Back in Xi'an Mei Ling wanted to take the kids to a musical performance that was apparently well-known around the country. The show depicted a historical romance related to Chinese villagers who sought to make their fortune on the Silk Road despite the dangers that claimed many of their lives. It was a very spectacular production in which the entire audience rotated within the theater to face different sets which came equipped with actual waterfalls and trained dogs representing wolves. I enjoyed it more than I had expected.

We had a little more time on our hands so we went to the Temple of the Eight Immortals, the largest Taoist temple in Xi'an. It was located in a commercial area which specialized in used books and temple offerings. The temple was serene and very quiet with hardly anyone other than us inside. The temple apparently becomes quite lively during Taoist holidays but there was no sign of any festival energy during our visit.

For dinner we decided to try a night market far from the center of the city that our driver had suggested. I hadn't come across the Houhai market in my research and it didn't seem geared to tourists. We arrived just as it was opening on a quiet street along the Bahe River northeast of the city. This was a hip, modern market with a wide range of food options as well as alcoholic beverages. Many of the stalls were like little pop-up bars and restaurants presented in a very professional way. At the far end there was an array of carnival games which provided an inexpensive diversion for the kids.

The food here was more typically Chinese in contrast to the Muslim specialties of the markets in and around the walled city. The presentation was very appetizing and the quality was quite good. It was very enjoyable to sit outside and eat while gazing at the skyline of the neighborhood across the river.

As the evening unfolded the market began to grow more crowded and we discovered other branches of it on side streets and along the shoreline. For some reason they began allowing cars to drive along the narrow street where the main body of the market was located which meant all the pedestrians were constantly having to move out of the way which was quite annoying. Overall though the vibe was really positive and I was glad we had the good fortune to be informed about this place.

There was a brutal competition for cabs at the entrance to the market and we had to wait almost an hour for the ride Mei Ling had arranged on her app. I was exhausted at this point but Mei Ling convinced me that we should meet her friend Mimi at yet another night market at Yongxingfang close to the Changle Gate on the eastern side of the walled city. This was also a very lively market although much more typical and touristy than Houhai. The kids got to indulge in the same time-honored and wasteful tradition of smashing cups that they had first experienced in Tianjin.

The two night markets effectively brought our short stay in Xi'an to an end. It turned out to have been an excellent choice to fill our accidental three day intermission as there really didn't seem to be much to do in the city outside of the Muslim quarter. In the morning we cleared out of our apartment and stopped right outside to load up on a typical Muslim breakfast of deep fried bread stuffed with meat. All that was left was a quick metro trip to the train station where we would embark upon the fourth leg of this whirlwind tour of China. At last we would be visiting the province of Szechuan.

Posted by zzlangerhans 20:34 Archived in China Tagged road_trip family xi'an terracotta_warriors family_travel travel_blog tony_friedman family_travel_blog

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