Once Were Warriors
The Terracotta Warriors, Xi'an, China: 'Nothing can prepare you for this'
It was not the auspicious start I'd imagined. Lost in translation enroute to the Terracotta Army, I upset my Buddhist driver when he thought I said a "monk" not a "monkey" had once pooped on my car windscreen. We travelled in silence thereafter.
The Terracotta Warriors, a UNESCO World Heritage site, are about 40 minutes from downtown Xi'an and we were about midway, when I dropped the clanger.
The ancient, walled city had faded to mixed retail and office buildings, and then seemingly endless suburban high-rises. The sameness of the urban landscape continued uninterrupted almost to the gates of the world's largest ancient imperial tomb complex, which draws more than five million visitors each year.
Xi'an has a population of 10 million and is considered China's cultural heart. Its crenulated Ming Dynasty wall stretches for 14 kilometres around the old city and its Bell and Drum towers are significant draw cards for culture hungry tourists.
But in Xi'an, it's all about the army. Street vendors sell every kitsch souvenir you can imagine: from fans to fake watches and every fridge magnet in between – all covered in warriors.
On the final approach to the army, who guard the resting place of China's great unifying emperor Qin Shi Huang, I realised I was incredibly nervous. I'd shelved my great expectations months before arriving in China - terrified of being disappointed. I thought I was all organised and Zen-like, but now - only moments away from fulfilling a lifelong wish - I felt sick to my stomach. Dreams of visiting a place so long on my bucket list were about to be realised ... or dashed. And as we arrived, I wondered: could it live up to the hype?
The first surprise was the architecture of the museum complex: Communist chic certainly, but like so many important buildings in this vast country: simple and unfussy … and grey. Not a pagoda or temple in sight.
There were the large tour groups I had expected and hordes of students, I hadn't – "school's out for summer", my guide pointed out.
"Big man. Where you from?" the students shouted.
My last attempt at speaking Mandarin reduced a child to tears, so I remained mute while my guide, Carrie, sorted the tickets, acutely aware I was the only Western man in the museum forecourt and the focus of several camera lenses.
Next came the security screening – bags through scanners and a pat down, similar to an airport - and if you're carrying water you'll need to take a sip to show it's not dangerous. Then we were whisked up to the army in electric carts.
And suddenly, carried forward by the inertia of a thousand clamouring tourists, we were inside what looked like a vast airplane hangar. It was hot and humid and smelt like my grandfather's potting shed, but despite the crowd of people it was orderly chaos, as everyone shuffled forward to meet the warriors.
At first glance, everything seemed just as it should be: five bodies deep from the railing that surrounds the pit containing the warriors, and everywhere outstretched arms and a sea of selfie-sticks and smart phones swaying high in the air.
And the statues: sculptures to make you swoon and your knees buckle. The scale of the Terracotta Warriors slapped me giddy.
The first few seconds I jarred at the notion there were less fully restored statues than I expected, but then I looked up and around, and as my senses adjusted to the mammoth scale of what I was actually witnessing, bewilderment set in. Every single warrior is different: facial features, expressions, clothing and hairstyles; thin moustaches, goatees, peach fuzz – a recent study has revealed that no two ears are alike. The detail and craftsmanship is overwhelming.
There are three main pits. Number One, the largest, is about 230 metres long and 60m wide. It's a combined battle formation of charioteers and infantryman. The wooden chariots have long since decayed, as have the wooden handles of the weapons. There are approximately 6000 warriors in this pit alone, about 2000 of which have been excavated. The other smaller pits contain different, higher ranking soldiers, and large sections of un-excavated sculptures.
Everyone wants 'that shot' front and centre – facing the warriors. After waiting a few minutes I was there. I fired off some snaps and then scanned the faces of the warriors – each one different; it's impossible not to be moved.
Despite the throng, it all somehow works: people pressing ever forward but never a crush. Like a human conveyor belt, I moved slowly to the front and was carried off to the side by the throng and down the side of the pit.
The sides and back of Pit One are less busy, but no less interesting. Visitors catch glimpses of the ongoing restoration work. Piles of broken pieces like a vast terracotta jigsaw puzzle. International experts work alongside Chinese archeologists, photographing and cataloguing each piece. There's even a 'terracotta hospital' for the seriously wounded warriors. Being able to see the ongoing restoration and preservation is a rare treat. At most historical sites, all of this happens behind the scenes.
One of the highlights of the tour was the imperial horse and chariots: one-half replicas – resplendent in their diminutive splendour, covered in 15 kilograms of gold. They are magnificent and my last stop on the tour.
"How do you feel?" Carrie asked as we strolled back to the car.
"Overwhelmed," I replied – and I was … completely.
"And sad," I added.
I explained that seeing piles and piles of broken statues tinged the trip with a touch of melancholy, but also I was greedy to see the vast sections of mausoleum yet to be unearthed.
"Don't be sad," Carrie said
The emperor is at rest.
Warriors in numbers
The Terracotta Warriors were created more than 2000 years ago to accompany Emperor Qin Shi Huang into the afterlife.
- Only a tiny fraction of the statues have been unearthed, since first being discovered by farmers in 1974 while digging a well.
- More than 700,000 labourers took about 40 years to complete the statues.
- The warriors are a tiny part of a much larger funerary complex, which includes an imperial palace and the mausoleum of China's first emperor.
- Qin Shi Huang wanted his 8000-strong imperial guard buried alive with him, but his prime minister believed it too cruel and suggested the statues.
- The emperor was determined to become immortal. He sent monks to obtain a magical elixir, which they failed to do. Instead they prescribed mercury, which is believed to have led to the monarch's death at 39.
- Reasons the site hasn't been fully excavated include lack of technology, presence of mercury, and perhaps most importantly to the Chinese, it's a sacred burial site of a revered monarch that many believe should rest in peace.
- Some warriors are hollow, but many are solid, making these easier to restore.
- The statues were once brightly coloured, but the delicate pigments disappeared within seconds of exposure to air as they were unearthed.
- There are currently four pits at the warrior site. Three are open to the public. Pit one is the most famous. It was opened to the public in 1979.
- There are about 8000 soldiers, 130 chariots and 800 horses.
- Restoration is ongoing, onsite. Tubs of broken fragments, statues wrapped in plastic and numbered; some missing limbs or heads. Experts and ground staff continue with their work.
More information flowertravel.com.au
Getting there China Eastern Airlines fly Auckland to Shanghai return, starting from about $1000. Air China flies Auckland to Beijing return, starting from about $900.
Getting around The easiest way to get around in China is by fast train. They are quick, clean and on time. High speed trains from Shanghai or Beijing to Xi'an (Terracotta Army) take about five hours. Slower, overnight train options are available on both routes to save a night of accommodation.
Touring there While it is possible to book trains, visas and entry tickets yourself, trans-Siberian travel experts Flower Travel specialise in individual and group travel to China, Mongolia and Russia, including the Terracotta Army, Beijing and Shanghai. They offer semi-independent touring where the essentials are all taken care of but you're not 'smothered'. See trans-siberian.com.au
The author travelled courtesy of Flower Travel.