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Day 208: The terracotta army

Xi'an Travel Blog

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The Terracotta Warriors Museum

Thanks to the people I met here and/or travelled with: Chung Yun Peng (China)

For a modern, Chinese city, Xi'an is quite nice, though it's not particularly overflowing with tourist attractions. What put Xi'an firmly on the tourist map and made it become the third-most visited city in China is an archaeological dig 35 kilometres east of the city. In 1974 peasants accidentally stumbled on what is regarded as one of the most important archaeological finds in the world: the tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huang.

Qin Shi Huang was the first person to unify the warring kingdoms, laying the foundations and the borders of present day China, over 2000 years ago.
Upon his death his tomb was surrounded by underground vaults containing an army of terracotta guardians to safeguard his passage into the afterlife - a mind-boggling army of nearly 8000 life-size terracotta soldiers and horses in battle formation.

Proof that the site is inscribed on the World Heritage List
Many of these statues have been remarkably well-preserved, despite having been buried for two millennia. Even more mind-boggling is the fact that no two soldiers are alike. All have unique  facial features, hairdo and clothes.

The army is buried in three separate vaults, or pits. Pit 3, the smallest, contains the high-ranking officers and is believed to have been the 'headquarters'. The second pit contains about 1300 statues and is still largely unexcavated. The vaults which have been opened have yielded mostly shards, so my guess is they are keeping the remaining vaults closed to preserve the statues inside.
But the most impressive was the Pit 1, where a staggering number of over 6000 warriors stand in silence, ready for battle.

As with many archaeological sights the story behind the find is more impressive than the actual sight itself.
Pit 1, more than 6000 soldiers in battle formation
I mean, on paper it looks absolutely stunning, 8000 unique life-size figurines, all buried for more than 2000 years. Yet in real life the site is slightly underwhelming as you are not allowed to get anywhere close to the warriors. The warriors stand in their original pit, which you can walk around on and view from platforms, but the closest you'll get to the statues is about 20-30 metres, with the exception of the few statues that are placed outside the pit, in heavily guarded glass displays. No doubt this is a very necessary measure to protect the warriors from millions of visitors a year and preserve them, but it is somewhat disappointing if you are expecting to be able to see the statues in the same way as they appear in the many picture books that exist on the terracotta warriors.
Terracotta Warriors


Around the museum an entire tourist village has emerged, full of restaurants and souvenir shops. This was the first time I had a bad experience with touts in China, proving that despite the bows and smiles here too people can be rats when it comes to tourists. I was thirsty so I wanted to buy a drink. Always willing to support local enterprises I bought a drink at a small drinks stall. To my surprise I was quoted a price of 10 yuan for my bottle. The normal price in shops is usually around 4 yuan, so I would expect to pay 5 or 6 at a tourist stop like this one, but not 10. So I shook my head and started to move away. “how much you want to pay?” the guy asked me, shoving the calculator in front of me. I typed '5' and he agreed. As I didn't have any 5 yuan notes, I gave him 10.
Terracotta Warriors
He gave me change - a single coin. Now even a rookie traveller to China should know there are hardly any coins in China. Only recently have they started introducing coins for jiaos (ten jiao is one yuan), so what he gave me was a 5 jiao coin, a tenth of the change he should have given me. I stared at the coin and then at him and back at the coin again. He looked at me apologetically, as if to say “oh, sorry, did I make a mistake here?”
I'd had enough. First the overpricing, then the attempt at short-changing. I was not thirsty any more. I handed him back the bottle and the 5 jiao and snatched my 10 yuan back and took off.
Oh, and I 'may' have accidentally knocked over his drinks stall in the process.

Eventually I had a bite to eat and a couple of drinks at a branch of King Coffee.
Terracotta Warriors
China is slowly jumping the espresso bandwagon, with Starbucks springing up everywhere and national imitations (like this one) following suit. The downside is that coffee is regarded as a luxury, so it is rather expensive (just like in India or Iran).

On the bus back a guy sitting next to me struck up a conversation with me in Chinese. I replied to him in English that I didn't understand him, but he continued asking me questions in Chinese. I started talking Dutch to him, just to see if that made any difference. After a while he asked me where I was from in English. It turned out he spoke quite passable English, but it hadn't occurred to him to talk to me in English earlier. While he didn't know where Holland, Netherlands or Europe were, he did know Amsterdam.
The fearsome headless warriors

He was a nice chap, a student from Xi'an, eager to practise his English with me. His name was Chung Yun Peng (or something like that) but his friends call him Peng-peng, which means something like 'Run!'
Our conversation turned to my trip and he wanted to know where else I was travelling in China. I listed the places but he didn't understand any of it. This struck me as strange, so I showed him the note I had used to buy my train tickets. While he didn't know Chengdu, he did know the other cities and it turned out my pronunciation had been all wrong. Chinese language revolves all around intonation and my Anglicised pronunciation of the cities (of which the spelling had already been simplified to match the Western alphabet) had been completely wrong.
Pit 2 is still largely unexcavated, with 1300 warriors still standing in their vaults for over 2000 years
You need to rise or lower your tone as you speak and swallow half the syllables, adding a questioning intonation. So Chonqing  should be pronounced as something like “Gjóng!-Chìng?”. He taught me how to say the city names, which will help me buy train tickets the next time.
I still couldn't understand he had never heard of Chengdu, the fifth-largest city of China and capital of Sichuan and one of China's major tourist destinations. From my description he concluded it should be Chèngdű - an intonation absolutely impossible for me to imitate.
It's going to take a while for me to grasp the Chinese language, that's for sure.

At the train station I searched in vain for the bus which was supposed to bring me to the Big Goose Pagoda (there's also a little one) south of the centre.
Broken warriors
It was clearly marked on my map that it was supposed to stop at the station, but I could not find it anywhere. Nor did I see a single bus with this number drive around the city that day, so I guessed the service was no longer running. I took a taxi instead - taxis in Xi'an are dirt cheap anyway.

The Big Goose Pagoda is Xi'an's most famous landmark and for a long time its tallest building, dating from 652 AD. The pagoda was built to house Buddhist sutras brought back from India by the monk Xuan Zang, who spent the last 19 years of his life locked away in the tower translating the scriptures. These translations are used to this day.
Surrounding the pagoda is one of the largest Buddhist monasteries in the region, dating from the Qing dynasty.

I was wondering why the pagoda was called 'Big Wild Goose' pagoda.
Tourist village which surrounds the Terracotta Warriors site
I mean, I guess yesterday's 'Phoenix Pavilion' could have borne some resemblance to a phoenix, but this pagoda, this tower, did in no way look like any goose I'd ever seen, let alone a wild one. I checked the back of my tourist map to see if there was any explanation about the wild goose in there. I was in luck: “It was named Wild Goose Pagoda because of its imitating the wild goose pagoda construction style in India.”
Right, that explains.... absolutely nothing! I can't remember seeing any wild geese in India either. Or pagodas, for that matter!

As with all tourist attractions in China the buildings have been heavily restored and look rather sterile - almost fake. Also common in China is the exorbitant entrance fee. 50 yuan gets you inside the monastery, but if you want to climb the pagoda (of course I wanted to!) you have to pay another 30.
Big Goose Pagoda
So that's more than $10 to visit a monastery slash souvenir market with a tower. Honest, that's a lot of money. You'd have to try hard to spend more than an hour here.

Despite the high entrance fee it had been worth getting here though. It is a nice and peaceful environment and I liked watching the Chinese tourists really enjoying themselves and marvel at the famous tower.

Getting back to the city was another matter. One of the recommended eateries in Xi'an is a dumpling buffet, serving over 120 different types of dumplings. Despite the overdose of momos in Tibet I quite fancied this buffet. The restaurant was located near the bell tower, which is about 5 kilometres north of the pagoda. I figured a taxi would the best way to go here. Well, guess again.
Big Goose Pagoda


As you may remember, I had trouble getting a taxi when I arrived in Xi'an two days ago. Today was no different. Every taxi I hailed shook his head when I stated my destination and took off again. Were all the taxi drivers so stupid that none of them understood me? Well, as a matter of fact, it is quite opposite. Xi'an taxi drivers are quite clever. Taxi fares are set by the local government and in Xi'an taxis are quite cheap. So cheap that taxi drivers try to get as many short rides as possible. After all, the flag fall tariff is for the first two kilometres, so any ride under two kilometres is in fact more profit for them. So a tourist wanting to get to the other side of the centre is not at all interesting for them. Even less so in rush hour when the entire centre is clogged with traffic.
Buddha in the Da Ci'en Temple


So after 20 futile minutes I decided to try a bus instead. The bus did pick me up, but there was hardly any movement. I noticed the hands on my watch moved faster than the bus and the window for dinner was slowly shrinking. By the time we had covered the 5 kilometres to the Bell Tower 1.5 hours had passed and my window for dinner before my train journey had disappeared. I decided to skip the dinner and stay on the bus all the way to the train station in order not to miss my train.

The ride to the train station was another hour, with the bus regularly trying to take a short-cut by driving on the pavement or through the flowerbeds beside the road (really, I am not kidding).
At the train station I once again tried to get a taxi to drive me to my hotel, wait for me to pick up my luggage, and drive me back to the train station.
Da Ci'en Temple, seen from the Big Goose Pagoda
The road between the train station and my hotel was relatively free of traffic jams, so I figured getting a taxi here wouldn't be as hard. Well, I should have known better. It was impossible to explain to a taxi driver what I wanted. Pointing at the location of my hotel on my map seemed to puzzle them and pointing at the picture of the train station on my map (including the name in Chinese characters) did not result in the slightest sign of recognition with any of the drivers.
In the end I managed to convince a tuk-tuk driver to drive me. She did not understand what I wanted, but she was willing to just let me show the way as we went. Amazing!
Even more amazing: She made no attempt to rip me off whatsoever. She simply let me decide what to pay for the trip and seemed very happy with the money I gave her.
Xi'an seen from the Big Goose Pagoda
Just how things should be.

Inside the train station I was greeted by utter chaos, or was it? Thousands of people were running around in every direction, but after observing the scene for a couple of minutes I noticed the station was remarkably well-organised. On a big screen you can see the departing trains for the next few hours (a minimum knowledge of Chinese characters is recommended, though fortunately trains have numbers as well) with information on its departure time and which waiting room you have to use. Each train has its own waiting area and access to the platform is only given once the train has arrived (and only to ticket holders), thus keeping the stations free from the chaos that can generally be found at train stations in India for example.
It took me a while to figure out what this sign was supposed to say


Unfortunately my positive impression of the Chinese railway system was slightly dented when it turned out my train was delayed. I didn't even know trains could be delayed in China!

My bed tonight was in so-called hard-sleeper class. Turns out I had made a mistake buying the train tickets yesterday, or rather, the clerk at the ticket window had, and I had not noticed - How could I have noticed, I can't read Chinese!
Anyway, I didn't really mind, a bed is a bed, but as this was a 17-hour journey I would have preferred a soft-sleeper, which is not only more comfortable, it only gives you a little more room to sit during the hours you are awake. Soft-sleeper class is more like European (and Russian) sleeper trains, with 4 beds in a compartment.
Guess which train was mine? (I will give you a hint, green means train runs on time)
Hard-sleeper has 6 beds per compartment, and there are no doors to close the compartment, so you basically sleep in a 66-bed dorm. Still, this was better than the sleeper train I had taken in India, which had room for 12 more people (and had slightly different standards in hygiene)!

At 21:30 sharp the lights went off in the carriage and everybody went to sleep. I was impressed with how quiet and orderly everyone was. I guess that's the advantage of a totalitarian regime. People here follow the rules closely.
So I followed suit. I packed away my laptop and went to bed, letting the train gently rock me to sleep.

habibti says:
Haha, a good blog. I come from Xi'an, so it's nice to see your experience in my hometown. It's seems so interesting !
Posted on: Jan 26, 2014
Biedjee says:
For Chinese standards Xi'an taxis are cheaper than in most cities. For European standards they are a bargain.
Don't have particularly fond memories of the bus - catching a bus instead of walking 5km made me miss my dinner!
Posted on: Apr 16, 2011
edsander says:
> taxis in Xi'an are dirt cheap anyway.

Depends how you look at it. Taxi home from the south gate costs me 17 Y. The same trip by bus with a bus card only 0.5 Y. ;-)
Posted on: Apr 16, 2011
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The Terracotta Warriors Museum
The Terracotta Warriors Museum
Proof that the site is inscribed o…
Proof that the site is inscribed …
Pit 1, more than 6000 soldiers in …
Pit 1, more than 6000 soldiers in…
Terracotta Warriors
Terracotta Warriors
Terracotta Warriors
Terracotta Warriors
Terracotta Warriors
Terracotta Warriors
The fearsome headless warriors
The fearsome headless warriors
Pit 2 is still largely unexcavated…
Pit 2 is still largely unexcavate…
Broken warriors
Broken warriors
Tourist village which surrounds th…
Tourist village which surrounds t…
Big Goose Pagoda
Big Goose Pagoda
Big Goose Pagoda
Big Goose Pagoda
Buddha in the Da Cien Temple
Buddha in the Da Ci'en Temple
Da Cien Temple, seen from the Big…
Da Ci'en Temple, seen from the Bi…
Xian seen from the Big Goose Pago…
Xi'an seen from the Big Goose Pag…
It took me a while to figure out w…
It took me a while to figure out …
Guess which train was mine? (I wil…
Guess which train was mine? (I wi…
Gigantic puppets which were used f…
Gigantic puppets which were used …
Bronze horses and carriage which w…
Bronze horses and carriage which …
Not all warriors are equally well-…
Not all warriors are equally well…
Terracotta Warriors
Terracotta Warriors
Terracotta Warriors
Terracotta Warriors
Terracotta Warriors
Terracotta Warriors
Terracotta Warriors
Terracotta Warriors
Terracotta Warriors
Terracotta Warriors
Terracotta Horses
Terracotta Horses
Terracotta Warriors
Terracotta Warriors
Terracotta Warriors
Terracotta Warriors
Terracotta Warriors
Terracotta Warriors
Big Goose Pagoda
Big Goose Pagoda
Big Goose Pagoda
Big Goose Pagoda
Xi'an
photo by: Deats