Xi’an, the ancient capital of China, is the nearest city to this famous exhibit. Goods used to arrive here from the Silk Road, while porcelain, silk and paper were exported. The city controlled these lucrative trading routes.
It’s colder than Chongqing, so keep warm clothes handy on a winter visit. Those large courtyards are chilly. The coal fired power stations – we were a long way from the Three Gorges Dam by then – had just been activated to provide winter heating, and the air pollution was really quite bad again.
The Grand Dynasty Culture Hotel was lovely though. There was no time to explore the feature room with the huge sculptures of the Qin Emperor and his staff, nor even to linger over the excellent breakfast….
…off we went to the Big Wild Goose Pagoda. This is an active Buddhist temple, containing a spectacular mural of Buddha’s life done entirely in various colours of jade. It was a beautifully peaceful place. Unusual birds feasted on red berries in the tree branches; they had an uncanny ability to fly away just before you took a picture.
We hastened back to the bus, past a row of lovely stalls and many lifesize bronze tableaux on the pedestrian way. The ‘maybe later’ market here had rubber band birds that really flew and run-along bee toys.
I’ve read a lot of reviews since I returned which complain of being pestered by vendors and touts. We never had that experience; it might be worth joining a day tour rather than exploring as a solo traveller, to put yourself inside the invisible boundaries.
We called at the terracotta workshop to see how replica models of the soldiers were made, using moulds and pressed clay. These were fired in a traditional kiln; they supplied all sizes from a few inches tall to lifesize with your own features. The price wasn’t unreasonable, with shipping and insurance thrown in, though you’d probably need to inform yourself about customs taxes at each end.
Driving on, we passed local farmers selling persimmons and pomegranates from roadside stalls, and the actual tomb of the Emperor. This was just a large grassed mound; it’s been left undisturbed. Inside, a model landscape of China is said to exist, using liquid mercury to represent rivers. The fumes from this may have deterred tomb robbers. Further exploration awaits the development of better techniques for preserving such fragile items as may be found there.
We arrived at the Terracotta Army site at last – you need stamina with RSD tours! Our splendid local guide, Jerry, told us the story before we were released to explore free range for a few hours.
“Upon ascending the throne at 12 years old, around 246 BCE, Qin Shi Huang set about building his mausoleum at once. The army of over 8,000 lifesize terracotta warriors, complete with weapons, 150 chariots and 700 horses, took 700,000 workers 38 years to nearly complete.
“The Emperor died unexpectedly while visiting the Great Wall – which he also built, as well as creating extensive canal and road systems. The son travelling with him concealed the death for a month until they returned to the capital, whereupon he announced that his father had changed his will. This son was to be Emperor, and executed all his siblings to prove it.
“At his father’s funeral, he murdered all the generals who disagreed with him. Upon this, those who had wisely stayed in the provinces rose up in revolt. Within three years, the palaces were burned and the dynasty extinguished.”
The mausoleum was probably regarded as unlucky after that. It became forgotten, buried in silt, until some local farmers drilled a well and reported their finds of pottery. Excavations began in 1979. Many areas are left buried. The paint disintegrates as soon as it is uncovered, and methods to preserve it are being explored.
As advised, we began with the smallest hall – number three – and worked our way up. This hall had chariots, the second displayed examples of each piece. There were generals, mounted archers complete with horses, ordinary warriors, officers and so on. Detailed information boards in both Chinese and English accompanied the displays.
Hall number one covered the army standing where it was found, and was colossal. Rows of warriors stood four abreast in long corridors, well below current ground level. They stood on paved floors, and the roofs were made of heavy mats supported by wooden beams, covered with earth.
Layers of silt buried the army ever deeper over the centuries. The pavement slabs were heaved up through soil movements, toppling the figures to smash into piles of fragments, momentarily shattering the silence of the echoing corridors, empty of life.
Some of the roofs were removed to reveal these jumbled heaps. The figures on display were plain clay, but originally the figures were brightly painted in lifelike colours. Every face is different; often the heads were added later.
The wavy roofs of the unexcavated areas occupied the same huge pit; you could see the weave of the mats. A team of archaeologists was patiently sifting through a layer of debris as we watched. Further on, the statues were being pieced together out of baskets of fragments, like three-dimensional jigsaw puzzles. Special slings supported partly completed ones.
Chilly and tired now, we joined the group in the coffee house, which sold Western style sandwiches, and headed for the bus, hastening past many tempting stalls. Perhaps it’s the determined pace set by our young tour guides as they head off into the distance with their tiny flag – our lifeline to the warmth of the bus – that discourages the sharks!
To be fair, our permanent guide Kevin was very keen on group cohesion and enlisted our help in a roll call system. People didn’t wander off and get lost very often. As we gained in confidence, the constraints of the tour agenda became a little galling, but we appreciated that this is what we’d signed up for.
However, towards the end of the fortnight, the ‘optional extra’ excursions, though interesting enough, were discarded in favour of an expedition to find the local supermarket. We found that quite enough of an adventure!
Next week – Beijing and the Quest for Carrefour