Here’s what we thought. We have to go to Xi’an. The discovery of the terra cotta warriors there in 1974 is one of the great archeological discoveries of our time. It’s one of the places you just have to see if you’re in China. So we’ll go to Xi’an, be fascinated by the terra cotta warriors and then just hang around.
Here’s what happened. We went to Xi’an, saw the terra cotta warriors and thought, “OK, yup, we’ve seen ’em.” Then we saw the rest of Xi’an and absolutely loved it. So, yes, go to Xian. And see the warriors. But save time to see the city, too.First off, then, just what are these terra cotta warriors? They are part of the necropolis built for Emperor Qin Shi Huang, China’s first emperor, around . (“Qin” is actually pronounced “Chin,” from which derived the name “China.) Discovered by peasant farmers digging for water in 1974, the three pits that have been partially excavated are believed to contain an army of up to 8,000 life-size terra cotta statues including military personnel of various ranks, horses, chariots, and even the musicians and acrobats that would have traveled with the troops (what Joe Biden would excitedly call “literally an army of 8,000!). The troops are all facing east, where Emperor Qin’s fiercest enemies came from. Part of what makes them amazing is that each of the soldiers is identifiably different from the others, sort of like snow flakes. It is believed that ultimately some 700,000 workers were engaged in the project before the Emperor died in about 210 BC.
So what’s not to like about the site? Nothing, really. It’s just that for us, at least, seeing it was somewhat anticlimactic. I’d heard about these warriors and seen pictures and read about them and all that years before we ever got here. And seeing them didn’t add that much to my experience. The commute out to the site, about 90 minutes east of Xi’an itself on a local bus, was a pain. There was a video available that was so annoying in its lack of useful information that we left after maybe 10 minutes. The second of three pits displaying warriors is supposed to have hundreds of warriors, but all we saw was a vast expanse of un-excavated land. And at the pit sites themselves there was a surprising lack of any but the most basic information. Interesting and cool, yes, and incredibly important from historic and archeological perspectives. But for me, just not that vital.
In some ways more interesting was the Tomb of Emperor Jingdi. This site is pretty close to the Xi’an airport, itself an hour’s drive from the city, so we hired a driver to take us there en route to the airport for our flight to Seoul as we were bidding adieu to China. Emperor Jingdi followed Qin by a few decades, but was a very different emperor. While Qin was a military man, evidenced by the thousands of warriors who stood over his grave for two thousand years, Jingdi was Taoist-influenced emperor who was far more focused on improving the lives of his subjects: lowering taxes, emphasizing diplomacy over military intervention, and so on.
The differences are evident in their mausoleums. While Qin’s is all about the military, Jingdi’s emphasizes daily life, things like household items, servant, and domesticated animals. We also found the Jingdi tomb more accessible in a couple of ways. First, there is only a small fraction of the number of tourists compared to the army of terra cotta warriors site; we practically had the place to ourselves. Second, the layout is interesting, in that for much of the site you are walking on glass looking down at the excavations; you have a much better view of what they’re finding and the scale of things and so on.
In other words, this was the unexpected archeological gem of Xi’an.
But then, there was the city itself, which captivated us. A city of about 5.6 million people and the capital of Shaanxi Province in northwest China, it was one of China’s historic capitals and a terminus of the Silk Road. Because of that Silk Road traffic, Xi’an was the first Chinese city to be introduced to Islam and to this day has a notable Muslim population. That made for a fabulous street scene one day as we searched for the Great Mosque, founded in 742. You’d think that finding something called the Great Mosque would be easy, but you’d be wrong. Unlike the vast majority of mosques, this one is entirely Chinese in architecture with neither domes nor minarets. Instead, it consists of four quiet courtyards that provide a welcome respite from the bustle outside its walls.
The other big attraction in Xi’an is the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda, a shrine built in the 7th century to preserve the Buddhist sutras and other artifacts brought back from Master Xuanzang’s epic journey on the Silk Road to the West (India, though I have trouble thinking of India as the West…). His Travels in the Western Region is a classic of Chinese literature and to this day the source of movies and television shows.
Add to all that the normal Chinese experience of beautiful parklands and great walking and running areas and you end up with a great city to spend time in. We even found some great Chinese food for our last dinner before heading to Korea. We went to Xi’an primarily to see the terra cotta warriors and discovered a city worthy of an extended visit in its own right.