A Terracotta Christmas

Trip Start Aug 30, 2006
Trip End Feb 03, 2008

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Flag of China  ,
Monday, December 25, 2006

We had a white Christmas after all, but it wasn't snowing.

The translation came to us over the airplane public address amid the groans of the Chinese passengers-no landing in Xi'an yet, bad weather. Fog, to be exact.

There were five of us from Foshan on the flight, Dan and I as well as fellow foreign teachers Sonja, Ashley and David. We were given one extra day off in honor of Christmas so Sonja and Ashley generously included David, Dan and I in their plan of flying up to Xi'an for a very quick trip to see the world-famous terracotta warriors and get a taste of cold weather for Christmas.

So we weren't too pleased when the flight attendant told us we were flying past Xi'an to wait in another city for awhile and then fly back.

We ended up landing in Xining, Qinghai province, which I'm ashamed to admit I'd never heard of. It's a big, arid land on the Tibetan Plateau, and in fact, is historically part of Tibet, although it's not part of the "Tibetan Autonomous Region" as the Chinese call it. We took some pictures through the windows and ate some mysterious food they served up while we waited. Dan and I have been discussing traveling parts of the Silk Road, and this small taste of the plateau really got us talking.

The fog didn't appear to have lifted much when we finally set down in Xi'an. Visibility was incredibly low, a complete white-out, and remained that way most of our visit. We took a shuttle to the hostel in town and wrote off the rest of the evening, choosing to drink some beer for Christmas and try some of the local Muslim dishes.

Some of our favorite food in China is the Muslim Chinese food, usually eaten in small, tiled dining rooms with a coal-fired kitchen on the sidewalk and a white-capped man perpetually stretching dough for noodles or flipping skewers of spicy lamb meat on a roadside grill. The Chinese Muslims, or Hui people, are ethnically linked with the extreme north western regions and apparently speak some dialects closer to Tibetan than to Mandarin or Cantonese. Xi'an is said to be a cradle of Chinese Muslim culture and we were delighted by the food there.

Before turning in, we wandered around the old Muslim quarter of the city and took pictures of Chinese people wearing Santa hats and carrying pinwheels through the Christmas-tree-lit fog. It was a bizarre carnival atmosphere. Families and young couples wandered around buying toffee apples and balloons, carrying tinsel hair or feathered masks and apparently celebrating Christmas Chinese-style.

The next morning David, Dan and I took a quick jaunt to the old city walls. When the walls were intact, they totaled 14 kilometers and protected the cultural and financial end of the Silk Road. Now they are a park, of sorts, where people can rent bicycles or be carted around in electric cars and given a tour. We were the first people there that morning and had a good time taking photos of what we could see through the fog.

Later we met up with Sonja and Ashley to see the highlight of Xi'an, the 2,000-year-old Terracotta Warriors. Although it's billed as China's biggest tourist attraction outside of Beijing, we had heard some varying reports (our friend Jeroen calls it the McWarriors in his travel blog here--------------------------) and weren't sure what to expect.

We took a public bus to the Warriors, which lie about 40 kilometers outside of Xi'an itself. The bus took a few off-road shortcuts, crossing parts of half-built highways in an effort to avoid heavier traffic. There was a hairy part where we thought we'd all have to get out and push as it slogged through the wet sand on the shoulder of one highway, but we made it out after a little maneuvering.

Finally we arrived at a gigantic complex obviously designed to handle huge crowds of tourists. We all agreed we were lucky to come in the off-season.

The warriors themselves are unique life-size terracotta statues of soldiers and horses intended to protect Emperor Qin Shi Huang's tomb for eternity. They apparently number above 6,000, although so many were crushed to bits by the collapse of the tomb ceiling and walls, we have no idea how they counted that.

There are three excavation sites, called pits, where you can see the warriors. The first pit was found by farmers in the late 70s who were digging a well. They came up with some odd bits of terracotta and called in the authorities. The pits are still being excavated now, and the restoration of the warriors is ongoing. They say there are probably undiscovered pits in the nearby area as well.

An odd thing about the warriors is that, although Chinese history seems to have been meticulously recorded in most instances concerning emperors, the warriors are absent. Other important people of the day also created terracotta armies or servants to see them through to the afterlife, but none found so far is as large as Qin Shi Huang's.

We went to the third, smallest, pit first, on the recommendation of a woman David met at the hostel. It's a small but impressive pit, holding a few groups of soldiers who would have been charioteers and their flared-nostril steeds.

You could fit several good-sized swimming pools into Pit Two, which has the least well-preserved warriors of the three.

The pits were made by ramming the earth on the walls and floor until it was hard enough to hold shape, then tiling the floor so the warriors could have a stable place to stand. Once the warriors, their weapons and chariots were installed, the ancient gravediggers erected timber roofs over them, covered the timbers with woven mats and clay and then buried the whole ensemble. The pits were also burned, although scientists don't know if the organic material inside spontaneously combusted because of decomposition or if they were set on fire as a burial ritual. In Pit Two, the roofs of the pits are still intact in most places, with only the heads or limbs of some of the buried warriors pushing through in places where the roofs fell in.

Pit One is the most impressive, which is why we left it for last. It's the size and shape of a large European train station or an airplane hangar. Rows and rows of warriors and horses stand ready, their arms eternally stretched forward to hold their now-missing weapons or reins. Some of them seem intact, probably patched up by the team of archeologists who work on the warriors in the back left quadrant of the pit, others are missing head or hands, still others are half-preserved in the rubble at the bottom of their pits.

We walked around Pit One for a long time, dodging the small tour groups and trying out the extent of our zoom lenses on the warriors. You can't get too close to the warriors, although there are a few places where they've put them nearer to the sides so you can take a look at them.

When we'd filled up our digital cameras and tried to take an interest in the Unesco exhibitions outside we made our way back, getting into Xi'an as night was falling. We returned on a counterfeit bus-a minibus pulled along side us with a sign in the window advertising the same bus number as the one we took to get there. We thought it was legit until few stops later the driver took it down and diverted from the bus route we knew to try and scare up more passengers.

That evening we had more Muslim food along the old town alleys and planned to get up early the next day to take in as much as we could before leaving for the airport at noon.

The next morning the whole troupe of us went back through the fog to the Muslim quarter to see the Great Mosque. It's built in the same style as a Chinese temple, with the same type of dragons and turtle sculptures adorning the courtyards. The minaret, instead of being the slender tower I'd seen in Egypt, Morocco and Turkey, was a squat but dignified pagoda in the center of the linking courtyards.

Next David and Dan and I took a taxi to the Shanxi History Museum where we saw an array of artifacts ranging in date from 8,000 years ago to 400 years ago. I'd like to read more about the Neolithic period in China, as the artifacts they showed from that era seemed impossibly advanced. There were also funerary objects from several eras. The most humorous was a clay model of a pig pen, complete with pig, that had a stairs leading to a toilet hanging over the pen. According to a tour guide I was eavesdropping on, that's how the ancient sewage system worked!

We also tried to fit in a trip to the Big Goose Pagoda, but only visited the grounds of the pagoda as the fog made it impossible to see anything had we ascended. The pagoda was built in Xi'an to house ancient Buddhist texts brought back at great difficulty from India, so a lot of the decoration in the adjoining temple and grounds shows Indian scenes and elephants.

We made it back to the hotel and on to the shuttle to the airport just in time-or so we thought. Turned out that the ticket counter didn't open to check us in for a long time after we got there, and even then the dense fog meant only a few airplanes could land or depart at any one time, so we waited several hours in total.

We came back to Foshan tired but looking forward to seeing more of China in 2007.

Wishing everyone a happy New Year!
Slideshow Report as Spam


vanessab on

Dan's hair
By the time I come visit you in 2007 I hope Dan's sporting one of those terracotta warrior hairdos.

jeroen on

Sounds like a cool trip - thanks for the reference :) So... did you like it or not? Does it rank as China's 2nd sight according to you... and is it paid due respect by the local authorities as such? Just curious :)

bethverde on

Re: McWarriors
Hi! Thanks for the questions.

Yes, I did like it. I still haven't seen China's other 'big sights,' such as the Guilin karst formations or the Great Wall, so I don't have much to compare it to, I guess. What we've done so far has been more cities and small sights rather than the places people plan whole vacations around. We've got the time, so we haven't been pushing ourselves. I have wanted to see the warriors since I was about 8 years old, so for me it was up there with the Pyramids in Egypt, and I have to say it met my expectations. Actually, I think it compares really well with the Egyptian Pyramids, as people say that both sites are not well-run or well-respected within the country.

As per your second question, about the respect given by the local authorities, it seemed like they are trying to make it into an easier place for people to visit. I'm not sure if that's bad or good. Currently, there's a huge promenade-type shopping street being built from the car park up to the front gate. While we were there it was all under construction and there were so few visitors that they were only using the inner gate, not the exterior crowd-management gate, but it looked like they were trying to fit a lot of people in the area and do it comfortably. We were really glad that we weren't there with a lot of people, comfortably or not.

Thanks for reading! You and Marta coming this way any time soon? Hong Kong is soooo close! :)

jeroen on

Re: McWarriors
Cool. HK is certainly on our wish-list but we're pretty much booked full till April though. We have cheapo flights to Macau which I wouldn't mind seeing again too. Funny you thought the A-Ma temple to be so nice as well - I liked the huge round moongate doors. They must be made specially for Dan to fit through!
By the way, the link is: www.travelpod.com/traveler/jeroen.html !


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