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Not a Lotta Terra Cotta: Bummed Out in Xi’an, China

Traveling in China can get my goat sometimes. Taxi drivers. Cheats. Hawkers. Cheats. Guys on sidewalk selling you socks. Cheats. Three students who want you to take their picture and then invite you to tea. Cheats. Check your wallet, check your change, check your back. (Nanjing Road hawkers video)

State tourist sites? Cheats? Well… in my humble opinion. Yes.

I had the National Geographic infection when I was kid. The collected works growing moldy in the basement because god forbid you throw them out. Ever. And no one’s going to give you a dime for one, not even for one from 1940. Why? Because they have that issue. On a shelf in the basement.

So it’s a thing, a serious thing, when you are confronted with the opportunity to meet one of the awesome photo spreads that was first introduced to you in the yellow bound journal. Oh man, the Terra Cotta Soldiers of Xi’an!

Get out the imaginary pencil, poised in the air in my head, and get ready to check that baby off the lifelist! So I confess my expectations were, shall we say, heightened a bit.

The tremendous generosity of my travel companion’s family — originally from Xi’an and meeting us there while we were on a business trip — got me to the gate. “We’ll wait here at a tea shop. Meet you in a couple hours. Enjoy!” (so I confess, despite the frequent case of grumpy I get while doing business/getting around on a schedule in China (as opposed to backpacker travel which allows more flexibility and makes me more patient), not a day goes by without at least one very nice random act of kindness.)

A few finer examples of the statues are enclosed in glass cases for closer viewing.

I practically ran up to the ticket counter but was intercepted immediately. She didn’t appear a hawker. She had a name tag indicating she was an official guide. “Would you like a guide?” Um, I looked at my watch and started calculating. Guide: informative, interesting stories not in the book, knows the ins and outs of the site. No Guide: Stop as long as you want for the photo and ignore everyone around you. Quickly skip anything that seems a waste of the precious time without being rude. I only had two hours.

(Side story: on a short tour of Machu Picchu, a guide stopped us just outside and blathered on FOREVER while the clock ran down on how much time we had to actually be inside the ruins. Impatient, I ran off. I could see them still standing back there as I was already past the Temple of the Sun and starting my ascent of Huayna Picchu, the famous peak in the picture!)

So I didn’t want a guide. Besides, she wanted $18, the same as the admission price (Terra Cotta Warrior Admission: ¥115). Nah, thanks anyway. “But sir, you MUST have a guide.” No. Thanks though. “It is a very big place.” I looked at the map on the ticket, the Free Information arrow behind her, and reached a different conclusion. No, that’s OK. “You won’t be able to see everything.” Please, no. “You won’t understand what you are looking at.” OK, now that’s a little presumptuous. What if I was an archaeology student? What if I had done all my homework and read volumes about this place? She got a little nasty, and then that was the end for me and I ignored her. Got my ticket and hopped on the next tourist cart up the hill to the excavations.

The short story of the Terra Cotta Army: China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, had all these life-sized figures made and then buried to protect his tomb to the east in 210-209 BC. 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots with 520 horses and 150 cavalry horses. Most of all this is still buried in the pits. Wang Puzhi, a farmer, found this in 1974 while digging a well and was rewarded by having his house and village leveled. He committed suicide in 1997. Fellows diggers also died broke, but a couple of them still get to sit around at the ruins for a few dollars each day as part of a living exhibit. (Read their story Archaeologists believe eight molds were used for the faces and then each was individualized with extra clay features. They were originally painted all sorts of colors and held weapons.

I sized up the site. Three pits of statues inside protective buildings. Plenty of time. I followed the arrow to Free Information in English. Nothing. Two people who may have been mutes who just looked up from their tea and shook their heads at any noise I made that seemed like it might be verbal communication, even the groan. No worries, off to the exhibits…

The central part of Pit 1 is the main force of army which has 36 columns warriors with 178 m (584 ft) long. Totally owns 50 battle chariots and 4000 infantries, they stood in a good order according to the military formation. Some warriors wore robes, some wore armors, all of this was according to their rank or army services. Meanwhile, each battle chariots equipped with three warriors, one was the horse drive and other two were the warriors with weapons in hand. (from China Tour Guide)

Sounds amazing, doesn’t it???

Here is my experience of Pit 1:

WHAT THE–? Yep, closed. Seriously???? Well… I… grr. OK, off to Pit 2…


And Pit 3…

Well, that’s kinda cool, but… it ain’t 36 columns of warriors! I’d like to trade what’s in Pit Number 3 for what’s behind the plastic dust curtain of Pit Number 1 please?

I shot what I could at Pit 3 and then returned to Pit 1 just to be sure I was not missing a secret entrance, bad signage, or a Candid Camera gag. Nope, closed. And upon exiting I found out we can’t take the cart back down the hill, or even walk straight out down the hill, but needed to pass through a long gauntlet of hawkers and shops selling little statuettes of what was in Pit 1. A sort of souvenir taunting akin to something out of Poe. “For the love of God, Montressor, can I PLEASE see Pit 1??”

Wanna buy carriage ride? NO?? Then face the Hawkers of Tedium!

When my hosts asked me how it was, I cranked up a smile as rigid as terra cotta and said, “Awesome!” Well, I didn’t want to make them disappointed too.
Is there a lesson here? I’m not in the practice of double checking ruins for renovation news (though I may start), and in this case, there was no indication anyway. They may have been filming documentary footage for the day for all I know.

Sometimes high expectations make a mess of things, but failing to post information that what you are really there to see is not even available is pretty rotten. AND to try to squeeze another $18 guide fee out of the unsuspecting tourist is pretty lousy as well. Japan’s Himeji Castle is partly closed for renovations until 2014 or so, but they have the decency to post such information and even offer a 200-yen discount on the admission. I checked before visiting.

What's amazing about the Terra Cotta Warriors is the great attention to detail...
They are a bit smaller than I expected, however. And a bit pricey. Sniff my finger, little man!
Sorry, you couldn't see the statues in Pit 1. How about a lovely photo of you in front of a photo of them?
OK, OK, rant over. Don't miss this. I've heard Pit 1 is amazing.
No, seriously, pose for a photo. Very good price. (Pit 3 photo poser station)

See more blog posts about China.

Kevin Revolinski

Author, travel writer/photographer, world traveler. Writes about travel, hiking, camping, paddling, and craft beer.

5 thoughts on “Not a Lotta Terra Cotta: Bummed Out in Xi’an, China

  • At least you were savy enough to avoid the $18.00 guide. Sorry it was such a disappointment.

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  • Honestly, Xian is the most over-hyped city in China. Full of scammers and the warriors while interesting to read about and see in photos are not necessarily worth the trip to the city. Do not go on any private tour or guided tour in Xian would be my advice. Take a taxi there. Walk around. Taxi back. 150 each day. If you have time take the bus. Put the tour companies in Xian out of business I say.

    • Yeah, if not for having business there, I either never would have gone, or disappointment would have been off the scale. Bummer.


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