Warriors, Come Out To Play

By Jane Mountain | October 22, 2013

I can remember two things about my Mom’s trip to China in the early 80s.

One is the emerald green silk robe she brought home for me. I was a torn jeans ‘n’ baggy t-shirts kind of girl, and the robe, slick and shiny, made me feel sophisticated. I wore that robe for nearly 20 years.

The second was her visit to the Terracotta Army outide Xi’an. The warriors had only been discovered about 10 years before, by a peasant digging a well. When my Mom saw them, they weren’t yet a multi-billion yuan industry, drawing tourists from all corners of the world; visitors could rarely come to China in those days.

From her descriptions, I imagined thousands upon thousands of staunch warriors standing at attention, waiting for their Emperor Qin to give the command upon which they would come to life and trample whatever foes happened to stand in their way.

Thousands of warriors, ready to fight.

Thousands of warriors, ready to fight.

Ever since, I have wanted to see the Terracotta Warriors myself.

Shoulder To Shoulder

Despite the plethora of guided tours, private cars, and taxi touts all wanting to take us to the museum, we opted for the much cheaper, if less convenient, public bus. It’s only slightly less convenient though, because once you get yourself to the bus station and find the right spot, it’s simple to hop on and go. The bus even says “Terracotta Warriors Army Museum” on the side, and the conductor has no doubt in his or her mind as to where you, the only tourists on the bus, are headed.

The site itself is somewhat confusing, with the parking and ticket areas a fair distance from the museum. I don’t know if this is to preserve the rather large grounds on which the complex is situated – they are still excavating and finding new collections of figures every year – or if it is to encourage tourists to hire onsite guides. Either way, we had to ask a couple of times to get ourselves sorted out.

Stephen’s note: I was amazed. We asked for directions from people who were trying to be hired as guides, and they were happy to help, for free. And they didn’t hassle us to hire them, as has happened to us in other countries (I’m looking at you, Egypt).

I’m not going to spend a lot of time describing the warriors. To be honest, I found the whole thing slightly underwhelming. It was a similar experience to seeing the Sistine Chapel and The Forbidden City; there’s no doubt that they are awesome displays of human ingenuity, but it’s hard to appreciate as part of a throng of tourists.

The warriors are no longer standing out in a field, as my mom got to experience them. Instead, several massive buildings have been built to house the warriors and other treasures that the excavations have revealed. Picture a modern university complex and you’re close.

Warehouse full of Terracotta Warriors.

Warehouse full of Terracotta Warriors.

I tried to lose myself in the history of it all, to imagine what it must have been like for the people who created this amazing set of sculptures. Every one is different, down to the tread on their shoes, and the expressions on their faces. I tried to picture what Emperor Qin went through as his own tomb was being prepared, while he was still a boy. I tried to imagine what he would think if he could see his army now.

terracotta horses in xian china

Army of Terracotta Horses (and Warriors).

But, it was pretty tough to transport myself through time while jostling for position to snap a few crappy photos.

woman in pink taking photos of terracotta army xian

The photographer becomes the subject.

Stephen’s note: I thought the warriors themselves were pretty amazing. I could have done with a visit to Pit 1 and skipped the rest of it. There were, yes, a lot of people jostling, but the scale of the main excavation is almost incomprehensible.

terracotta army xian china

Endless rows of warriors, endless rows of spectators, Terracotta Army Museum.

The big tourist sites just aren’t the best part of travelling for me, and I feel sad for people who only get to experience this side of China.

Still, if I had to do it all over, I would go again. Like the pyramids (also disappointing) they’re something you just have to see, if only to remind yourself that organised societies have been around for thousands of years, and our moments on earth are only a speck in the history of humankind.

From Peasants To Porsches

On the walk home from the bus station, we had a chance to discuss what we have seen in China so far.

One thing that has struck us deeply is the huge disparity of wealth here. The idea that you can buy dinner for ¥8 or ¥800 within a few blocks in the same city is astonishing. At the big tourist areas, women sell paper maps of the city for a couple of yuan and elderly couples play wooden pipes for a few scraps of change from passers by.

Meanwhile, middle class people stare all day at their smartphones and computers, but most still live in tiny spaces which would be considered small even by New York standards. And then there are the favoured few who we’ve seen driving around in Bentleys and Porsches. These are the ones who stay in $1000 per night hotels and shop at the high-end fashion stores whose knock-off bags are sold in market stalls.

It certainly doesn’t jibe with our image of what we are told about Communism – China seems every bit as capitalist as the US.

I Think I’m Learning Chinese

Tonight we found a dumpling shop we’d read about online. It was another tiny humble place, the likes of which a finicky eater would never enter. Having been greeted by the proprietress we tried out our Chinese.

“Whoa men soo shee” we said. “We are vegetarians.”

That didn’t really work, so we said it again. When she still didn’t understand, we tried a more complicated phrase. “Whoa men boo shee zroo”, meaning “We don’t eat meat”. Meanwhile I showed them our card with the same phrase and they repeated it back to us. Success. Our language skills are coming along one tiny step at a time.

Then, as is common among the Chinese, she started talking rapidly to us, expecting us to understand. I’m not sure if there are a lot of white tourists who can understand rocket-speed Chinese, but I’m guessing no. After a few attempts at talking at us, she motioned for us to sit. We did.

In a few minutes we were presented with large plates of vegetarian dumplings.

For me, today, the simple act of managing to order a tasty meal in a restaurant was every bit as rewarding as seeing the eighth wonder of the world.  

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