What Lies Beneath

Unearthing the Terra-Cotta treasures of Xian

By: Gary Bowerman

Until 1974, China’s central Shaanxi Province was famous for three things: its fertile plains produced some of the nation’s juiciest fruits; its mist-clad southwestern mountains provided a sanctuary for the endangered giant panda; and its primary city, Xian, China’s ancient former capital, was the starting point for the historic Silk Road trading route.

Everything changed, however, when local farmers digging a well 50 miles northeast of Xian (pronounced SHI-an) unearthed some shattered historical treasures that would become pure tourism gold.

Thirty-two years later, I’m standing in the heaving car lot of the grandly named “Museum of Emperor Qinshihuang’s Terra-Cotta Warriors and Horses,” now one of China’s and the world’s must-see tourism attractions. A gentle autumn sun is shining, and the distant Qinling Mountains cast a grainy, black backdrop. Inside the compound, I am surrounded by taxi drivers, hawkers, speculative tour guides and beautiful persimmon trees bent by the weight of their rich produce.

As I near the main entrance, traders left and right offer warrior-related handicrafts and knickknacks of all descriptions most, it seems, priced at “one dollar, sir.” The air is filled with the smell of roasting sweet potatoes and cigarette smoke. An elderly lady offers me a large casket of ripe persimmons for 40 cents. I resolve to try to find her again when I leave.

The Terra-Cotta Warriors are housed inside a series of aircraft-hanger-sized arenas to protect them from the elements. For now, the viewing platforms are raised and to the sides of the vast pits and chambers, with the soldiers frozen in infantry formation below. By 2008, however, the pits will be glass-covered, allowing visitors to walk above these historic treasures. Life-sized, the warriors are unnervingly human. Many intrinsic details have been perfectly restored, including the nerveless facial expressions, hairstyles relating to army rank and square-footed boots and protective tunics.

Originally, the soldiers’ faces and uniforms were painted, and many held crossbows, arrows, spears and daggers. Pit 2 (which is about 750 feet long and 200 feet wide) once held up to 6,000 warriors and 180 chariots, which must have made for a fearsome sight. Across the site, some 40,000 bronze weapons were discovered, though many were sadly lost to looters in the early excavation days before the site was fully secured. Even for someone who knows little about archaeology, staring down into the pits feels like spying on a never fully explained episode of history; one whose secrets will outlast me and the thousands of others who visit everyday.

The farmers who chanced upon the warriors could never have guessed their true historic value. Created to replicate and glorify the Emperor’s own armies, the wooden crossbeams overarching the individual chamber pits collapsed over time, leaving the warriors crushed and decapitated below ground since 221 B.C. Renovation work is ongoing, and a closer inspection into the pits reveals scores of terra-cotta legs, arms and weaponry embedded into the heavy clay.

Tourism dollars are now flowing into the site, helping fund other excavations around the city of Xian. Adjacent to one of the smaller terra-cotta pits, a leading camera manufacturer has set up a studio with morphing software enabling a long line of visitors to transpose their faces onto warrior bodies.

Beyond the Warriors

Emerging back into the sunlight, visitors check their rapidly filling digital memory cards and contentedly cross the Terra-Cotta Warriors off their “to do” lists. Yet, it would be a mistake to assume that Xian can likewise be mentally scored. This fascinating city is still enclosed by its grand ancient wall (clients can rent bikes and cycle around it), and now more than ever as China ramps up its warp-speed 21st-century modernization drive Xian sits at the heart of the Middle Kingdom; a meeting point for north and south, east and west.

Xian’s old Muslim quarter is an example of the city’s ethnic diversity. Here, some of the city’s finest Chinese architecture blends with narrow market alleyways and bustling street activity. Young men stand in the street grilling kebabs over hot charcoals, while women spin cotton candy while tending carts selling a delicious array of sweet pastries, candies and nuts.

Inside the meandering covered market, small stalls line the walls to sell a similar range of handicrafts, silk garments and paintings. Somewhere in the maelstrom, I chanced across a couple dedicated to Chairman Mao memorabilia. Following the narrow labyrinth, though, is irresistible and rewarding. At a trade-stall junction, I emerged into the light opposite the easily missed entrance to Xian’s Grand Mosque, comprised of a remarkable series of courtyards, gardens, prayer halls and ornate wood-carved doorways. This is the China that most people only read about.

At the far end, a late-afternoon call to prayer resounds around the garden courtyard, as Chinese Muslims of all ages emerge from side buildings and enter the antique wooden archways into the mosque. Above me, the late-afternoon sun dips behind the upturned eaves of a classic-style pagoda. In front of me, an elderly Muslim man agrees to be photographed by an English tourist, telling her it’s “because you asked in a very polite manner.”

I step back in wonderment. From Terra-Cotta Warriors to cyclists on the city wall, and Mao memorabilia to a mosque in a Chinese courtyard; seeing really is believing in Xian.


Sofitel on Renmin Square

Opened in the summer of 2005, this 432-room hotel is centrally located and the most luxurious hotel in the city. It incorporates several heritage buildings on its grounds and offers four restaurants and two bars.

Hyatt Regency

A Xian mainstay, this 404-room hotel has long been popular with visiting tour groups. The rooms are comfortable, and the hotel offers a spa, a range of dining options and an excellent buffet breakfast.