The discovery of the Terracotta Army was one of the greatest archaeological finds of the 20th century. Perhaps only the 1922 excavation of the tomb of Tutankhamen was of comparable significance and captured the imagination of the world to a similar degree.
Like the treasure of the boy pharaoh, the terracotta warriors possess a magnetic, almost magical power of attraction. (A dozen complete figures were displayed at the British Museum in 2008. The exhibit lasted for seven months and nearly a million people attended. And even though the museum kept its galleries open until midnight twice a week, visitors still had to be turned away.) It was the spring of 1974, and the Cultural Revolution aimed at obliterating China’s extraordinary history had only just ended. Several farmers were digging a well in a nondescript field about an hour’s drive from the ancient city of Xi’an when they unearthed the first fragments of a terracotta figure. Little did they know that beneath their feet were 130 chariots, 670 horses and more than 8,000 soldiers.
As well as its epic scale, the Terracotta Army has particular significance because it was buried to accompany the first emperor of China into the afterlife. Qin Shi Huang reigned from 221 to 210 B.C., and those 11 years of brutal rule gave the Chinese the ineradicable idea of themselves as a unified people. His dynasty, the Qin (pronounced “chin”) is also the origin of the English word “China.”
Xi’an today is a city of around 9 million people, known as a center of the Chinese high-tech and aerospace industries. The concrete sprawl seemed interminable on a gray morning as we headed east on a 20-mile drive. After about 50 minutes, we caught sight of an enigmatic green pyramid, rising 250 feet from the surrounding fields. The actual mausoleum of Qin Shi Huang has yet to be excavated, and almost certainly contains greater wonders than the army that was assembled to guard it. But the Chinese archaeologists have their hands full already and are in no particular hurry. (They are also afraid that sudden exposure to the air could damage the contents.) The Terracotta Army itself lies half a mile farther on, concealed beneath a series of low-rise buildings. There are three pits, of which Pit No. 1 is the most extensive and spectacular, plus a museum containing two astonishing bronze chariots that were unearthed in 1980.
Since we first visited Xi’an in 1986, China has changed out of all recognition. Nowadays, many Chinese have sufficient money to travel within their own country, and the army is the top domestic tourist attraction. As a result, it receives an average of 7,000 visitors day, with the first weeks of May and October, Chinese national holidays, being particularly crowded. Part of the reason for our trip was to determine whether it might be possible to view the statues under privileged circumstances and without having to queue up with the waiting thousands.
For the payment of a modest fee, about $140 per couple, it is certainly possible to avoid the gigantic parking lots and to be driven right up to the museum entrance. But you must still pass through security with everyone else. For an additional $350, we had arranged for access to a lower observation gallery in Pit No. 1, the so-called Level 2. There, you are slightly closer to the figures, have an uninterrupted view and are likely to be alone. Theoretically, you are allowed to stay for 20 minutes, but after only five minutes, the guards signaled that it was time for us to move on. Apparently, for another $105 a person, it is possible to be accompanied by an archaeologist, or even the museum director. Finally, it seems that for $745 a person, visitors are granted access to a restoration area, though not the main pit, where they can stand next to several of the warriors. It seems to me highly debatable whether this would be worth the money.
Fortunately, whatever the circumstances, the first glimpse of the Terracotta Army is just as impressive and overwhelming as one might wish. The vast extent of Pit No. 1, filled by rank upon rank of impassive gray figures, is a truly extraordinary sight. Above all, it is the warriors’ individual features that make the experience so unforgettable. They seem to be real people who were abruptly petrified. Personally, I can think of no other archaeological site that brings the remote past so vividly to life. The humanity of the sculptors is revealed in the statues’ unique expressions — many of them must be actual portraits — and you are left with the thrilling and humbling realization that in central China, 2,200 years ago, these were individual human beings, recognizably just like us.
One of the continuing problems of travel in China is that many of the most interesting places still provide nowhere comfortable to stay. Fortunately, this is not an issue in Xi’an, where the 390-room Shangri-La, Xian is a superior modern hotel with excellent service, a choice of four restaurants and a spa. The rooms are spacious and come with well-appointed marble baths. However, it is essentially a high-end business hotel and is almost completely lacking in atmosphere.
Shangri-la, Xian 89 Deluxe Garden King Room, $265; Horizon Club King Room, $350. 38B Keji Road, Xi’an. Tel. (86) 29-8875-8888.
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