In which we finally see the terracotta warriors and I search in vain for non-squat toilets in Western China..
The first day in Xi’an, I learn three things:
- When you are on the back seat of a tandem bike on the old city wall, going up a 50º incline, trust your captain.
- That street food that looks like potatoes will rarely be potatoes (but rather, deceptively colored cubes of glutinous rice). It will not have the same texture as potatoes, no matter how much you will it to.
- There is absolutely no place to find a beer at 4pm by the city center. Yes, that says a lot about my priorities, but those priorities are still pretty on point.
The second day in Xi’an is the day I see the real Western China.
We check out of our hotel and head to see the Terracotta Warriors, which before this trip I hadn’t realized were an hour and a half out of Xi’an city. But first, lunch. Lunch is generally essential (spoken from the girl who eats Chinese Yoplait for breakfast every morning), but lunch is especially essential before you take a trek out of a city on a Chinese bus, because though that journey may promise to last mere an hour an a half, I’ve been in China long enough to learn that those promises are rarely kept. Lunch is dumplings, shredded tofu and (traditional?) corn and shrimp chilled salad, served cafeteria-style, in a small restaurant right outside of the muslim quarter. Lunch is filling, and remarkable only because the waitress brings our bowls of rice to us freezing cold. In all of my time being here in this country, I’ve had hundreds of 2RMB bowls of rice along with my meals. I’ve had rice scattered with millet seeds, rice cooked (much to my chagrin) in chicken broth, rice that wasn’t rice at all, but just porridge, but I’ve never had rice that was cold. Now, maybe they were trying to pull a fast one on us, because aside from us, the only foreigners we saw at all in the city of Xi’an were huddled in the safety of a Starbucks, but if there is one thing (or two things) that I’ve gained from my time in China is that:
- The rice should always be steaming hot and fresh out of the rice cooker.
- You can always hassle your server is the food order is incorrect (otherwise you might jut have to suck it up and eat that platter of chicken feet – nails and all – in front of you)
But enough about bowls of rice and onto the Warriors. There are several ways to get to the famed Terracotta Warriors. One can take a guided tour bus from their hotel (or from the Starbucks, as that seems to be the second most populated foreigner alcove). One can persuade (or be persuaded by) a taxi driver to drive them the entire hour and a half in a car running on natural gas, with the engine in the back (over my dead body). One can also squeeze into a coach bus for 9RMB (less than $2) and drive comfortable out to see the Warriors (as long as you don’t mind being next to a man squatting on a short stool in the aisles, but hey the bus has to have profit margins somehow, doesn’t it?)
The Warriors themselves are kind of an amazing story. I won’t do it justice here, but I’ll try. Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China (at least according to himself) was a dope dude. He lived around 200BCE-200CE and, not having had enough thrill in his pre-afterlife life, he decided that he wanted to make it over to the afterlife with an entourage. He commissioned countless of artisans to create life-size (and individual-faced) terracotta depictions of an entire army to ‘guard’ him after his death, this army composed of thousands of army men, archers, horses, and generals to lead each battalion.
His own tomb of course was grand and majestic.. at the time. D told me that Qin Shi Huang wanted to bury himself under a giant pyramid. But a giant pyramid of what, you ask? Dirt, is the true, and sort of unfortunate answer. Qin Shi Huang is buried under what was once an impressive monolith, but has now been reduced to a small-ish mound. The kicker is that his tomb is still not excavated, because he filled the entire area with rivers and rivers of Mercury. He also sealed the workers who completed the work on his tomb inside, to die a slow death, so paranoid was he not to have his grave be disturbed.
Now, no one had any idea any of this existed until the 1970s, when a group of farms were drilling for a new well, and their drills came face to face with one of these warriors. They discovered what we now know as Pit 1 (there are three pits in all, with 1 being the most impressive, 2 being largely unexplored, and 3 not really a pit at all). I also need to mention that after Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s death, the peasants who spent years under what I presume was a pretty tyrannical rule rebelled and went full Rambo on his Terracotta army men (I presume they stayed away from the mercury poison pits), so not only are the warriors buried under centuries of rubble, many are also intentionally broken to pieces out of (rightfully intended) spite.
So when the farmers discovered the warriors, 1) they were out of a well space 2) they were about to make one of the largest archeological discoveries of the 20th century (outweighing 1) in this case). The tombs were declared a Heritage Site in the 1970s and China started doing excavations in the following years. But here’s the thing: the excavations aren’t finished. And when smug people come up to you and say “the warriors are really not that impressive”, it’s usually because when people visit them, we expect this ginormous 30,000 strong army. What we see instead is about a 1/10th of it, because this is a living site, and as living sites go, it’s pretty incredible, but there’s still so much to be done to learn more about it.