asia · travel

The Terracotta Warriors: A Battle Royale

Peaceniks, flares, and boogie ruled the 70’s, but for the men in idyllic Xian, it was just another quiet day. It was the type of day when you joshed with your buddies in the farm, trying to overlook the arduous task of digging up a communal well. It was all good old fun — well, until someone discovered a head.

Well, most of these are headless. (I'm not sure if that makes it any less shocking if stumbled upon.)

That head was just one of the 8,000 Terracotta Warriors unearthed around the tomb of China’s first emperor. Embodying China’s fixation with the magnanimous, Emperor Qinshihuang set off plans for his grandiose imperial tomb when he first took the throne at age thirteen (!). That fateful day for the farmers breathed in new life for Xian, making it one of the most visited nooks in vast China.

Meanwhile, in the present, my friends and I were met with a less-than-pleasant surprise in Beijing. I shook hands with Bill, the agent from EaseTravels we paid online, and he forked over a piece of paper. My heart sank — I was expecting five pairs of train tickets. It’s an e-voucher, he explained in his best English. We had to exchange it for real tickets at the Beijing West railway station itself. It can be a real tense moment for a penny-pincher like me (Help! We’re being duped!), but deciding to ride on my almost infallible trust in mankind, I smiled, shook hands again with Bill, and we parted ways.

From left: Phoebe, Arn, Jan, Alex, and me

Again, nothing is done easily for a non-Mandarin speaker in Beijing. After being scammed by a rickshaw driver and then grasping for words gestures at the railway ticket counter, a big wash of relief came upon us when the paper magically turned into train tickets! We had nothing to worry about, after all.

Giddy as kids going to Disneyland

Things were off to a good start. There we were, young and free, on our first time to ride a sleeper train together. We quickly made a new friend — Mr. Chang, a native of Xian going home from Beijing, who gamely explained how to go about the switches in the sleeper cabin.

What's a 12-hour long haul ride without booze? (But dudes and dudettes, never drink and drive!)

Morning came, and we alighted at Xian. After pouncing on a quick breakfast, we were off again on Bus 306 (only RMB 7!) to the Terracotta Army site. The exhibition grounds were VAST — three indoor excavated pits plus a museum — all in all, a smorgasbord of archaeological candy. Pit 1 has the biggest collection of unearthed warriors, ready to decimate intruders. Pit 2 is just about the same size, only that most of the statues are still waiting to be dug out underneath the dirt (the hall has a showcase of the different ranks of warriors you’ll find in the formations, though). I’m not sure if it’s just the lighting, but Pit 3 exuded a sort of a ‘tomb’ feel for me, where it hits you that all this exorbitance was really about the grandest Battle Royale in the afterlife.

Pit 1
Pit 2
Pit 3

Whenever things I only used to see in pictures jump into life in front of my eyes, there’s a surreal feeling that makes me tingle all over each time. It never gets old, even after several bouts of whispering to myself, “Oh-my-God-I’m-really-here”.

Charge! (Don't worry, I'm pretty much sure these were replicas.)

And the best way to cap off our day? After hours of lugging around our packs, we almost cartwheeled for joy when we chanced upon a half-day rate deal at a fancy hotel in Central Xian, just two blocks away from the train station. At only RMB 380 for all of us, it was definitely a steal. That first burst of hot shower was nothing short of heavenly.

Xi’an gave us a refreshing look at China — laid-back and unhurried, as compared to the always-bustling Beijing. The people seemed to be more generous of their smiles, too. We were itching to explore more of this charming city — ride bikes on top of the perimeter wall, have a look-see at the Bell Tower — but alas, we had to set off again for the train back to Beijing. Xian looks like a good jump-off point for a trip to Tibet, though, so who knows, someday I might get another chance.

Thank you, Xi'an -- it was lovely to meet you.

Pictures galore! 2012-04 Xi’an

Casualty Assessment:

  • Roundtrip train tickets from Beijing to Xian – USD 156
    (here’s a good resource on how to go around China by train:
  • Bus 360 ticket to the Terracotta Army Museum – RMB 7
  • Terracotta Army site admission – RMB 150
  • Half-day rate at the Grand Soluxe International Hotel Xi’an – RMB 380
  • One bottle of beer bought in the train – RMB 15
  • One BIG bottle of beer bought from the train platform – RMB 6

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