There are lots of amazing sights in China–but I think the Terracotta Warriors are by far the most impressive. They were built for First Emperor Qin, who reigned from 221-210 BC. Yes, they are that old! We saw the exhibit when it came to the National Geographic Museum in Washington DC, and I’ve peered over pictures and pictures of the warriors, but they truly are more astonishing in person. I’m also fascinated by excavations and archaeology (I thought about being an archaeology major in college), so seeing the restoration process as well as the unrestored “pits” of the warriors was pretty freakin’ cool.
The site is broken up into different sections, with one pit that is pretty much fully restored, one pit that is partially restored, and a third pit that hasn’t had much restoration. These are some of the largest pits, but there are over 600 pits in total with artifacts. Researchers also believe that there are in fact more pits they haven’t even yet uncovered adjacent to the existing site. There are thousands of warriors, each with unique details and expressions. They also have some display cases of warriors that were either unearthed with more details/paint or restored accordingly. I’m sure that part of the reason I like the Warriors so much is because of the horses. I’d bring a lifesize Terracotta Horse home (if I could afford to ship it and had a place to put it). Alas, I did not come home with a Terracotta Horse.
It was busy there, but not in a way that was too frustrating or annoying. With no disrespect intended, most visitors wanted to get their 3 photos and 2 selfies and be on their way. I’d guess many people were in and out of the site in an hour or so! By just waiting a few minutes here or there, it was easy to get the best views, great photos, and plenty of time to just stare (because, well, they are a wonder).
We had probably about 4 hours at the Warriors, and honestly, we probably would have stayed a bit longer and just wandered around the site as it is in the countryside and exceptionally pretty. However…while the Terracotta Warriors were a true highlight of the trip, we did have a guide in Xi’an, and she was by far the worst guide we had in China. Probably one of the worst we’ve ever encountered while traveling. She was unaccommodating, made us very uncomfortable by ordering us around and rushing us, didn’t speak English well/fluently by any stretch of the imagination (but had one speech down completely), and actually yelled at me because I asked her to clarify something she mentioned previously! While not overweight (or probably over 45), she had significant problems walking for 4 hours and was not pleased when we asked her to walk literally 200 yards out of her way. We literally could not wait to get rid of her. And honestly, if you are an English guide to the Terracotta Warriors, you need to speak English and be able to walk. That is your job.
She didn’t accompany us to the airport the next day, which we were happy about. But the guide that did take us was lovely–we learned more in a 45 min drive to the airport than we did the entire day prior. So it’s not that all guides in Xi’an are bad, we just drew a bad straw. It happens. The Warriors were still amazing, guide or no guide (and you could totally go guideless with a book there).
Xi’an, the city, is a weird, weird place. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen those “empty” cities in China that sometimes grace the news, but parts of it were like that–hundreds and hundreds of 30-40 story buildings that are either unfinished or finished and vacant. They’d make the background for a good horror movie (since its Halloween and all), but…other…than…that….
Xi’an is a major city in China (4.5 million people), and is considered the eastern end of the Silk Road. It has since turned into a manufacturing hub, with the pollution to show for it. One of the things that bothers me a lot about Xi’an was it’s lack of walkability–and really–I didn’t find a lot of China very friendly to walkers, Shanghai probably being the exception (and parts of Chengdu, too). Mainly because drivers are terrifying and won’t stop for pedestrians, ever, so it’s kind of like playing Chinese roulette every time you cross a street. Most of which are six lanes wide, with not enough “walk-time” to compound the problem.
We stayed at the Shangri-La in Xi’an, which I’d highly recommend. Yes, it’s huge, but it’s also gorgeous and has the most amazing 25m swimming pool! Plus, obviously the Terracotta replicas at the door sort of won me over. The food in the hotel was also decent (we went to the Chinese restaurant which always had lots of Chinese people in it, not tour groups). Rooms were clean, lobby was bright, and breakfast was tasty and voluminous (though incredibly hectic with said tour groups).
If you are interested in reading more about the Warriors–I think this site (Nat Geo) and this site (Field Museum) are the best quick reads. I would not hesitate to recommend a visit to the warriors to anyone that is interested (I know its not for everyone!). You can know as little or as much as you want about Chinese history and still enjoy the feat that is making all of the warriors, horses, and chariots in clay. Plus, the discovery story of the warriors is just one of those fun tales…a farmer was digging a well and hit, well, a Terracotta Warrior.