Six years ago I sat in my college archaeology class, staring at a large photo illuminated by a powerpoint projector. The photograph contained row upon row of Chinese military men, standing in perfect unison: The Terracotta Warriors.
While it only took a week or two of an archaeology class to know I don’t have the patience to dig up tiny pieces of pottery for months on end, the history of each location fascinated me… especially this one.
Staring up at the screen I wondered to myself if I would ever make it all the way to Xi’an when I studied abroad in China. I’d never heard of this ancient capital before, and from the pictures, it looked like these warriors were in the middle of the desert.
Would it be difficult to get there? Would I ever make the trip?
Just a year and a half later, I stood looking out over that giant Terracotta Army. In the years since I’ve had the privilege of seeing these warriors twice, in my three visits to Xi’an. Unfortunately, that was before I had a fancy DSLR camera, so I guess that means I’ll probably be heading back again sometime soon!
What Are the Terracotta Warriors?
If you aren’t actively planning a trip to China, or you didn’t take a random college archaeology class, you may not have ever heard of the Terracotta Warriors. Located about an hour outside of Xi’an city in Shaanxi province, this army is made of a type of pottery or clay called “terracotta”. These soldiers stand in perfect lines, protecting emperor Qin Shi Huang in the afterlife.
The Terracotta Warriors are an open archaeological site, which means you’ll see archaeologists actively reassembling the broken pieces of clay. In the largest pit, you’ll see a series of reconstructed soldiers, followed by remnants of smashed terracotta that people are slowly piecing together. In addition to the first pit, you’ll also find two smaller pits, with life-size warriors on display for you to take photos with.
The Legend of the Terracotta Warriors
While studying abroad in Xi’an, I took a course called “Anthropology of the Silk Road”, and was lucky enough to visit the Terracotta Warriors with my teacher, a young, chain-smoking Italian man. He explained to us the complex history of China, the first emperor, and the Terracotta Army.
The Warring Kingdoms and Emperor Qin Shi Huang
Emperor Qin Shi Huang is an infamous character is China’s vast 5,000 years of ancient history. Revered for uniting all of China into one empire, he was also a brutal man, not known for having much sympathy… or empathy… or kindness in general.
Before Qing Shi Huang came along, China contained seven kingdoms ruled by regional kings who spent their time warring with one another. Qin Shi Huang decided it was his destiny to unite all of the kingdoms into one empire in the 3rd century BC. While the battle was bloody, it did bring peace, unity, and strength to the newfound Chinese empire. He also started building the first main sections of the Great Wall!
Want to know more of the story? There’s a movie called The First Emperor of China that you can find on Youtube. I watched it for my Chinese Film class in college!
Qin Shi Huang’s Terracotta Army
Because he was the first emperor, Qin Shi Huang’s Tomb is a big deal.
Qin Shi Huang commissioned 7,000 artists to create a great Terracotta Army that would follow him into the afterlife. 6,000 life-size soldiers, 600 horses, artifacts from all across China, weapons and more can all be found in these three pits. There are even musicians, artists, acrobats and animals, all made of terracotta clay.
One of the most interesting things about this army is that every single warrior is different! To do this, the workers created separate body parts to mix and match so that each figure is unique. They had many different noses, eyes, hair pieces, mouths, ears, etc. to combine with one another so that no two warriors are alike. They then placed real weapons in the warriors’ hands, depending on rank and station.
The Looting and Rebellion
When archaeologists found the pit, all of the terracotta artifacts were smashed and the weapons were gone. This is because after the emperor’s death, the country revolted and many of the poor workers wanted to extract revenge upon the dead emperor. They smashed all of the soldiers and horses, stole the weapons and set fire to everything!
The Mysterious Tomb of Qin Shi Huang
Less than a mile away from the Terracotta Army is Qin Shi Huang’s original tomb. Legend says that the giant underground tomb contains treasures, palaces, and even 100 flowing rivers of mercury. Apparently, Qin Shi Huang’s top advisers and all of his concubines are also buried alive there.
However, the tomb has yet to be excavated. Why? Well, the Chinese government wants to wait until preservation technology evolves to ensure none of the treasures inside were are destroyed.
The Terracotta Army was originally painted in vivid colors, but exposure to the air made the paint flake, leaving most a dull brown. It would be a shame for the same thing to happen to China’s version of King Tut’s tomb.
While we don’t know for sure what is down there, scientists have tested the soil and found unusually high levels of Mercury. Let’s just hope that in our lifetime we’ll be able to see what’s inside!
The Discovery of the Terracotta Army
While Qin Shi Huang’s tomb has been written about at length by Sima Qian, no note was ever made of the Terracotta Army. Because of this, history gradually forgot about the incredible wonder until 1974, when a group of farmers digging a well stumbled on a terracotta head! This discovery prompted Chinese archaeologists to investigate when they were shocked to find the pits you can see just outside Xi’an today!
Currently, archaeologists are piecing these warriors back together. Thankfully, all of the feet of the army remain bolted to the pit floor, making it easier to understand how the army ranks were positioned so each soldier can be put back into place.
If you visit Xi’an today, you may have the privilege of meeting the “last remaining farmer” to find the terracotta head. You can pay to take a photo with him or buy his book. However, rumor has it that the man is just a random person hired to play the part. Either way, it’s fun to say you met him… right?
Want more history? Don’t like reading? Here’s a quick video!
How to Get to the Terracotta Warriors
Do I have you convinced? Thankfully the Terracotta Army is very easy to get to from Xi’an, the capital of Shaanxi province.
All times and prices are accurate as of Fall 2016. Check with your hotel for more current information.
Getting to Xi’an
If you’ve never heard of Shaanxi or Xi’an, don’t worry, the city is more accessible than it seems. You can get to Xi’an from Beijing via a 2.5-hour plane ride or 4.5-hour high-speed train ride. Personally, I prefer the train because flights in China are often delayed, and with airports being an hour or so outside the city, it will probably take you longer if you choose to fly.
Getting to the Terracotta Warriors from Xi’an
Private Tour or Driver
You can find private tours to the Terracotta Warriors from most hotels and hostels. They’ll drive you one hour to the site, show you around, and drive you home. You can also forgo the tour and hire a private driver from your hotel. Ask your hotel or hostel for prices!
Recommended: Tourist Bus
Take the special Tourism Bus 5 (Bus no. 306) running between Xian Railway Station to the Terracotta Army Museum. If you stand facing Xian Railway Station, The Bus 5 (306) can be found at the parking lot on your right side.
Tickets are 7 RMB ($1 USD) per person, and buses run from 7am to 7pm. The trip takes about an hour, and you’ll get off at stop 12: Terracotta Museum.
BEWARE OF FAKE BUSES: Genuine tourist buses are gray, with 45 seats and tickets purchased from a conductor once you board. The typical fake tourist bus is light yellow with 20 seats. Don’t get in!
A fair price is about 300–400 yuan ($44–58 USD) round-trip, but you’ll need to negotiate. If you decide to take a taxi one-way, try to get it for around $160 RMB ($25 USD).
Note: Don’t haggle for taxis in China if you’re just going a short distance. Taxis should always use the meter, but you can make an exception if you’re doing a day excursion like this.
Terracotta Warriors: Need to Know
In addition to directions, there are a few things you need to know to make sure you have a fantastic trip!
Times and Prices
Peak Season (March – November)
- 8:30am- 5:30pm, 150 RMB ($22 USD)
Off Season (December – February)
- 8:30 am- 5pm, 120 RMB ($18 USD)
Children under 1.2 meters visit for free!
Avoid the Crowds
The best way to avoid the crowds in China is to steer clear of Chinese National Holidays. On an average day, the Terracotta Warriors are pretty crowded with Chinese tour groups. Beat the rush and arrive right when it opens, visit on a weekday, or come to Xi’an in off-peak when the pollution and cold winds deter most tourists.
Tour Guides and Audio Guides
Having a tour guide can be great, especially since all of the English signs make no sense. You can hire your own tour guide at the entrance for about 100-150 RMB ($16-22 USD), however, quality definitely varies and some people leave feeling disappointed. You can also rent an audio guide for 40 RMB with a 200 RMB deposit, but apparently, the English isn’t so great.
Your best bet is to either go with a reputable tour, or read up on the history before you go! If you haven’t read the earlier part of this post, now would be a good time.
Most of the souvenirs in the park are incredibly overpriced, and you’re better off shopping at the Muslim Market in town. Beware of people selling “real terracotta”, mini terracotta warriors, and the book signed by the farmer who “discovered the terracotta warriors”.
There are restaurants surrounding the warriors but most of them are overpriced and not so great. Just be sure to check the menu prices before you go in, and eat at a busy place packed with Chinese families (not hordes of tour groups).
Where to Stay in Xi’an
For the best deals on hotels in Xi’an I use Agoda and Booking.com. For hostels, I have a new obsession with Hostelz which checks for the best prices on Hostelworld, HostelBookers, and Booking.com (sort of like Skyscanner except for cheap hostel rooms!)
Right in the center of Xi’an, if you want a relaxing luxury experience the Sofitel is the way to go! Walk to the Muslim Market street or the Bell Tower within 20 minutes, or get some work done with their fast and free WiFi. Other amenities include restaurants, a gym, a beautiful pool and hotub, a spa, shuttle service and more!
Want to see more tluxury hotels in Xi’an?
This is where I stayed on my last visit to Xi’an! It was such a convenient location for exploring around the city, just a quick 10-minute drive to the Bell Tower. The rooms were so cozy, the breakfast was amazing and I really wish I had more time to spend in the pool! Sheraton always does a great job and Xi’an is no exception.
Want to see more affordable options in Xi’an?
Only a few minutes walking to the Bell Tower, Han Tang Inn Hostel is by far the best hostel in Xi’an. The reception staff all speak English, the WiFi actually works, and they offer tours to the Terracotta Warriors and other locations around Xi’an. This is the perfect hostel if you’re looking for something cozy, and if you want to get drunk at a cheap hostel bar, the Han Tang House across the street has more of a party atmosphere.
Want to see more hostels in Xi’an?
Don’t Miss the Terracotta Warriors!
Overall, no trip to China is complete without a visit to Xi’an. See the Terracotta Warriors, explore the city of Xi’an, hike the terrifying plank walk on Hua Shan and stuff your face on the Muslim Street!
Do you have any questions about your trip to Xi’an? Let me know below!
Thanks to the Shaanxi Tourism board and Sheraton for hosting me on my third trip to Xi’an!