Saturday, 12 November 2011

Arguments, aggression and a never-ending parade of gift shops: A slightly traumatic visit to the Terracotta Warriors

Think of China, and along with great food and the Great Wall, the famous Terracotta army will probably be up there. Thousands of life-sized figures in rows, every one unique, representing incredible workmanship, the warriors are definitely on the 'must-see' list. A few years ago we saw a fantastic exhibition at the British museum on the history of the army, along with some choice examples, so were excited to have the opportunity to see them in situ and in the amazing numbers that made them so admired.

Leaving Beijing behind for now, we took a night train to Xi'an. The Beijing train station was an experience in itself - huge and overwhelming, with what felt like millions of people dashing to their platforms, we were pleased we'd arrived early, and finding our waiting zone we boarded the very nice train and snuggled down for the night. Arriving in Xi'an with only a few days to spare, we wasted no time and after dropping our bags off at our hostel, jumped on a bus out of the city.

We probably should have picked up some warning signs on our arrival. Dropped off in a car park a good 10 minute walk from the site, once we eventually arrived and figured out where to purchase our tickets we were ready to see some warriors. However, before you can do so you have to walk another 15 minutes through a winding parade lined with souvenir shops. With no signs of anything looking vaguely archaeological we were beginning to get worried that we'd taken a wrong turn, but persevered, politely rejecting offers every few feet of terracotta warriors of all sizes, until finally we arrived at a large open space containing imposing buildings and an airport hanger.

Excited, we decided to go with Lonely Planet's recommendation of working backwards - building up to site 1. Site three was lovely - although there were very few figures left in the deep trenches the lighting was nice and the room relatively peaceful. Site 2 jumped up considerably in size, and we were beginning to really understand the scale of the project. Again, there were surprisingly few people, and none of the tour groups we'd glimpsed outside. Optimistically concluding that we must have timed our visit right by coming in low season, we finished looking around the surrounding smaller buildings before approaching site 1, the airport hanger which houses the largest number of warriors, over 2000.

Walking in, we were blown away. Not by the warriors themselves mind you. Oh no, we couldn't actually see those. We were blown away by the number of people there. I'm pretty sure I'm exaggerating here, but it seemed like thousands. Chinese tour groups of upwards of 50 visitors each huddled around their guides, who were shouting at the top of their voices to be heard. As we edged our way down the steps, we were shoved out of the way as people dashed around, holding their cameras high and snapping a quick shot before moving on. No-one seemed to be actually looking at the warriors. At least, not for longer than it took to get the right photo. We found a space and slid in, awed at the incredible sight in front of us. Warriors stretched out in long columns, each placed exactly in position, facing the front, their expressions all different, stoically standing to attention for all of eternity.

Then the crowd shifted, and we were pushed out of our space. We made our way around a little further to try again, away from the entrance. Finding another clear spot, we moved in, and I smiled at a little baby perched on a parent's shoulder. Suddenly, a big camera moved closer, and the baby was pushed out of the way by the camera's owner. A baby. Pushed out of the way. And so we moved around again. I was shoved a couple of times (not always responding quite as maturely as I could), becoming increasingly frustrated. We've visited many of the 'big' sights around the world. They are often busy, but I'd never experienced anything like that - people shouting at each other, snapping their photos and then leaving.

By the time we left site 1, we felt satisfied that we'd seen it thoroughly. A combination of standing back and waiting for groups to pass, coupled with holding ourselves in one spot for a while before moving on enabled us to take in the amazing details of the terracotta figures, from the different hairstyles to the beautifully carved horses, the imprints in the ground left by wooden chariot wheels to the figures not yet completely excavated. Seeing it in all its magnificent size, then focusing in on individual details really helped to appreciate the achievement of building a full-sized imperial army for the afterlife. However, the atmosphere just wasn't there. I've read many blog posts suggesting this is the case for many of the big world sites, and on the whole I completely disagree, and at many the atmosphere has been amazing. However, the noise, bright lights and overwhelming number of people at the Terracotta army was a bit too much.

We still hugely enjoyed our visit, and I would definitely recommend it to anyone. The figures were extraordinary and I'm so pleased I've been able to see them in situ. However, I would recommend wearing some body padding to anyone thinking of dropping by...

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