I’ve been in Xi’an for over two months now, but I’ve only just got round to seeing the Terracotta Warriors. Neil is visiting and really wanted to go again, and it seemed like a good opportunity to go as well. After I got home from work at around 1pm we went to C’est La Vie for lunch. C’est La Vie is a pretty good bakery/pastry place and it’s where I regularly buy baguettes. Actually, as it has a French name I should call it a boulangerie/patisserie.
We then got in a taxi to the train station to get bus 306 out to the warriors. As Neil was chatting to the driver he jokingly asked how long it would take and how much it would cost for her to drive us all the way to the warriors. She said about 40 minutes and ¥140, and Neil bargained her down to ¥120. As the bus would take over an hour and it was already the afternoon, we decided that ¥60 each (about £6) was a price worth paying. It was the first time since arriving in November that I’ve left the city, and seeing the countryside and mountains and the clear(er) air perked me up a bit.
When we arrived at the entrance to the warriors it wasn’t obvious where to go. We seemed to spend a lot of time walking through areas of tatty gift shops, and I got the impression that the official tourist complex has been progressively encircled by more and more commercial chancers. Eventually we saw the ticket office and the entrance to the complex, and almost immediately we were pounced upon by tour guides. The one that got us had an excellent technique for stopping us. I’ve spent a third of my life living in London, perfecting the art of ignoring people on the street who are determined to talk to me, but somehow I couldn’t walk on past her. All the tour guides were wearing official uniforms, and our tour guide said “stop and wait please” in a stern voice while glancing behind over her shoulder. The uniform, stern voice and inference that there was something going on that we had to wait for induced me and Neil to stop, by which point she had us. It was ok though because we’d already decided to get a guide. At ¥100 for two hours it seemed like a reasonable deal.
The ticket to enter was ¥110. It felt a bit expensive for China but it’s the Terracotta Warriors, one of the eighth wonders of the world, so they can charge what they want. After buying a ticket we headed towards the entrance gate, but our guide had other ideas. “You can either walk 2km to the warriors, which takes half an hour, or you can pay ¥10 for the electric car.” Knowing that we had the guide for only two hours, we decided that it was cheaper to pay for the electric car ride than waste ¥25 of tour-guide time. For the fourth time in about 20 minutes I opened my wallet and handed over money to someone. But our tour guide was lovely. Her English for the pre-rehearsed lines was good, although she did struggle a bit when we asked her questions for which she didn’t have scripted answers.
We finally arrived at the first building of the warriors. Wow. This building’s amazing, a bit like the roof of St Pancras station in London, only bigger. Oh look, and warriors made of terracotta, they’re cool as well.
Alright, I’m being deliberately facetious. The Terracotta Warriors are amazing. I’m not sure my writing ability can do justice to how cool they are, but I’ll write a little bit anyway and upload photos once I’ve edited them. Life size and each one an individual, there are hundreds of them still standing exactly where they were placed in hidden underground chambers around 2,200 years ago. Archaeologists estimate there are around 8,000 warriors in total, most of which have not yet been excavated. Everyone that worked on creating the army was killed in order to keep it a secret, and it clearly worked because it wasn’t until 1974 that they were rediscovered by a farmer digging a well. Our tour guide said that the farmer was paid ¥0.5 by the government, and that we could meet him later. I assumed I’d misunderstood but nodded and said “oh right” anyway.
After the first, and most impressive pit, we went to the second pit which is much smaller. In the building were two gift shops. The first sold photoshopped photos of your face as the face of a terracotta warrior, and there were some wonderful mocked-up examples including Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and Vladimir Putin. The second shop allowed people, for a fee, to take photos of themselves next to replica warriors. My wallet was already feeling quite violated, and I agreed to its wish to stay in my bag.
After the second pit we went to the main official gift shop. Our tour guide gave us the low down on how much the different sized replica warriors cost. I said I was only interested in the full size replica, a snip at ¥17,000, but didn’t think I could fit it in my hand luggage. Our tour guide than suggested that we might like to buy a book about the warriors and have it signed by the farmer who discovered them. I’d done it again, misunderstanding that we’d be meeting the farmer who discovered the warriors. Then the tour guide said “there he is” and pointed to an old man sitting behind a desk.
I simultaneously felt two emotions: discomfort and deception. The man was clearly on display, as though he was just another curated exhibit in ‘the Terracotta Warriors experience.’ Was he there by choice or coercion. Was he happy to spend all day signing books for tourists and posing for photos. Then Neil said the other thing I was thinking. “In China I’m never sure whether to believe things. For all we know he could be anyone, just the person currently employed to be “the farmer” on Wednesdays.” Good point Neil.
Anyway, then we went on to the third pit which is currently completely unexcavated, giving the feeling that we were looking down at very precious bare earth. In this building there were some warriors in display cabinets, and Neil and I couldn’t help noticing how trendy the warriors’ shoes are and that they’d sell well in TopMan. It’s safe to say that we’d reached the limit of how much serious history we could consume for the day.
Our guide pointed us in the direction of the cinema before leaving to snare some more tourists. The movie about the warriors was so awful it was funny. I think it must have been produced in the 1980’s, and still ran on the original film. Most of the audience left within five minutes, and the rest were either laughing or looked annoyed at mine and Neil’s attempt at a humorous running commentary.
Despite feeling like people saw us as walking cash machines I actually had a great time at the Terracotta Warriors. I’d definitely recommend it as a ‘must see’ for anyone visiting China.
We decided to get the bus back. I was a little ashamed about getting a taxi to the warriors, almost as though we were tourist arseholes throwing money around like it doesn’t matter and not caring that we were insulated from the real China. I much preferred the bus, seeing the landscape pass by slowly and stopping here and there to pick-up ordinary Chinese people going about their daily lives.
As we passed a girl cycling I had a sudden realisation that although I know infinitely more about China than I did when I arrived two months ago, I’ve only just scratched the surface. The girl looked to be in her 20’s, riding a worn-out bike slowly yet purposefully. She was wearing a smart pink coat and although she was looking wearily at the road ahead she appeared content.
What does she do for a living. Where was she coming from and going to. What’s her home like. What are her hopes and ambitions. Who are her friends and family. How does she fit into Chinese society.
Apart from the first, those are questions that I’d struggle to answer even for the Chinese colleagues at work that I know best, and I had a sudden pang of frustration that I don’t have more opportunities to interact with and learn about ordinary Chinese people outside the bounds of teaching at a private English language school. I said as much to Neil and we talked philosophy for the remaining hour on the bus back to Xi’an.