Warriors for the Ages
Our last day in Xi’an brought us to one of China’s most legendary landmarks of late – the Terracotta Warriors. The weather app on my phone hasn’t updated since May 3rd, so my shorts and t-shirt contradicted what was apparently a gray, gloomy day that threatened chill and light rain. Passing through the brief security and ticket checkpoints, we queued for the resort golf cart-style shuttles up the hill to the location of the pits. Qin Shihuang Di became emperor of Zhong Guo (the Middle Kingdom, also known as China) when he was thirteen, and he died when he was fifty years old. As Cindy explained, Emperor Qin commissioned his tomb not long after he assumed power. Eight thousand warriors, each with unique personal appearances and crafted to the last detail, populate and protect the tomb along with horses, chariots, and real weaponry. The end of his son’s reign and many very angry people later, most of the warriors in the tomb were destroyed and their weapons stolen.
The Terracotta Warriors were unearthed in the 1970s, and since then, people have been toiling to collect the pieces, reassemble each warrior, and excavate the remainder of the pits. Emperor Qin’s tomb is located not too far away from the pits, but it is supposedly not possible to access the tomb due to the unknown booby traps and the toxicity of mercury, which increased over the centuries.
We regrouped and filed into a building. After Cindy introduced us to the building and gave us our meet-up time and location to conclude the free time that we would be given, we walked into a cavernously tall and long dome. Five meters down, the feet of the thousand or so reconstructed two-meter tall warriors were planted, facing us as we entered. This building was Pit 1, one of the most famous pits. Groups of us meandered down the sides, taking in these ancient fighters in various states of repair. Some were still heaps of terracotta on the floors of the pit’s trenches; some had limbs bound in plastics, waiting for archaeologists, excavators, someone to find and reattach their missing pieces.
Today, I most keenly noticed locals’ eagerness to take photos of and with us. Throughout the trip so far, both in Beijing and in Xi’an, locals have both inconspicuously and obviously taken photos of us, and in some cases, they’ve taken photos with us. Here at the Terracotta Warriors, though, I was personally targeted for pictures. As I waited for the meet-up time, I stood at the back of the pit observing the tables and tools used to analyze and repair the warriors. While I observed, a man approached me with his son in tow and asked if he could take a photo of me with his young son. I didn’t mind so much, particularly since he had asked and had waited for my affirmative response before eagerly pushing his boy next to me. However, outside where we were regrouping so that we could move to the next pit, an older lady came up to me, said “Picture?”, and placed her arm through the crook of mine while her friend or relative took our picture. I was not the usual target for photo time with the foreigners in my group, and today I was feeling flustered and tired from constantly sticking out and having my picture taken regardless of whether I wanted that or not.
Meanwhile, we ambled on to Pit 3, which contained terracotta horses, headless but otherwise intact warriors, and a chariot. Here, the warriors congregated in a general’s office. After wrapping up our free time in Pit 3, we moved on to the largely unexcavated Pit 2. Cindy told us that archaeologists, researchers, and excavators wanted to wait to excavate this pit until they have finished excavating the other pits. Reconstruction of the remaining warriors in Pit 1 is predicted to take about 500 years… Nevertheless, Pit 2 held preserved bones of an extremely unsuccessful tomb robber, and the encompassing room showed off some of the Terracotta Warriors’ marvels: the kneeling archer, the general, and a higher-ranking military official.
We proceeded to a buffet lunch in a gift shop-restaurant conglomeration onsite. Each of us picked up a metal tray not unlike the ones that I ate off of in elementary and middle school, as well as some chopsticks and any other miscellaneous plates of food served in their own dishes. At the end of lunch, the museum of the Terracotta Warriors stood before us. In the atrium outside of the museum, Cindy pointed out that for the Chinese, squares and rectangles patterned the ground, symbolizing the earth, while circles dotted the ceiling, representing heaven. The museum displayed two chariot models and some trinkets and weaponry found in the pits.
There wasn’t a lot going on at the Terracotta Warriors, but I found it interesting to see the warriors and the pits and to reflect on the history and what it might have been like to craft the warriors, to find them, to excavate them, and to live as a subject of Emperor Qin.
Biking on Sticky Rice
We walked back down to the entrance, passing souvenirs and food vendors as well as an impressively large, intricate carving made from a single slab of jade. The bus drove us to the Xi’an city wall, which we mounted, to the tune of Cindy joking that the city wall had significantly fewer steps (about sixty) than the Great Wall (twenty minutes of walking up the staircase to heaven). Atop the city wall, we each rented a bike and were challenged to bike the eight miles around the city wall in an hour and a half. The bike seats weren’t so comfortable, but riding alongside friends – Sophie, Justin, Angeline, and Chloe – and taking in the sights of Xi’an old and new was immensely relaxing and pleasant. At one point, we had a structured formation going, which made me think of kids riding bicycles together on the streets as the summer sun sets. And that spawned the idea that we were a formidable formation of foreigners biking on the Xi’an city wall. A random but curious tidbit, since cement wasn’t a construction material back in the ancient days of China, the builders used sticky rice as the adhesive material for the city wall.
Getting a respectable amount of exercise in, Dr. Li treated us to a traditional dinner. As has been usual, we sat in a separate room in the restaurant with round tables centered under a lazy Susan. Dr. Li explained that the dinner we were having was an “eight and eight” meal; eight is a lucky number in China (and four, by comparison, is not, which is why our hotel in Beijing did not have a fourth floor), so the restaurant served us eight cold dishes and eight hot dishes. Everyone loved the dessert bread, so Dr. Li ordered more. In the meantime, we took turns sharing something that has surprised us about China so far, but when we had finished, the bread was still not ready. So, we hedged our bets and headed back to the hotel.
(Roller)Blades of Glory
Later in the evening, Chloe, Angeline, Justin, Shaymi, Brian, Chandler, Kieran, Lauren, Hanna, and I traveled down the block to the roller-skating rink. As we had seen on other nights, the place was darker but with a lighting glow and colorful supplementary lights. Through the windows, we could see that the rink was filled with talented skaters, and there was some concern in our group that we would be miserable failures, to which I responded that we’re there for fun and so what if we’re terrible… and then someone fell over on the rink. We went inside, bought ourselves entry tickets, and tried our best to communicate what type of skates and what size we wanted; to this end, a man who I guess worked at the rink enlisted himself to translate for us. I had to request another size by myself, which gave me the chance to use the one-handed Chinese-style number-counting that Cindy taught us.
On the rink, a sliver to the back side of the rink (in relation to the door) was carved out for a small hilly terrain park like what you would see on motorbike racing. Kieran convinced me to try it once, so flailing my arms as necessary, I almost fell on the first and biggest hill but survived the rest, which was fun. I rollerbladed years ago and became quite comfortable in inline skates, but the passage of time wore down my skills to not great but still able to stand and skate around. People flew by me – chains skating backwards, partners seemingly performing a dance routine, skaters pulling off random tricks. The skaters and workers there were friendly and eager to help, and more than once a skater or two or three or more would grab my hands and tote me along, skating faster or slower depending on the frequency of my flailing or falling. I very much appreciated their encouragement, but receiving that kind of help and attention caught me off guard – in the US, if you fall over while ice skating or roller skating, normally whoever you’re with helps you.
Our last day in Xi’an greatly entertained me, got me thinking about history, and also pulled me farther out of my comfort zone socially and culturally. Tomorrow, our train tickets await us as we make the six-hour journey to Shanghai, arguably China’s most modern city.