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Xi'an: The Emperor's Clay Army


TravelpulseAfter nearly three days in Beijing, my Imperial Tours travel agent fam trip moved to Xian, site of the famous Terracotta warriors and the original seat of the Chinese empire. The Terracotta warriors, of course, are one of China’s most famous attractions, though they were discovered only late in the last century. But I found there is much more to Xian than the clay-figure warriors themselves.

We began our journey with a short flight (under two hours) from Beijing to Xian. A note on air transportation within China: While I knew it was modern and efficient, those booking China might let their clients know they will be flying on modern Boeing aircraft on all of the country’s domestic airlines, which include Air China, China Eastern and China Southern). I found the service to be exceptional, to be honest. And nearly all of the airport facilities were as modern or in many cases, more modern than those in the U.S.

Upon arrival in Xian, our group of eight two China hosts, three travel agents, two companions to those agents, and me – was picked up by a small motorcoach for the drive into the city. We traveled on a superhighway as our local guide explained the history of the city and the surrounding countryside. Indeed, we saw a few burial mounds on the trip into Xian, our first clues to the vast imperial past that this 3,000-year-old city had when it served as the seat of power for some 73 emperors of China. At one time Xian was the largest city in the world, with one million inhabitants, situated as it was on one end of the famous Silk Road.

Beyond its imperial past, Xian is embarking on a very modern future. It now has close to eight million inhabitants and an ever-growing population of automobiles (and yes, traffic can be a challenge). Surrounding the center city are literally hundreds of construction sites for high-rise apartment buildings. In the old city, however, construction is limited by height, so that modern high-rise buildings do not dwarf the historic stone walls of the city or the structures within those walls. Indeed, Xian’s thick city wall, running nine miles around the city, is an attraction unto itself. Surrounding by a thin green park and a moat, the wall, which dates to 1370-1379, offers visitors a great way to hike and bike their way around the city.

Once inside the old city, we checked into the Sofitel Xian on Renmin Square (, a modern property with comfortable amenities, including a spa and large indoor pool, that is actually part of a complex of Accor hotels within the city. Called Renmin Square, the area has the Sofitel, a Grand Mercure, a Mercure and a three-star property called the Xian People’s Hotel dating from the 1950s (a Communist-style structure). We were treated to dinner by the hotel, including a special demonstration of dumpling and noodle-making techniques (a few in our party gave it a try, but I decided simply to observe). Later that night, our Imperial Tours China Host Todd Pang took us to the local night market and bazaar called Huajue Alley, near a mosque. There we could sample all manner of local foods and buy jewelry, clothing and handmade kites.

Of course, we were in Xian to see the major attraction – the Terracotta warriors. So the next day we got up, packed our bags once again and boarded the bus for the 40-minute ride to the city’s eastern outskirts. There we found the burial complex for Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China, who unified the country and then built himself a massive burial mound surrounded by pits containing the objects he wished to carry with him to the afterlife (the entire complex is 56 square kilometers). In 1974, a local farmer (who still resides in the area and interacts with tourists on a daily basis) discovered one of these pits containing the first Terracotta warriors when he was digging a well.

The life-size Terracotta warriors, clay representations modeled on actual soldiers (no two faces are the same), date from 210 B.C. The figures include warriors, generals, chariots, horses, officials, acrobats, strongmen, and musicians. Archeologists estimate that there are more than 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots with 520 horses and 150 cavalry horses, though so far only 2,000 figures have been uncovered. Our guide described the project as the “largest jigsaw puzzle in the world,” since the warriors were found broken into many pieces.

There are three “pits” that archeologists have been working on. The first, and largest, is housed in a large hanger-like building. Visitors can view several rows of warriors from a walkway around the pit, including an area where they are pieced together and then put back where they were found. We could see archeologists at work in the pits carefully brushing away dirt and rock to uncover the figures.

We then moved to the other two pits, which are located in more substantial buildings, though there are fewer figures in those facilities. The fourth building houses two miniature bronze chariots with horses, exquisite sculptures found intact among the burial treasures. These and other artifacts are part of a large museum complex. In all, it’s an amazing place to visit and you can spend hours with the warriors and the rest of the emperor’s creation.

But we were on a strict timetable (our trip was a bit faster-paced than the usual Imperial Tours program). We got back in our bus and drove back into the city to have lunch at a combination restaurant and spa called Real Love Changan. And no, despite the name it really was just a restaurant and spa, with some great local food. We had lunch one of the restaurant’s many private rooms for groups (and the place seemed to be quite popular with the locals).

Then we were off again, this time to prove that Xian is much more than just the Terracotta Warriors. Our bus drove along the superhighway again to yet another historic site, Hanyangling, an underground museum that is yet another mausoleum of Western Han Emperor Liu Qi. There, in much smaller pits, are the artifacts buried with the emperor. In this case, however, they are miniatures, rather than lifesize figurines, with vast processions of small soldiers, officials, chariots, enuchs and concubines. All of these figurines were originally dressed in silk and their arms were made of wood. Imperial Tours also had arranged a special visit to the archeological office where these figurines are painstakingly cleaned and repaired. We even got the chance to hold one or two of them (very carefully, of course).

Thus ended our encounter with the tombs of the emperors in Xian – a marvelous destination that truly illustrates just how ancient and sophisticated Chinese civilization is. We departed for the Xian’s modern airport where just before the passenger x-ray machines we were greeted by the mangled English sign “Joy Security and to be with you!” (Let’s see the TSA use that as a slogan!) Now it was time for us to escape the city and travel to the incredible mountains and countryside of Guilin, our next destination in China.

James Shillinglaw is editor in chief and editorial director of Performance Media Group, LLC, parent of, Agent @ Home magazine, Vacation Agent magazine and Virtual Travel Events.

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