It was early October and despite school being closed for National Week, the day began before dawn for both me and Lucy. We met in front of our neighborhood where Lucy opened a ziplock bag to reveal sausages wrapped in biscuits. We ate while we walked to hail a cab to the airport.
Once at the airport, we picked up boarding passes and fought our way through a very busy security counter. We joked about Kerensa, infamous for both her walking speed and her ability to circumnavigate crowds. Lucy claimed, “If she would here, we’d be on the plane already.”
After we got through security, we found our gate and sat down to munch on more biscuits. We had to board a tram that took us to our plane, but soon enough we were settled in our bulkhead seats. For some reason, we were seated across the aisle from each other rather than side-by-side, which made conversation a bit tricky as passengers clamored aboard. Fiona, a woman who works at our school, appeared on the plane, and recognized us immediately. She looked around for her seat for a moment before realizing that she was supposed to sit next to Lucy.
Fiona told us she was off to Xi’an to visit friends. “And you?” she asked. “The terracotta warriors,” we replied. “When are you going back to Chengdu?” she asked. “Tonight,” we answered, causing her to blink, bewildered, at us. “You’re only going to Xi’an for a day?” “We heard it’s all you need.”
The plane ride was pretty nondescript with the exception of the man sitting next to Fiona. He kept expectorating into his airsickness bag which made me infinitely grateful when we finally disembarked.
Once in Xi’an, we headed towards the airport’s exit where we saw a man holding a sign: “Hannifin.” The only sign not written in Chinese. Ah, our tour guide, Bruce!
He walked us outside and we waited for our ride for the day, a gray van, to come and pick us up. The air in Xi’an was dry and cold compare to the humid heat of Chengdu and I was grateful when the van finally arrived. We piled inside and our driver pulled away from the curb. The terracotta warriors, Bruce informed us, were almost an hour away. We settled in for the ride, listening to Bruce talk about his parents and siblings and how he moved to Xi’an for university and loved it so much that he stayed. When we got to the terracotta warriors site, I was astounded by the string of cars. I had forgotten that it was National Week. Of course everyone was on vacation.
Instead of sitting in traffic, we hopped out of the van and walk the last half a kilometer to the warriors. Bruce purchased our tickets and, once inside the excavation site, Lucy and I grabbed coffee and watched a short movie that explained exactly what the terracotta warriors were:
1) They are old. They were built before 210 BCE.
2) They were built to protect Qin Shi Huang, China’s first emperor, in the afterlife.
3) In 1974, they were unearthed by farmers who were trying to find a spot to dig a well.
4) There are lots of them. An estimated 8,000 soldiers have been found.
5) Only 1 soldier has been found intact.
6) They used to be colorful, but unearthing the warriors has caused the paint to fade.
After watching a video, we made our way to actually see the warriors. The first stop was “Pit One,” the pit the farmers located first. We walked into a building almost the length of a football field. Once a mausoleum had stood here, housing the warriors. Bruce said over 6000 statues had been found in this pit. Once excavated, the soldiers were catalogued and glued back together, then placed in ranks–similar to the layout that would have been used when Qin Shi Huang was buried. In between the columns of soldiers were mounds of dirt. Bruce explained that this is where wooden beams once stood to support the mausoleum’s roof. While a number of warriors look reassembled, it’s nothing compared to the thousands that are still lying in pieces.
Next, we entered “Pit Three.” It was a deep pit, full of chariot pieces and, apparently, officers.
“Pit two” was the last stop. What mesmerized me there was a soldier encased in glass who was kneeling. Bruce saw me standing, staring at the statue, and came over. “This,” he said, “was the only statue found unbroken.” “How did all the others break?” “We believe the roof of the mausoleum fell. Some say that it caught on fire, but there’s not really a lot of proof of that.”
As we wandered the site a bit more, I would like to say I was transfixed by the soldiers and by the monumental task at reassembling them, but–kneeling soldier aside–I was actually more in awe of the sheer number of people visiting the warriors.
After we left the terracotta site, Bruce took us to a noodle shop for lunch. Items on the menu were the typical “Chinglish” translations: “Acid Noodles in Soup” and “Oil Spilt the Belt Surface,” but with Bruce’s help, we ended up with decent dishes. We relaxed, ate lunch, and exchanged jokes.
After lunch, we found our gray van again, loaded up and took off. We drove to the Xi’an city wall. The wall of Xi’an is much younger than the soldiers, only about 1,400 years old. As the sign in front of the wall states (in English): “As an intact rigorous military defense system of the ancient city, Xi’an city wall is the oldest, best preserved and grandest in structure in the world.” Giving Bruce a break, Lucy and I wandered off to explore the wall. We walked only about a fourth of the 14km wall, with Lucy allowing me to continuously stop to snap photos of people and things.
After walking the wall for a bit and buying ridiculous souvenirs for family, Lucy and I found Bruce and asked him if he could take us to the Muslim Quarter. “Of course,” he obliged.
A short van ride later, we were at the Muslim Quarter, enjoying the sites, the sounds, and the smells of the food cooking all around us. “Do you have any place that sells…things?” Lucy asked. I flashed back to my time in Hong Kong, bargaining at the Ladies’ Market in Mongkok. “Yes! Like a marketplace?” I chipped in. “We have ‘copy street’ nearby,” Bruce replied. We turned the corner down an alley and the breads and sweets turned to scarves and paintings. Eureka! I bought more things for friends and family back at home.
As day turned to dusk and the temperature fell, we reached the end of Copy Street and found a small cafe tucked in an alley. Inside, we drank hot chocolate and milk tea and spent an hour in conversation, discussing the differences between China and the US and Xi’an and Chengdu.
Bruce told us that he wanted us to see the Bell and Drum towers that were used in ancient times. In the morning, the Bell tower would ring a bell that woke everyone up. Farmers would leave the safety of Xi’an’s city walls to go work in the fields. As the day drew to an end, the Drum tower would pound a beat beckoning all outside the walls to wander back in for safety in the dark. Bruce took us to the towers and we stood for a while, transfixed by lights, unfurling flags, and Xi’an in general.
The rest of the night–the ride the airport, the flight home to Chengdu, the taxi ride to American Gardens–faded into an exhausted blur. And, as I tucked myself into bed in the wee hours of the morning, I was impressed that a day is really all you do need to get a taste of life in the Land of Terracotta.