China was high on my Must-See list, mainly because I wanted to see The Subterranean Army of The Terra Cotta Soldiers in Xian.
Year 1974. I remember being zapped by a news item in our papers about an amazing archeological find. Three farmers of Lintong County in Shhanxi, had unearthed a life size terracotta figure of a warrior , broken but with all parts intact, while digging a well. Intrigued, they had turned it over to the state officials. In no time at all, archeologists started excavating and discovered what was long rumoured, in ancient writings, to be underground, but never before found - a vast subterranean vault teeming with whole battalions of warriors, horses, officials, musicians and acrobats, all lined up in formations in honour of Qin Shi Huang, the First Emperor of China, who had died.
The age of this Necropolis was established as 250 BC. Today it is a UNESCO notified World Heritage Site .
When we started planning a trip to China, the only place I was very keen on visiting was Xian, the district capital of Shaanxi, the nearest city to the site.
Down the years since the tomb was first exposed, many excavations have taken place( and still continuing) . Some 400 pits with 50,000 artefacts of cultural importance have been unearthed so far in an area of 56 Sq.Km.at the foot of The Lishan Mountains.
Three "pits" ( with approximately 8000 figures) have been converted into museums , in a well protected layout, far from any traffic or urban sprawl. The parking lot and ticketing counter are a kilometer away from the "pits". Visitors are driven to the site in special buggies.
The Museum area is airy and beautifully landscaped; the domed buildings protecting the pits are of spartan, utilitarian design and maintained in spic and span condition. The first hall is a circarama movie theatre, where the glory of the Emperor's reign is projected on a 360 degree screen, with surround sound. Though the commentary is a bit muffled, the total effect is stunning and prepares one to enter the pits in suitable awe and respect !
Pit 1 is the largest and the most magnificent of the three. Row upon row of soldiers stand in readiness in trenches, all life sized and each one a very definite INDIVIDUAL, with his own individual features, expression and hairstyle. Some show remnants of the ancient paint that had once made them lifelike.The sheer numbers and variety leave one reeling in amazement.
Visitors cannot get too close to the warriors, but can walk on a viewing ramp that runs all around the pit. Lighting is dim, but the place is ablaze with the flashes of a hundred cameras, at any given point of time. It helped to have a guide with us, for without her help, we would have missed many a finer detail.
After Pit 1, Pit 2 and 3 appear rather small, sparse and unexciting. Here, a few excellent specimens ( soldiers, carts, weapons) are exhibited in glass cases so that we can have a closer view from all angles of the wonderful works of art. Pit 3 , still being excavated, serves as a stage-by-stage manual to the process of excavating ruins. Reportedly, bones of some ancient grave robbers were also found here.
The Museum Shop, selling souvenirs and refreshments, is always crowded because, here sits a wizened old man who is one of the three farmers who first discovered the Terra Cotta Army. He is also an exhibit ! His function is only to sign the picture book bought from the souvenir shop, for which sole purpose, the illiterate man was reportedly taught writing ! He does not smile or speak and photographing him is strictly prohibited.
Outside the museum premises, there's a huge village fair of shacks selling Terra cotta warrior and horse figures of all sizes at dirt cheap prices. And they are ready to concede to bargaining too ! You come away feeling sorry for the salesmen.
One buy we really enjoyed was Persimmon fruit, packed in bright pink plastic baskets. They were so delicious ! Since the fruit perishes very fast, we got 2 baskets of it free with the purchase of one , which too was bought almost for a song!
The visit to the Terra Cotta Army is an unforgettable experience.
( photo quality not good due to insufficient lighting )