The Terracotta Warriors, one of the best known tourist sights in China, could you go to Xi’an and skip it? When people ask you about your trip to China, would you be able to tell them that you didn’t bother seeing the warriors? Each warrior is unique, creating an army that was to protect the first Emperor of China in the afterlife.
The Terracotta Warriors (above), as we know them, amazingly well preserved sculptures for being over 2000 years old. The reality is that they didn’t survive, they crumbled, but the curators of the historical site have taken it upon themselves to rebuild the army, piece-by-piece.
Before reconstruction, much of the army lies in pieces, defeated by time, waiting for their date with a careful excavator and superglue.
Given the history, even if it’s glory is recreated: why would you consider skipping the historical site? First of all is due to the crowds. While it is estimated that there are 8,000 members of the Terracotta Army, at any point on any summer day there are many times that in visitors. If you want to get photos without people in them you better be ready to push and be pushed by the throngs of tourists. Tour guides will not hesitate to physically move you out of the space they feel their group should stand.
Secondly, it’s not the best place to get up close to the warriors. At the Shanxi History Museum in central Xi’an, you can get close enough to see the individual warriors. You can admire the lifelike detail with which the artists created an army of individuals. While seeing the Army is impressive, the art is in the details, details which the Shanxi museum does a better job demonstrating. The photo below is from the Shanxi Museum.
Lastly, there is a lesser-known, but better tomb to visit in Xi’an: the Tomb of Emperor Jing of Han (Hanangling Museum; 141 BC). The museum does a superior job explaining the historical context of building figurines for the afterlife and the progression of Chinese tombs. The museum allows you to walk on glass walkways above excavated tombs, get close to the terracotta figurines, and, best of all, avoid crowds.
The Hanangling Museum does the best job combining the history, archeological study and proximity to the artifacts that I have seen in Asia.
To answer the question: could you skip the Terracotta Warriors while visiting Xi’an? If you want to get up close to the artifacts, visit a better museum, or leave with a richer understanding of the history: the answer is “yes”. That said, can you really go to Xi’an and skip it’s biggest attraction? Probably not, it is busy for a reason, it is famous for a reason…because it’s pretty cool. Even so, don’t skip the other gems while you are in Xi’an.
PS: Between you and me, here’s one other secret: there is a pyramid. Like the pyramids of Mexico and Cambodia, this is a great example of a lessor known ancient pyramid (info here).
WHEN YOU GO:
- Visit the Terracotta Warriors in the afternoon. Conventional wisdom is to go in the morning, but that’s when the tours go, take the bus yourself from the bus station located next to the train station for 8 RMB (about $1.25) each way in the early afternoon.
- Take a tour to the Jing Di tombs (the Hanangling Museum), it is far out of town and tours provide the best value for transportation.
- Prepare to wait in line at the Shanxi Museum. The tickets are free, but you may have to wait up to two hours in line for no apparent reason. We were told there is a place on site you can pay 20 RMB for the special exhibit ticket which includes general admission, but we didn’t look for this.