An Army of Clay

Before Mary came to China, she asked people what cities they recommended visiting. Several encouraged her to see the terra cotta warriors, and I’m so glad they did! I was worried the site would be too touristy, so if Mary hadn’t suggested going there, neither Xi’an nor the terracotta warriors would have been on my itinerary. And I would have missed out!

The guide books all agree that hiring an interpreter is a good idea for the warriors. The site is 90 minutes away, so you’re already going to sink money into taxi fare. And while there are some helpful signs in English inside the museum, they don’t give you a lot of the backstory.

Our guide for the day was Jia Jia. (It’s pronounced something like Zsa Zsa.) She told us, “Jia Jia is my Chinese name. My English name? Is Lady Jia Jia.” Her English was not always clear but she made up for it by repeating the last few words of sentences, followed by an “Alright? OK! Mm hmm.” And then a big grin and a head nod. I’m pretty sure she was convincing herself that we understood, not asking for feedback. It was actually incredibly endearing.

Lady Jia Jia.
Lady Jia Jia.

If you’ve never heard of the terracotta warriors, I’m just going to send you here, because National Geographic does a better write-up than I could.

There are three main archaeological pits. Jia Jia insisted that we visit them in this order: Pit 2, Pit 3, Pit 1. (“I’m saving the best for last. OK?” Head nod. Grin.)

In Pits 1 & 2, the soldiers are mostly still in pieces. At the end of the Qin Dynasty, Han soldiers pillaged the site. They stole the useful weapons held by the statues and in some areas, smashed them to pieces. Other damage is the result of earthquakes, which are also caused the roof to collapse.


Only a few soldiers are restored and put on display.  It’s so interesting to see those few up close, as you really can’t appreciate the level of detail on the warriors in the pits below the viewing area.

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Originally, the pieces were colorfully painted. Most of the paint has disappeared due to oxidation, but you can see traces of red on this soldier’s back.
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So much detail.
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This archer would originally have been carrying a longbow. He was my favorite. I think he looks like he’s practicing tai chi.

The pits are vast. Archaeologists are still actively working to extract broken soldiers and put them back together, an army of Humpty Dumpties. We didn’t see anyone at work, though. Jia Jia told us they work in the evenings, when they won’t be distracted by the hordes of tourists.

As promised, Pit 1 was the most impressive. There, we saw hundreds of fully restored soldiers, lined up much as they would have been when the tomb was created more than 2,000 years ago.

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Back at the hotel that evening, I decided I still hadn’t seen enough of Xi’an.  Mary volunteered to stay in with Simon so that Joel and I could go on a date.  My first goal was to eat biang biang mein for dinner.  This noodle dish is a specialty of Xi’an.  Primarily made in Muslim restaurants, it’s a bowl of soup with a giant hand-stretched noodle.  Define giant?  Well, it’s sometimes called “beltstrap noodle” because it’s as wide and thick as a belt.  And your dish will just include one, single noodle that’s three meters long.

There are so many great things about this noodle and it’s name.  Supposedly, the name (“biang biang”) is supposed to mimic the sound of the dough being slapped on a cutting board before being stretched.  The character for biang biang mein is possibly the most complex currently used in the Chinese language.  It has 57 individual brush strokes.  Locals have invented rhymes and mnemonics to help remember how to draw it.

That scribbling on the kitty's belly?  That's one "biang."
That scribbling on the kitty’s belly? That’s one “biang.”
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Eating noodle soup with chopsticks. It’s a skill.

After dinner, we headed to the Big Wild Goose Pagoda.   (Yes, there is also a Little Wild Goose Pagoda.) Legend has it that there used to be some Buddhists who weren’t vegetarian.  They were very hungry and prayed for food.  At that moment, as a flock of geese flew overhead, one broke his wing and fell to the ground.  So the Buddhists decided to become vegetarian and built this pagoda to mark the spot.  I’m unclear if they ate the goose first.

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Big Wild Goose Pagoda at night.

There is a pedestrian mall near Giant Wild Goose Pagoda and we took a stroll.  We saw a group of men practicing calligraphy on the sidewalk.  They used huge paintbrushes with only water as “ink.”  They kept consulting books as they wrote their characters, so I’m not sure if it was poetry, prayer, or propaganda.  It was very lovely to watch them work.IMGP1541 (1153x1280) IMGP1536 (1280x848)

Statue on the pedestrian mall.



2 thoughts on “An Army of Clay”

  1. Susie,
    Your posts on Xi’an reminded me how much we liked the city when we were there two years ago. And I loved the Terracotta warriors, they were actually one of the main reasons I wanted to go to China. We also had the giant noodle – we got to see them make it. And we were at the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda during the day – it looks like much more was happening in the evening. If I remember correctly, we also ate at a restaurant where all they made were dumplings and the shape of each dumpling was different to represent the filling. We didn’t bike the city wall but walked around a bit on it. Anyway, I am so glad you liked it as much as we did.

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