Awe-inspiring army of cultural treasures

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The Terracotta Army is part of a massive mausoleum complex that was one of China’s first Unesco sites.
The Terracotta Army is part of a massive mausoleum complex that was one of China’s first Unesco sites. Photo Credit: Rob Garratt

Just a few years after tentatively opening to foreign travelers, China turned a corner and signed the World Heritage Convention at the close of 1985, kick-starting an apparent three-decade sprint to amass as many Unesco stamps as possible.

China's current haul of 53 World Heritage Sites sits second only to Italy's 54, and with dozens of outstanding Chinese applications, it's only a matter of time before the world's fourth most visited country leads the world's most popular cultural program.

The Terracotta Army was one of the six initial Chinese sites anointed in 1987.

It was famously a family of thirsty villagers who, despairing amid the drought of 1974, began digging a well that uncovered the first fragments of what would prove to be a life-size, 8,000-member clay army.

Excavators would eventually unearth the Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor, a sprawling, 2,200-year-old underground sanctuary guarded over by the deceased's eternally alert terracotta guardians.

Break from the pervading trail and visit the three caves in ascending order by size: Manage expectations by stopping first at the modest Pit 3 and save the big daddy until last: the payoff of aircraft hangar-size Pit 1 is a knockout.

Each statue possesses the personalized facial features of a real-life soldier. Estimates say it took 700,000 workers to realize this vision, dwarfing even the Pyramids of Giza in its afterlife egotism. 

The tomb sits an easy 25 miles outside of Xian, well deserving of an extended stay. After centuries of neglect, the city has today been revived as a thriving metropolis of 12 million people. But for all its recent modernization, the ancient city walls still stand, regally illuminated at night, fortifying a 5-square-mile area that continues to serve as the commercial hub. 

Visiting overland from Beijing affords the chance to make a stop in the Pingyao Ancient City. Once a financial capital of the Qing Empire in the late 19th century, the wealthy town's historical center has been elegantly preserved as if nothing has changed since — a charming, low-rise maze of courtyard homes, temples and administrative buildings, many of which are open to the public. 

A single ticket (about $18) allows visitors entry to all the attractions for three days. As a self-contained, city-size World Heritage Site that will take your breath away at every turn, it's China's answer to Venice — just without the canals.

Leshan Giant Buddha

Size is also the most defining feature of the Leshan Giant Buddha, a 223-foot-tall, 1,200-year-old icon dramatically carved out of a red sandstone cliff in southern Sichuan, a site so beguiling it's frankly bewildering it took until 1996 to earn its Unesco stamp. Sitting an 85-mile drive south of province capital Chengdu, Leshan is after all the tallest premodern statue in the world and still the largest and tallest stone Buddha on the planet. 

Encountering Leshan is a genuine pinch-me moment; approaching from the cliff top, your first sight is a 23-foot-tall earlobe. From sea level, meanwhile, you meet the might of two terrifying 26-foot-long feet, where a single toenail would comfortably serve as a seat for a person. Gazing up from this Lilliputian vantage, you can marvel at the Buddha's assured composure, unruffled in his pursuit of peace over the passing centuries.

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