Terra-cotta warriors put city on operators itineraries

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Local Color: If you plan to go

Xian is a modern city with several other attractions: Dayan Pagoda (better known as Big Wild Goose Pagoda); Banpo Village Museum, featuring dances and a reenactment of village life; the largest and best-preserved Moslem Mosque in China; and Nine Dragons Hot Spring at Huaqing, an hours drive. 

The city is a stop on several 2008 Olympic packages from Beijing and is featured on itineraries for most wholesalers selling China tours.

Asia Classic Tours has a 13-day Beijing/Xian/Guilan/Shanghai tour at $1,899. Call (800) 717-7752 or visit www.asiaclassictours.com.

Pacific Delight World Tours includes Xian in its 14-day Imperial Experience tour that cruises the Yangtze, starting at $2,899 land/air. Call (800) 221-7179 or visit www.pacificdelighttours.com.

XIAN, China -- Xian, just over an hours flight from Beijing, was the cradle of ancient Chinese civilization and the capital city for 11 dynasties. Its where the Silk Road begins. A massive wall and moat surrounding the inner city serve as monuments to the importance of Xian in Chinas history.

The discovery of the bing ma yong, the terra-cotta warriors, in March 1974, transformed this 3,000-year-old city, which today has a population about that of Singapore, into one of the four most important cities for tourism in the Peoples Republic of China, taking its place alongside Beijing, Shanghai and Guilin.

The story of the clay figures -- more than 8,000 horses and soldiers with bronze weapons --, and how they were placed in the mausoleum with a dead Qin dynasty emperor as troops at his command, and how they were unearthed by farmers sinking wells during a drought 2,200 years later, is an amazing tale no matter how often its been told.

News of the discovery reached the local government, and archaeologists arrived at the site within four months to begin the dig. With the excavation of the first of three pits, this one containing some 1,000 warriors and horses, that portion of the site was opened to the public.

Since then, more than 50,000 historical and cultural relics have been uncovered. In 1980, a bronze carriage trimmed in gold and silver and drawn by two horses emerged. In 1991, during roadway excavation for a new airport, another burial ground turned up. It contained figures that stand only about 25 inches, with heads the size of a fist. They, too, were made of clay, but with wooden arms. The clay disintegrated, causing the arms to fall off.

Restoration workers expect to have the figures ready for viewing by 2013 at the Terra Cotta Museum, which was built in Xian in 1994 and is said to be the largest on-site museum in China.

The terra-cotta warriors, up close

I visited Xian recently. In the first of three excavation hangars appeared a dazzling sight: row upon row of life-like figures standing at attention, a thousand in all, no two alike. All were in need of repair. The sight defies any pictures Id seen of the terra-cotta warriors.

Three vaults of a total 86 are open to the public. (Vault is another name for the actual pits and hangars that house the statues and reconstruction work.) A viewing platform, a little wider than a catwalk, overlooks each deep pit where restored figures are lined up in sunken rows. Working assemblage areas are off to one side or in the rear. Each hangar has an unobstructed view.

Vault One, by far the largest, displays more than 1,000 life-size soldiers, war chariots and horses. Vault Two, less than half the size of Vault One, contains 1,300 soldiers and horses, plus 89 war chariots. In Vault Three, the smallest, 68 warriors stand at attention alongside one war chariot and four horses.

Warriors, infantrymen and cavalrymen are distinguishable by dress according to their rank or station in life. Some were generals or middle- to lower-ranking officers, and some were ordinary soldiers or armored warriors. Uniforms distinguish the higher ranks, while headgear determines the regular folks. Most soldiers have a protruding topknot hairdo, while peons wear a square scarf or a cylindrical or flat bun.

The displays sheer size reminds one of how painstaking is the restoration work under way to complete these figures. Each has been reconstructed from hundreds of smashed pieces. Clay remnants of the terra-cotta warriors are infected with eleven different types of molds, and Chinese archaeologists are knowledgeable in removing only eight of them. So help with preservation problems was solicited from Italy and other countries that have had experience with similar challenges.

Shake hands with farmer Yong

The complex also houses a cafeteria-style restaurant and a gift shop. In the gift shop, I shook hands with a man called Yong.

I was told that Yong is one of the three farm brothers who discovered the relics. His age seemed to fit.

Now retired, Yong appears a few days a week to sign books, shake hands and be photographed with purchasers -- at the governments request. Its interesting that the literal English translation for bing ma yong is soldier horseman.

To contact the reporter who wrote this article, send e-mail to [email protected].

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