I don’t really have much to say about my trip to see the Terracotta Warriors. We’ve all seen them countless times since they were first discovered in 1974 and so the images are pretty much part of the media consciousness we all share. But when you see them, you don’t know whether you’re over or underwhelmed. I had high expectations and they were surpassed, but by such a large margin that it almost feels like a big miss. In short, they are such an overwhelming sight that you simply do not know how to react.

Before coming here I had decided that I would hire a guide that was recommended by a friend of mine who had used his services back in the spring. As it turned out, he was busy but he arranged for me to use a contract employee who turned out to be the best $75 I’ve spent on any trip, anywhere. Lily was a font on knowledge and information and very friendly to boot – I can’t express just how great it was to go to a place like this with someone so capable. I’m sure my experience was improved by 1000% over what it would have been had I simply taken the bus out on my own.

The warriors were crafted in the 2nd century BC as an afterlife royal guard for the tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huang. He founded the short-lived Qin Dynasty that had the distinction of being the first that united all of China. He ruled from 259 to 210 BC and while he is remembered for putting an end to the Warring States Period, he was also a brutal and very paranoid emperor. It is said that wherever he went he was surrounded by 24 identically dressed imposters, driving identical chariots. Although a despot, he standardized the systems of coinage, taxation and the Chinese character system, improvements that made a unified country possible. He is also known for building early segments of what would become the Great Wall. But he died at a young age and when he did, all his successes went with him – the Qin Dynasty ended a mere 4 years later when an army of peasants tired of being forced into imperial labor joined with the subjugated states and drove the last Qin emperor out.

The warriors have stood underground guarding the approach to Qin She Huang’s burial mound for more 2000 years. When the last Qin emperor was overthrown, the so-called Rebellious Armies broke into the vaults of the warriors, stole the weapons and set the place on fire. Qin Shi Huang’s actual tomb was not attacked and in fact has never been opened due to legends of deadly booby traps that were set to kill any intruders. It can be seen today as a forested mound along the highway as you approach the warrior’s museum awaiting excavation when future archeological skills are up to the task.

There are three pits on the site; Pit 1 is the most famous and by far best known and the largest. In its current state it is about 40% excavated. All of the soldiers seen in the pit were pieced back together from a jumble of pieces and parts which resulted from destruction by the Rebellious Armies and two millennia worth of earthquakes and ground subsidence. Interestingly you can still see the pattern in the hard earth dividing walls that was formed by the collapse of the wood beams and bamboo mats that formed the original roof. A few graves also dot the site, interments from more recent periods by people who had no idea that they were burying their relatives on top of such a trove.

The warriors were discovered in 1974 when local peasants, in the midst of a drought brought up a terracotta head while digging a well. They believed they had found the head of a devil so they put it back. But one man, Mr. Yang brought the head back up and hung it in a tree. He threw rocks at it daily hoping to scare the evil spirits back into the underworld. By pure chance, a nephew of Mr. Yang came for a visit and found the pieces of the head. The nephew was a janitor at a renowned museum and recognized the pieces as ancient and took one with him back to the head of the museum. The rest is history, 35 years later they are still opening up sections of the original pit and piecing back together the jumble of thousands of broken soldiers. Today, Mr. Yang sits in the gift shop autographing the guide books that are sold there. I bought a book from him today and as he was signing it I told him he was very famous.

Pits 2 and 3 are far smaller and much more specialized, one showing an area where animal sacrifices were conducted as part of a divination rite and the other a vanguard of troops leading a general into battle. These pits are kept under very low light as the preservationists have discovered that light has a very powerful corrosive effect on the statues. When they were first uncovered they were all brightly painted to appear as they did in real life. But Qin Dynasty dyes were vegetable based and they faded almost instantly upon exposure to light. The weapons fared much better and when found, the swords were capable of slicing through 20 sheets of paper with a single stroke. Elemental analysis showed a particularly strong bronze but with a chromium coating, a technology not “discovered” in the west until the 1930’s. Few weapons were found during the excavations, most of them having been stolen by the Rebellious Armies.

Each soldier is completely unique, a representation of an actual person of the time, either an artisan or a soldier. It is said that if you can find an identical pair the government will give them to you. On average they stand around 6’ tall and weigh about 600 pounds. There are multiple ranks depicted by hair style from infantry to officers to generals, of whom only 7 were found. There are many horses, each also unique. Many soldiers are very thin, representing conscripted teenagers who had not yet reached their full adult build. The vanguard wears no armor to demonstrate their bravery, nor do the outward facing flanking soldiers. There are charioteers, standing archers, kneeling archers, cavalry and regular infantrymen. Aside from all the unique design elements, the thing that strikes you the most is the absolute lack of color – a sandy gray expanse consisting of a million interesting little parts.

Of the thousands, only the Kneeling Archer was found completely intact. He is considered a national treasure.

The museum is a huge complex surrounded by an aggressive gauntlet of former farmers selling souvenirs. When the government took the local area for protection, the displaced peasants were put to work creating a retail culture feeding off the fame. Trinkets, local food, dates, persimmons and pomegranates are all offered on the way in and the way out. And like so many attractions in China, the crowds are huge. Lily told me that on a busy day the place cycles 1 million plus visitors.

I hope to come back, even though I’ve seen what there is to see. To be there on a day when you’re not jostling with the visitors and you can stand and just stare would be a blessing indeed. For today though, I have to be happy with what I saw and what I’ll remember. Truly a wonderful place.