“Thousands of ancient buried terracotta figures have been discovered in rural China, after lying untouched for two thousand years. Every figure is life-sized (175cm – 190cm tall) and all of them are unique”. I stared at the TV news, transfixed about the historic discovery. Ever since that day, many years ago, I dreamed of flying to China and visiting the Terracotta Army of Emperor Qin.
In this post, I share everything you need to know if you’re planning on visiting the Terracotta Army during your trip to Xi’an.
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Why should you visit the Terracotta Warriors?
Discovered in 1974 by rural farmers digging a well, the Terracotta Army of Emperor Qin Shi Huang is one of the greatest archaeological finds of the 20th century, rivalling the treasures found in Egypt.
The immaculately maintained site is complex and impressive with warriors in battle formation, guarding the tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huang. The figures include infantry, cavalry, and charioteers plus acrobats and numerous animals.
The site represents the emperor’s palace and the areas excavated so far include offices, stables, halls, and other structures. The whole complex was buried beneath an unremarkable earth pyramid, protecting it from tomb raiders for two thousand years.
“There were Seven Wonders in the world, and the discovery of the Terracotta Army, we may say, is the eighth miracle of the world. No one who has not seen the pyramids can claim to have visited Egypt, and now I’d say that no one who has not seen these terracotta figures can claim to have visited China.”Jacques Chirac – former President of France
Since their discovery, tourists and visitors alike have been fascinated with the Terracotta Warriors and their history. Today, visiting the Terracotta Army is one of China’s most popular (and most busy) attractions.
How to Prepare for Your Visit
Try to make sense of (some of) the history before you go with a good guidebook. The Terracotta Army paperback by the traveller and historian John Man is a good introduction, as it’s not as dry and scholarly as some. It’s a well-written and enjoyable read.
Highlights of the museum
The Three excavation pits include:
You’ll learn about the different types of soldiers in the Emperor’s army, and how to identify their rank by their clothing. Look out for the individual facial expressions on the figures, which are believed to have been modelled on real soldiers.
Every single one of the 10,000 warriors has a different facial expression.
Even if you’re not a “horsey” person, the magnificent terracotta horses will make a huge impression on you. It’s awe-inspiring to see the incredible detail on the horses, hundreds of years after they were created. Just imagine what they must have been like when they were freshly made, and the colour was still bright and new! Even the horses all have different expressions.
The exhibition of Bronze Chariots
6 Tips for Visiting the Terracotta Army
- The site is vast at 16,300 square metres, 175,000 sq. ft. That’s almost two and a half times the size of an international football (soccer) pitch), so you’ll need comfortable shoes for all the walking
- You’ll also need to take a bottle of water as there are limited places to buy water onsite and the pits are unbelievably hot during the summer months. We last visited in September and it was like an oven!
- It’s a pleasant 10 to 15 minute (1 kilometre) walk from the parking area to the site. The walkway is beautifully maintained and immaculately clean
- If you can’t walk (or prefer not to), take a golf-cart from the car park to the museum, but be prepared to queue during the high season (May to October)
- The Terracotta Warriors is one of the most popular tourist attractions in China and it gets very busy. Try to arrive by 8.30 am and definitely before 10 am as this is when the big tour groups arrive. The hour between midday and 1pm is generally quieter too, as many visitors stop to eat at that time. The busiest time of all is during local and school holidays and weekends, when the site will be extra crowded
- Even more than 40 years after the first warriors were discovered, the site is still an archaeological work in progress. Expect to see archaeologists and fascinating evidence of their work during your visit
Archaeologists believe that they will still be working on the site in 50 years time, as there is still so much to discover!!
When can you visit the Terracotta Warriors?
Visiting the Terracotta Army is easy, as the museum is open daily from 8.30 am until 5.00 pm.
It’s easy to find the ticket booths as soon as you arrive. The entrance fee is CNY150 in the high season and CNY120 in low season.
How to get to the Terracotta Warriors Museum
The Terracotta Warriors are located outside of Xi’an City, in Lintong district, about an hour by taxi or 70 minutes by tourist bus from the city. Traveling by bus is safe, fully air-conditioned, and comfortable – just be sure you get a tourist bus as others are not as well maintained. Tourist buses are greyish green, with bold turquoise signage; the bus number is prominent in bright yellow. Bus conductors wear a blue-black uniform and speak English.
Bus Info: Tourist Bus number 5 (306) departs from the East square of Xi’an railway station but it can be very busy, particularly at weekends.
Hours: July 7 to September 1: 9 am to 12:45 am; Rest of the year: 9:30 am to 11:45 pm
Cost: The fare is CNY7, however, this does increase a little during peak periods.
Alternatively – grab a cab or book a private tour guide!
How long should you spend at the Terracotta Warriors Museum?
The massive complex (16,300 sq. metres) is split across 3 pits. There’s also a cinema, an exhibition hall and a good quality gift shop where you can buy refreshments. You’ll probably want to spend at least 2 to 3 hours on-site, as there is just so much to see. If you’re a history nerd like me, note that the site closes at 7 pm.
Note: The museum shop sells high-quality souvenirs, but the prices are high. The staff (and some tour guides) will tell you that the prices are fixed by the government, however, if you walk away, the staff are willing to negotiate. We managed to haggle prices down to 50% of the original asking price.
What should you see when visiting the Terracotta Army?
Most guides and guide books suggest that you visit Pit 1 first, then Pit 2, Pit 3, and finally the Exhibition Hall. In our opinion, this is totally the wrong way around!
The Best Itinerary for Visiting the Terracotta Army
We recommend that you start with the Exhibition Hall, then visit the pits in reverse order starting with the smallest pit (Pit 3) and saving the massive Pit 1 for last.
The Exhibition Hall of the Bronze Chariots
This area is packed with valuable artifacts from the excavations and it tells the story of the Qin dynasty. Smaller than the excavation pits, this area can get very crowded, so it’s well worth arriving early and making this your first visit.
Make sure to see the awesome exhibition of bronze chariots; the largest collection of its kind in the world.
Pit number 3
This is the smallest of the pits at 21 metres by 17 metres, with only 68 terracotta figures. As this pit represented the command centre of the Terracotta Army, all the figures in this pit are officials.
Pit number 2
Archaeologists consider this pit to be the most complete, despite still being only one-sixth excavated so far. It contains all the types of terracotta warriors found to date, including infantry, cavalry, chariot warriors, and archers. It will be keeping archaeologists busy for decades to come!
It’s believed that this pit contains over 80 war chariots, 1,300 terracotta warriors and horses, and many thousands of bronze weapons.
Pit number 1
Be prepared to be blown away by the sheer size of this, the largest pit which was the first to be excavated after the local farmers discovered the burial site.
The size of an aircraft hangar, there are 6,000 soldiers and horses here, but only (!!!) 2,000 soldiers have been excavated, restored and displayed so far.
The sight of the thousands of pottery soldiers and chariots displayed in the pit will take your breath away. Every warrior is different, modelled from the Emperor’s real-life soldiers and some still bear traces of their original colour
The Unsolved Mysteries
While the location of Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s tomb is known, it’s not been excavated yet. The Chinese authorities have banned all excavation work for at least 50 years, to enable archaeologists to find a way to preserve artefacts fully.
So, we must wait many years to discover whether the myths of a mercury river, booby traps, a diamond-encrusted sky, and boundless buried treasures are true.
Things to Avoid When Visiting the Terracotta Army
When you leave the Terracotta Warriors museum site for the parking area, you’ll find the usual array of crappy tourist trap shops. While the prices on some stalls may look tempting, the goods are of inferior quality and not worth spending your hard-earned cash on.
The Refreshment Outlets
There’s an equally crappy proliferation of food outlets – even a KFC to avoid! If you need to stop to eat, make sure to agree on the price before you order! We met other Brits who had ordered off a menu without prices and were seriously overcharged for 2 bowls of noodles.
What to do after visiting the Terracotta Army
You’ll have time to relax and recharge your batteries on your journey back to Old Xi’an. If you made an early start, you’ll still have time to visit the Shaanxi History Museum. Or maybe it’s time to retreat for a large G&T to pore over the day’s photos and unwind?
Have you visited the Terracotta Army? What did you love the most? Maybe you’re planning a trip? What are you most looking forward to seeing? Leave your comments below, as we love to read them.
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