Here to eternity

In Xi'an, Daniel Rath discovers the power of an army of terracotta warriors crafted for the afterlife.

Nothing about the countryside surrounding the central Chinese city of Xi'an hints at the archaeological wonders buried beneath the surface.

This was certainly how the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, intended it. Ruling in the 3rd century BC, he ordered 700,000 workers to build a terracotta army for his afterlife and killed them when his tomb was completed 38 years later, so no one would reveal its location.

In fact, were it not for farmers digging a well in 1974, the famed terracotta warriors might still be buried. But the secret is definitely out now. The huge mausoleum is one of China's most popular sights, drawing about 2 million tourists every year.

The First Emperor exhibition this year at the Art Gallery of NSW gave viewers a taste of the intricacies, detail and painstaking work involved in sculpting the warriors. But it's not until we actually visit the entombed army that we appreciate the sheer scale of this incredible archaeological find.

There are thought to be about 8000 soldiers and 150 cavalry horses, of which only a fraction have been excavated. These exquisite life-sized figures are being faithfully restored. They would have been even more striking in their original painted form but oxidisation has worn away their vivid colours.

After hopping off the bus at the site, we are swamped with offers from official government tour guides to show us around. We head off with Helen, a knowledgeable and sweet-natured woman who, despite the hot day, wears gloves. To protect her hands from the sun, she says. Helen is worth every yuan we pay her and, despite negotiating her price down at the beginning, we end up tipping her the difference anyway.

Only one warrior unearthed so far has been discovered completely intact, she says, and each warrior can take three restorers a year to painstakingly piece together.

Three excavated pits are open to the public at the site, all beneath what look like giant hangars to preserve the warriors. In the largest pit, there are 6000 warriors. Only 1000 are unearthed, lined up and ready for battle. We visit two smaller pits first to save the best until last.

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We wish we could get closer to the warriors and their horses - the viewing platforms sit about five metres above the figures. There are hordes of tourists and their guides, and once we jostle and elbow our way into good positions, we can see no two warriors are the same; all have different bodies, faces and expressions. They were modelled on the hierarchy of real armies, with generals, archers and foot soldiers, and we learn to tell the difference from uniforms and where they stand in the battle formation.

We can almost picture the craftsmen absorbed in their work and the labourers hauling the warriors into position. It's the same spine-tingling feeling one gets when seeing the ancient temples of Angkor in Cambodia or Egypt's pyramids. The moment of transportation is fleeting, though, as the army of camera-toting tourists snaps away and the tour guides talk incessantly above the din on their microphones. The closest we get to the army is to four of the best-preserved warriors standing in glass cases, away from the pits. Even the soles of the warriors' shoes have intricate patterning.

Work will continue on the site for many years, which makes it feel like a living museum, despite it being a tomb. If we return, we might be able to see a pit not yet open to the public containing acrobats and dancers, presumed to be the emperor's afterlife entertainment. But we'll have to rely on our imaginations for the emperor's tomb - it's considered unsafe to excavate and might never be opened. Legend has it rivers of mercury and booby-traps protect treasures he was buried with.

Away from the pits, a museum houses a stunning bronze chariot and horses, and other paraphernalia found with the warriors, including bronze vessels and weapons. Apparently, we have chosen a good day to visit because one of the farmers who discovered the warriors 37 years ago is a guest in a gift shop at the site. He will even sign his name and take photos with tourists - if you buy the souvenir book.

Many tourists visit Xi'an for only a day to see the Terracotta Army but there are plenty of other activities and sights to keep visitors occupied in the area, including the historical relics at the Shaanxi History Museum, the mosque in the Muslim quarter, climbing the Big Goose Pagoda or heading to other archaeological sites that dot the countryside.

We are visiting on a long weekend from Beijing. We cycle on top of the ancient 14-kilometre wall surrounding the older part of the town, walk around the old Drum and Bell towers and get lost in the maze of alleys in the Muslim quarter.

It's on these streets that the city comes alive at night with the smell of cumin-sprinkled lamb and chuan (beef skewers) cooking over hot coals, the sound of hawkers selling dried persimmons and nuts, the "thwack" of noodles being pulled and slapped into shape and the sight of clay ovens filled with flat breads. It's not the typical fare one thinks of as Chinese cuisine but it's tasty and it's great fun to sit on a low seat on the street with a snack and watch life swirl around.

Every second shop has jumped on the bandwagon, selling Terracotta Army postcards and miniature warrior figurines, jade bracelets and other trinkets. After a year of living in China, we are adept at haggling, so after we bargain the price down, we buy a few figurines and are glad we did. Looking at them at home, they take us far back in time to ancient China.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

China Southern Airlines has a fare to Xi'an from Sydney and Melbourne for about $800 low-season return, including tax. You fly to Guangzhou (10hr non-stop), then Xi'an (2hr 30min). Australians require a visa.

From the airport, catch a taxi or bus to X'ian train station then take a public bus to the army site, or arrange a tour at your hotel. The site is open 8.30am-5.30pm on March 16 to November 14 and 8.30am-5pm on November 15 to March 15. Entry is 110 yuan ($16.50); see www.bmy.com.cn.

Staying there

In X'ian, the Shuyuan Youth Hostel has doubles from 220 yuan and offers tours and friendly service. 2 West Shuncheng Road; see hostelxian.com.

Double rooms at the Sofitel Xi'an on Renmin Square cost from $110. 319Dongxin Street; see renminsquare.com.cn/en/sofitel.

The central Bell Tower Hotel has doubles from $69 a night. 110 South Avenue; see belltowerhotelxian.cn.

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