It was a long bus trip from Xian to see the Terracotta Army. We had made sure that we had boarded the right bus – and not the ‘blue bus’ which is apparently a tourist rip off. We took the bus the locals take, with it stopping to drop people off at work stops along the way.
It was raining outside and the bus windows were misted up. Inside the bus, we bought tickets from a bus conductor who spoke no English, and we sort of listened to her when she stood in her uniform and talked for a long time into her headpiece microphone.
A swipe across the glass window revealed just how many terracotta army businesses there are along the way – the soldiers stand still and silent on the pavement, sustaining many families, restaurants and businesses.
We arrived eventually, to no rain, and the place where the bus stopped was a wide parking lot with no obvious ‘enter here to see the army’ buildings.
Thereafter there was a lot of walking. There were food stalls everywhere, and there were also stalls selling full animal pelts and strips of fur to make collars, which were all hung up on wire fences.
We walked past them all in search of entry tickets, or indeed the place where they were sold. Eventually, we found the building, after a detour to dump our rucksack which L had been labouring under.
We followed a path with others which wound through some just budding trees and finally came upon the huge structures which house the three main pits containing the clay army.
There were groups of foreigners on tour here and there. We heard German and English and some Scandinavian language – it was the first time we had seen so many foreigners for months!
We moved into the buildings and were relieved to see that our timing was good. There were relativity few people inside and we could easily approach the rails and gaze down into the archaeological dig – the pits containing the clay figures.
It was also easy for us to get close to the metal statues recovered from the pits which now stand boxed and glowing behind glass in their dim chambers.
We moved to the rail, after waiting for a minute or two for a gap to open up.
And there the soldiers stood beneath us, made from clay, their wooden bows and other weapons having long since disintegrated, leaving them clutching air in their clenched fists.
I was surprised by the feelings and emotions that stirred in me as I gazed down at them.
I had read the story around them of course and knew a little of their history. The army is a relatively recent discovery, and the massive pits under huge dome roofs containing them are still working archaeological digs.
And so they felt different from any other historical site I have ever seen. I felt moved to tears as I stood and stared at all those thousands of ancient motionless clay soldiers.
On the bus back to Xian I noticed again the hundreds of replicas lining the road outside various businesses. I myself had only bought two small fridge magnet soldiers as reminders of the real thing.
The real soldiers were never made to be works of art – but with the belief that they would, in fact, come alive one day, and live to fight for their creator…
I wondered if that was why they had stirred such emotion in me.
Made from dust, as they are, they have, in some small way, achieved the goal of living forever after all.
I wondered if, in looking at them, we look at ourselves. They stand as clay men, created as they were to one day live, waiting to have life breathed into them.
They wait in rows, sealed in, wearing the individual faces given to them by one or other of the 700 000 workers who made them. Only a few body and head moulds were made, but all the faces were allowed to be created differently.
They stand there, being stared at by millions, on the bucket list of many – with some still waiting, hidden in their pits, to be uncovered, together with their chariots and horses ( I spotted one, with only the rump and back legs emerging from the wall of clay) to be pieced together, restored and returned to their rows.
We will be forever grateful that we visited the terracotta army when we did – just at the beginning of Spring. We have heard stories of the crowds experienced there during the summer months.
There was a lone military type Chinese man pacing backwards and forwards along one side of the main pit – but still, we felt that we could have reached out and touched the soldiers if we had dared. They felt very accessible to us.
I was sorry that there were no archaeologists working in the glassed off section behind the pit where apparently workers may be observed putting together the armless, legless, headless clay soldiers who are moved there – supported and sometimes covered, between desks and other archaeological paraphernalia.
Still – I was sorry to leave and walk the long path back to collect our bag – this time nibbling on a spicy Chinese kebab bought from a food stall.
The soldiers stayed with me for a long time – I think of them still.