Tuesday, September 16, 2008
The Main Attraction
People go to Xian to see the terracotta warriors and of course for me it was a priority.
We weren't quite organized about getting there; I'd read you could take a bus from somewhere near the train station, but I forgot to take down the details.
So instead we were taken for a ride -- practically a staple in Chinese tourism.
As soon as our hotel bellboy heard we wanted to go see the bing ma yong (terracotta warriors), he said he could get us a car and it would cost us 300RMB (US$43.80). At first my friend was annoyed with the price, but relented as I thought it would be the best way for us without having to worry about how to get there and back.
So we waited... and waited... and waited...
Finally a mini van pulled up and we were told it would be 350RMB. We firmly said 300RMB and the driver backed down. Or so we thought.
Then we headed south instead of east to pick up a "free" tour guide. Maggie was nice enough, chatty and tried to tell us more about Xian and tourist sites in Mandarin which in a way was a good lesson for me in trying to understand as much as I could.
We hadn't had breakfast yet, and asked to be taken to a bun or snack shop along the way so we could eat in the car. Again the driver and Maggie said OK, but then later said they'd take us to a restaurant at the terracotta warrior site.
The road to the area was quite bumpy and not properly paved. There were also many tolls along the way the driver had to pay. You'd think with all that money collected from tourism that the government would put some of that money into fixing the road to the top tourist attraction of the province.
When we got there we were taken to a quasi fancy restaurant, as the driver said we should go to a "clean" place. It was relatively clean but ridiculously expensive. When I asked for napkins, the waitress said it would be 2RMB each, even though our meal consisted of two bowls of noodles with a bean sauce, a plate of vegetables with mushrooms, and a steamer of dumplings that weren't that great.
Maggie and the driver claimed they had already eaten and he lingered in the restaurant as she took us to the entrance of the terracotta museum. Obviously he was collecting some kind of fee for taking us there.
As we walked to the entrance, Maggie said she didn't have a proper tour guide license so she wouldn't be able to give us more explanations. But we were more than happy to just wander around on our own at 90RMB ($13.14) each.
Upon entering, you have to walk through this park-like space which is nice, but, doesn't really do much except make you wonder when you'll get there. But it does make you wonder what the fields looked like in 1974 when farmers were digging a well and then made this amazing find.
There are three buildings and none of the signs translated into English. I thought the grand-looking one on the right would be a good start, but it turned out to be an exhibition of some Chinese artist's impressions of the terracotta warriors.
The canvases were hardly inspiring and one wondered how he got to show his work there in the first place.
We immediately fled the scene and headed to the second building which turned out to be the second pit.
It was a giant area divided into several rectangular cells that revealed mostly broken pieces of the terracotta warriors and their horses.
It was fascinating to see the giant pits that even had brick floors. From the illustrations there are estimates of 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots with 520 horses and 150 calvary horses.
The first emperor of China called Qinshihuangdi had these soldiers and horses made to guard him in the afterlife.
Apparently each of the soldiers looks slightly different and while I didn't look too hard, it did seem they all had a slightly different appearance. Four statues that were in excellent condition and behind glass revealed their facial expressions, even fine grooves to show hair, and buttons on their uniforms were amazing details to see.
The first pit was also dramatic -- with hundreds of soldiers standing at attention in front of visitors. The entire pit wasn't opened, but one could get the idea of a giant army buried below. It's just too bad people can't get down to the same level as the pit and see the soldiers a bit closer behind glass.
But when you walk around to the back of the pit, the railing is quite low and easy to cross. It was here in 2006 a German art student, Pablo Wendel, had such an interest in the terracotta warriors that he dressed up like one and jumped into the pit with them.
It took a while for security guards to find him, as he stood just as stiff as the statues.
After he was caught he was given a severe warning but not banned from the country, as he'd demonstrated such a love of ancient Chinese culture.
We then headed to Qinshihuangdi's mausoleum which is nearby. At the entrance are real men dressed as the soldiers posing, while another beats a large drum. How cute.
The mausoleum is under a giant hill that we climbed up and had a panoramic view of the area. There were also many butterflies dancing around us and the hill had many pomegranate trees and rose bushes.
Unfortunately there isn't much more to see there, but a pleasant stroll in a garden-like area.
Maggie asked for our ticket stubs, probably to get some more kickbacks. She later tried to talk us into seeing a place that makes terracotta warriors, but we politely but firmly declined and she had to give up the sales talk.
We made it back in good time, only to have them demand 350RMB -- the extra 50 for the tolls.
At this point, we could have argued out of principle, but decided to just pay the total and finish the deal.
Unfortunately experiences like this are systemic in China's tourism industry; it would take a herculaean effort by the central government to regulate it. The chances of that happening are slim, so you pretty much have to accept it -- just make sure you're not fleeced too much.