SYNOPSIS:  Pits and Mausoleum.  About changes in 15 and 45 years.  No terrorists in Shaanxi Province? 

There must be no terrorists in Shaanxi Province.  I guess, they all live in Xinjiang Province.  Security is back to post 9-11 levels as we know them in the US.  Even though I visited a UNESCO site, arguably the most famous sites of all in China — the Terracotta Army built by Chin Shih Huang Di — nowhere did I have to show my passport, and I only had to go through two bag checks, one at each of the related sites.

A clearly marked green or blue tourist bus shuttles visitors from the Xian train station to the Warriors.  At 6 Yuan, or $1, this is a true bargain for the 35 km out there.  The ride goes through the stalagmite outskirts of Xian into the slightly lower rising suburbs.  We arrived at a vast parking lot divided into bus and car parking areas.

Except for the Warrior Pits themselves, I would have sworn I had never been here.  Nothing resembled anything from 16 years ago.  I distinctly remember standing on the steps of the site museum looking down at a parking area filled with buses.  That was at a time when the Chinese were still going around on bicycles, motorbikes, only a few private cars, and mainly by buses.  These days… well, that is a different story.

A park-like area had been built to buffer the site and the parking area.  It takes a good 10 minutes to walk through it.  I am sure it is not mainly meant to be pretty, but to provide a security barrier.  You can’t easily “invade” the site anymore.  One bag check, I guess that is expected these days.  And then you mingle with hundreds and thousands of camera-snapping visitors, mainly Chinese, peppered with various foreign tour groups.  I heard everything from Dutch, French, German, to American tour guides chattering into their microphones, waiving their blue, green, white or red tour flags. 

I am so glad I had time.  I could wait out some of the crowds, and get front access to take lots and lots of pictures!  Well, if that was not a wonderful change of pace.  When I was here the last time, all of our cameras were confiscated.  We had to surrender them into a storage area.  Photography of any kind was strictly forbidden.  We then had our picture taken as a group (I had come with a group of teachers on a Fulbright-Hayes scholarship) at a predetermined spot and had to pay for it. 

But who can stop millions of smartphones?  I asked a young English-speaking guide when that policy changed.  He laughed at me and said: Yes, that was at my parents’ age.  That changed a long time ago.  Indeed, I am his parents’ age.  But 16 years, is that such a long time?  It seems so recent, and yet, we definitely live in a different world. 

In one area of the museum a fancy computer projected all kinds of multi-colored images for future developments of the site onto a ground map.  It’s the 2014-2030 “Master Plan”.  I am almost afraid to ask what that entails.  Turning this site into a circus? 

When you exit the Warrior Pit site you don’t even know how, but you get channeled into a 15-minute walk of souvenir heaven, or hell, for that matter.  Vendors galore want to sell you warriors and all kinds of other shlock and they succeed.  Food stalls offer delicious-looking noodle dishes and I probably would have stopped, if I did not have to get to the second destination of the area, the mausoleum itself.

The warrior pits are located 2.5 km east of the actual Tomb of Chin Shih Huang Di.  To date, the tomb has not been excavated.  According to Sian, a historian of the 2nd Century, the tomb is 5 levels below ground water, filled with rivers of mercury, stars of precious metals, a palace and a replica of China itself.  Chin was sure he could take it all with him.  But he was also sure that the enemies he had created all throughout his ruthless life would come after him.  And that’s what he built the Warrior Pits for.   

The tomb itself is said to be outfitted with booby-traps and filled with the corpses of hundreds of engineers of the tomb (they knew too much) and hundreds of concubines.  Even though it contained a lot more riches than the warrior pits, the mausoleum was never robbed.  Contemporaries had too much respect and most likely fear to do so.  They almost instantly ransacked the warrior pits though.  I am sure they felt that they had done their duty:  leave the hated emperor defenseless in his afterlife.

From Professor Kane, who made a trip to China as a member of one of the first delegations of American Scholars in 1973 (prior to the discovery of the warrior pits), I have a photo of the tomb.  It is a mud hill with a stele.  Hardly anyone paid attention to it.  After the discovery of the tombs in 1974, the stories about the mausoleum were taken a lot more seriously.  Even though nobody has opened the tomb itself (we just don’t have the technological know-how yet to excavate without destroying the site), probes have been sent down to confirm 100x the level of mercury typical for the area…  Side pits have been discovered and excavated, among them most famously, the Pit of the Two Bronze Chariots.   But excavations are ongoing and will most likely lead to the most spectacular archaeological discovery of the century — some day.

A photo taken by Professor Kane in 1983, shows a hill with a few souvenir stalls in front of them, a staircase going up onto the mountains and a few visitors in the infamous blue Mao Tsetung jackets.  No foreigners in sight. 

In 2001, the mountain was an afterthought, a quick stop.  One could still go up there and the souvenir stalls had increased alongside the stream of foreign visitors. 

Today…  I could not believe my eyes.  As part of the 2014 master plan, I guess, the entire site had been turned into a park, paved with asphalt for visitor carts to go around, and the mountain had been planted full of trees.  It was no longer possible to go up.  Not that there was much there, except for a great view into the surrounding landscape.

In 1974, there was nothing but landscape and mounds of graves by others, who had sought out proximity to emperor Shih.  In 1983, the hangar over the warrior pit was visible in the distance.  The landscape still was rather undeveloped.   Now, the town is encroaching from the West and the area has turned into a fully developed urban landscape.  Where are those mounds?  I could not tell from the ground level to which I was restricted. 

I had chosen to explore the site by foot.  But I completely underestimated the dimensions (not that any information was to be had to that effect).  Half way through, I had walked up a blister, and a desperate need for water.  A restaurant that had been listed on all the markers was closed.  I must have cut a sufficiently pitiful figure as one of the patrolling security guards invited me to ride along on her electric motor bike.  Twice she picked me up!  Thanks to her I made it back in one piece.

Take the go-cart!  Or… unless you really have the time, don’t feel bad if you skip this site altogether.  It’s more the thought of what is there that counts than what you can actually see.  But I needed to know for myself.  I am not exactly looking forward to the rest of the master plan.  But this is China.  If they have a plan, they will execute it.  There is no doubt about it.

I still had no internet, no warm water and no TV at my apartment.  Tao, my host will stop by tomorrow.  I don’t even know if Tao is a man or a woman.  I will find out.

Good night.

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  1. We found the extreme change , like you did, between our first and second visit to see the warriors. If you happened to go down the “right street ” in Xian, you might even pass a pyramid or the Eiffel tower. Tourism runs like the wind.

  2. “Souvenir heaven”….ha ha ha ha ha. Yeah, I bet you just loved that!!!! And all the people!!!!