It’s a two-hour flight from coastal Shanghai to Xi’an, the capital of China’s Shaanxi Province. With plans to be docked in Shanghai Harbor for three days, Herb and I had enough time for an overnight trip to see Xi’an’s famous Terra-Cotta Warriors and still do some sightseeing in Shanghai. The Crystal Symphony’s excursion to Xi’an was already full when we booked our cruise, so we decided to go on our own with a private tour through Eastern Journeys. The Hong Kong-based tour company promised knowledgeable local guides and a “special access” to the warriors on the lower viewing platform. We made our plans, confirmed and reconfirmed and crossed our fingers that everything would work out.

Trusting the Adults

We arrived in Shanghai on a warm spring morning. Our guide met us at the ship, and soon we were headed to Shanghai Pudong International Airport. The odd thing about a tour in a country where you have a significant language barrier is that the independent traveler can feel almost like a child, trusting the adults in charge. From ship to airport and then from airport to hotel, we were literally handed off from one bilingual guide to another.

It reminded me of the children’s book Paddington Bear, as if I were wearing a note around my neck that said, “Please look after this tourist!” The guide who picked us up at our ship didn’t just drop us off at the airport. He came in with us, spoke to the ticket agent, walked us to the airport café and ordered from the Mandarin menu for us before making sure we knew how to get to the gate.

There was no room on the plane for our small carry-on bags, and we nervously checked them before boarding. Once in our seats, a flight attendant announced that there would be a delay. Of course, we couldn’t understand the reason, and with no other option than to wait in our seats, we once again had to trust the adults. After about an hour, the plane took off. I was focused on my window seat view, imagining how the scenery would change as we made our way westward over the Chinese countryside. Shanghai had been extremely smoggy when we arrived that morning, and I assumed the skies would be clear as we left the city behind. The truth was, I was wrong. The countryside was shrouded in smog for the entire two-hour journey.


A guide was waiting for us in Xi’an, but because of the flight delay it was already evening, and her plans to show us the city had to be revised. We stopped for a brief walk through the Muslim Quarter, a busy cultural center filled with mosques, shops, cafes and delicious aromas from outdoor food stands. It would have been an interesting place to explore, but we had to get to our hotel.

Muslim Quarter

Early the next morning, our guide picked us up for the 45-minute drive to the excavation site. As the story is told, the Terra-Cotta Warriors were discovered in 1974 by local farmers who were digging a well and came upon pottery fragments and ancient weapons. The farmers notified Chinese authorities, who sent archaeologists to the site, and the mystery began to unfold. Warriors and horses, mostly in pieces, were believed to depict the armies of the first Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, and were buried with him in 210 B.C. to protect him in the afterlife. More than 8,000 soldiers have been excavated and are organized in a building the size of several football fields, near the mountains where they were discovered.

The Terra-Cotta Warriors Pit #1

The biggest display is Pit #1, a cavernous space with long rows of soldiers and horses, standing four across and separated from the adjoining rows by walls about the height of the tallest Warrior. It’s an impressive site, and because we arrived just after the early morning opening, we had an extraordinary view.

Warriors Overview2

Warriors Overview

The viewing platform extends around the periphery of the Pit, offering interesting perspectives of the figures and close-up views. From the detailed facial features to hair styles and clothing, no two figures are exactly alike.

Warriors Side View

Warriors Shoes
The shape of the Warriors’ shoes determined their rank in the army.
Warriors Well
The site where farmers discovered the Warriors while digging a well.
Warriors Horses
I especially loved the horses!
Warriors Close-Up
Warriors face every direction, symbolizing their jobs to spot enemies from all possible views.

Archaeologists were at work when we were there. Our guide said that all “parts” are original and that the archaeologists would rather have a warrior with a missing head or limb rather than try to recreate what a figure may have looked like.

Warriors Excavation2

Warriors Excavation

Warriors Side3

Our tour included special access to a lower viewing platform, which was as close as you could get to the Warriors without being in the pit. In reality, the platform was just a little lower than the main viewing area and not a significant “special access” advantage. What was significant, though, was arriving early. Even our guide was surprised at how it seemed as if we had the place to ourselves. (Ironically, the ship’s tour that we were not able to book arrived shortly after we did.)

The Museum

We walked through Pit #2 and Pit #3 and stopped in the museum, which features exquisitely restored Warriors protected in glass cases. Spots of color on a few of these figures have led archaeologists to believe that the Warriors were originally painted with beautiful colors that faded once they were exposed to the air.

Museum Color
Red bands of color on the jacket of the Kneeling Archer. We were told he was the only Warrior found completely intact.
Museum Horse
The Cavalryman with his Horse.

Our final stop was the museum gift shop which sold small Warrior figures made from the local clay. One of the original well-digging farmers was also on hand to sign copies of the Xi’an Press book, The Qin Dynasty Terry Cotta Army of Dreams. Our guide said that negotiating prices was expected, which she did on our behalf. Once again, we had to trust the adult.

Terra-Cotta Figures of a Different Kind

On our way back to the airport, our guide suggested stopping at the Han Yangling Museum to see the Han Dynasty excavated terra-cotta relics. Terra-cotta figures, animals, pottery and weapons are displayed in the pits where they were discovered. Glass walkways overhead allow visitors to view the relics as they walk above them. Although beautifully and interestingly displayed, I thought the figures looked much more like dolls than warriors and were actually kind of creepy in a Stephen King story-like way!

Han Yanling2

Han Yanling1

At the Xi’an Xianyang Airport, our guide took us to a restaurant called Silk Road. The three of us sat at a large round table that had a glass Lazy Susan in the middle­­. The server brought us jasmine tea, with the leaves strewn on the bottom of the pot, and a variety of Chinese dishes that were surprisingly tasty for airport fare.

Airport Tea

It was late afternoon when we arrived back in Shanghai, both exhausted and invigorated after our overnight adventure. As we sat in our cabin overlooking the Huangpu River, the newness of the modern Shanghai skyline was juxtaposed with my mind’s images of ancient clay warriors and the Old City of Xi’an. And I was filled with that dizzying, traveling sensation: “Where I have just been?”

Shanghai Skyline
Back in hazy Shanghai.

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