Terracotta Warriors

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Without a doubt one of China's most famous and popular tourist sites, the Terracotta Warriors (Bīngmǎ Yǒng, 兵马俑) rank among the world's top archaeological finds and were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This incredible collection of well over 6,000 figures was accidentally unearthed by a group of peasants trying to dig a well in 1974. Instead of water, they found a 2,000-year-old statue of a warrior made to protect the Tomb of the Emperor Qin Shi Huang, the founder of the Qin Dynasty and the first man to rule over a unified China. Fast-forward thirty-some years and the emperor's underground army has become an enormously popular tourist destination, even as archaeologists continue to painstakingly excavate and preserve the fragile statues.

Qin created his empire by brutally smashing the armies of rival kings, and the life-size warriors are testament to a dynasty founded on and ruled by force of arms. Standing in ranks as if awaiting a battle, each warrior is unique, featuring different facial expressions and sculpted hands which held real weapons (many of which survive today, albeit in decayed form). They were also fitted with leather armor, long since rotted away, and painted in bright colors which time and exposure to oxygen have reduced to a slate gray. In addition to the warriors, a number or exquisitely crafted horses stand ready, once hitched to war chariots that have long since turned to dust.

Three separate chambers have been discovered, each with different arrangements of soldiers, chariots and weapons. After the initial discovery, archaeologists quickly realized that oxidation was damaging the long-buried figures they had unearthed, and today portions of the site are sealed off from the public for controlled excavation intended to better preserve the original colors of the painted figures. Also on site are relics from the nearby Emperor Qin Shi Huang's Tomb, which the terracotta army guarded undisturbed for so many centuries.

The tomb can easily be reached from the site. Terracotta Army tours will likely continue via bus from the warriors to the tomb. If you do it on your own, it's easy enough to walk there. Regardless, you'll have to deal with the Terracotta Tourist Trap Army—ranks upon ranks of souvenir stands, subpar and overpriced snack joints manned by aggressive shills and wheedling vendors. If you're coming by tour bus, be extra wary of a side trip to the "Amusement Park of Emperor Qin and the Teracotta Army," a horribly ill-conceived venture that could really stand to be buried for 3,000 years; perhaps it would be of some interest when dug up by the people of the future.

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