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Scott Taylor, Deseret News
Rows of terra cotta warriors are seen at Bingmayong in Xi'an, China. Xi'an served as capital to 11 Chinese dynasties.

XI'AN, China — Thanks to protective-minded ancient Chinese emperors with a lot of time, wealth and manpower on their hands, Xi'an boasts a pair of impressive remnants that span the centuries — thousands of terra cotta warriors and a 9-mile long city wall that towers above the central city.

While the People's Republic of China now calls Beijing its current capital city, Xi'an served as capital to 11 Chinese dynasties over some 4,000 years. At the eastern end of the ancient Silk Road that dates back to the second century B.C., the city — then known as Chang'an — drew a wide range of foreign visitors and faiths, including Nestorian Christians, Muslims and Buddhists.

Xi'an is world renown for Bingmayong — the site of the terra cotta warriors, where peasants digging a countryside well in 1972 unearthed the start of what currently is three massive excavation pits and more than 7,000 clay statues and counting.

It's the result of Qin Shi Huangdi, a despotic ruler who ruled China some 2,200 years ago. He tried to buck the adage "you can't take it with you" by having a workforce of 700,000 build an elaborate tomb and afterlife for himself, a 36-year project complete with trimmings fit for, well, an emperor.

In the end, Qin Shi Huangdi might not have been able to take all his worldly possessions with him once he died, but he — like many other rulers who built similar tombs for themselves — wasn't going alone. Another 48 tombs in his system were for concubines — to be buried alive — and even the 700,000 workers were said to face a similar fate so they couldn't tell any future conqueror about the elaborate burial system.

Qin Shi Huangdi's tomb itself ended up being located a mile west of Bingmayong. It's yet to be fully excavated and hoped to be a full reconstruction of the emperor's ancient capital. However, it's likely the primary tomb was plundered during later dynasties. For now, the focal point is the army, with officers, soldiers, archers and horsemen arranged as silent, stoic sentinels standing guard for the deceased emperor.

Pit 1 features a massive battle formation filling 11 narrow passageways, each lined with four columns of warriors and horses stretching back more than 600 feet, or two football fields placed end to end.

Totaling 6,000 at present — with more clay figures being pieced together daily — each statue bears its own individual physical features and expression, although the weapons they previously held have long since rotted out of their grasp.

Their bright pigments have long since faded, transforming the masses from their original striking colors to earthen tones

Pit 3 contains 68 senior officers and is considered the command center of the army complex.

Bingmayong sits about 20 miles east of Xi'an proper. Taxi drivers continually ask foreign tourists if they would like to hire a private ride for the round trip, but those more adventurous and frugal can take a city bus — a little more than $1 one way — and see more of the city and countryside as it meanders its way through several stops.

Visitors to Xi'an can have a more interpersonal experience with history atop the city wall, one of the largest and best-preserved in China. Towering 39 feet above the ground, the long rectangular wall provides a four-story-high view of central Xi'an inside and the rest of the city of 3.5 million people outside.

Access is available at several of the main gates — particularly the south and east, with their large, ornate towers. An Olympics discount given to all visitors this summer means admission is just 20 Chinese yuan — or about $3.

Once on the wall, visitors can walk all or part of the 9-mile circumference, a round trip taking three to four hours. Or, for another 20 yuan, one can rent a bicycle for 100 minutes, with overtime charges of just 5 yuan every half-hour. Tandem bike rentals and motorized cart tours are also available.

Built during the early Ming dynasty in the 14th century, the walls were constructed out of rammed earth, quicklime and glutinous rice extract on the remains of Tang palace walls. Originally, Xi'an's city walls extended out much farther — 30 square miles.

Sections of the wall have long been connected and restored, with renovations constantly occurring.

Xi'an's modern-day rulers — the provincial and municipal government officers — have left their imprints along the wall by upgrading the moat and series of lush parks and open plazas lining the outside of the wall.


E-mail: taylor@desnews.com