Alexandra Sieh
Alexandra Sieh

About 40 years ago, a few farmers wanted to make a well. They lived in a village just outside Xi'an, a small city in Shaanxi Province. So they started to dig.

Not far down, they stumbled across something interesting: a kneeling soldier, crafted in clay. For hundreds of years — since about 210 B.C. — that solider had knelt in darkness, with thousands of comrades by his side. He guarded an emperor who was buried nearby.

China's first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, commissioned hundreds of thousands of artisans to work on an army that would protect him after death. These workers created archers, infantry and generals. Then they were killed so the emperor could keep the project a secret. The workers' bones lie in a pit not far from where this kneeling archer kept permanent watch.

In Pit 1, thousands of reconstructed soldiers stand together.
In Pit 1, thousands of reconstructed soldiers stand together.

Centuries later, a group of farmers would come crashing in, disrupting the army's forgotten solitude.

A quiet it would never have again.

On a cold, winter day, I stood looking out at a massive field of reconstructed soldiers. Horses stood behind, ready to march into battle.

Intricate details marked braids in their hair, stitches in their clothes and ridges in their shoes. On some, lingering paint still clung to long-hardened terra cotta.

Overhead, metal and glass kept the weather at bay. A complex had risen above them, with gift shops just a few steps away from the ancient pits.

It was a clash of old and new, and it was incredible. It embodied much of how I saw Xi'an.


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Since arriving on our cramped overnight train, Manfriend and I stretched out and explored. We munched our way through the Muslim Quarter and toured the Great Mosque, crunching through the snow.

Just outside this cultural hive, neon lights lit knock-off shops. Wide streets were lined with malls and people saddled with shopping bags.

In the heart of it all, a bell tower stood, festooned with lanterns and lights and vibrant colors. Traffic coursed around it.

Sipping our milk tea, we watched the tower light up for the evening. Manfriend sighed. "Imagine, all this has probably happened so recently. In the past few decades or so."

And so it had. Xi'an seemed to pulse with history. It ebbed and flowed, from a major hub for trade centuries ago to a modern second-tier city flourishing from tourism and transportation initiatives. The city proudly lit its hundreds-year-old heritage with lights from modern shop signs.

In a frigid hostel room, I laid shivering under extra blankets. I flipped through my photos, amazed it all fit in one city.

And a short drive away, amid a new-age excavation site, China's first emperor laid, too — him under a snowy hill, ever guarded by his army of clay soldiers.

Read more Sieh: coloradodaily.com/columnists. Stalk her: instagram.com/wildeyed_wandering.