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Archaeological travel guide to the Qin Shi Huang Mausoleum, home to China’s world-famous Terracotta Army and burial place of the nation’s first emperor.

Fast Facts

Name: The Qin Si Huang Mausoleum and Terracotta Army

Where: Lintong, Shaanxi, China

Location: 34.38494, 109.27319

Description: The Qin Shi Huang Mausoleum is a historical park and museum based around the excavations of the Terracotta Army.

Getting there: Bus 306 from the Xi’an Railway Station (located just outside the Xi’an northern city wall) goes directly to the Qin Shi Huang Mausoleum.

Cost: 120 CNY / 19 USD

One of the most enduring ancient works of art is the world-famous Terracotta Army. These ceramic soldiers have become some of the most famous Chinese sculptures in the world, working their way into the popular consciousness since their discovery and even appearing in blockbuster movies. But who created the terracotta soldiers and what purpose did they serve? 

The Qin Shi Huang Mausoleum, completed in 208 BCE,  is the monumental burial complex of China’s First Emperor. The archaeology site contains the unexcavated burial chamber covered by a rammed-earth pyramid and the Terracotta Army, which was rediscovered in 1974 and is now a major tourist destination.

While the Qin Shi Huang Mausoleum is now a popular tourist attraction, drawing thousands of people each year, the monument also signifies a critical point in China’s history. This has led authorities to proceed with great caution in its further excavation. This article will guide you through the history of the Qin Shi Huang Mausoleum, including both the tomb and the Terracotta Army, from its early days to the modern efforts to excavate and preserve the site, along with everything you need to know to visit for yourself.

The Story of the Qin Shi Huang Mausoleum

The Qin Shi Huang Mausoleum was built to be one of the largest and most spectacular tombs in the world. The entire project took over 36 years to construct, more than double the time of the Qin dynasty itself. 

The collection of Terracotta Soldiers inside of Excavation Pit 1
The collection of Terracotta Soldiers inside of Excavation Pit 1

The original structure contained not only the burial chamber and mounds, but was a full necropolis (“city of the dead”) in the truest sense. The earthen pyramid was surrounded by 2 sets of city walls (inner and outer) with their own gates.  Contained within these walls, archaeologists have also found the ruined foundations of contemporary buildings. 

Today, while the surrounding monuments and burials have been dug up and studied, the emperor’s tomb itself remains unexcavated. Yet, even though the main burial chamber has yet to be excavated, archaeologists are still discovering new features within the greater mausoleum complex. As the work continues, many more discoveries are expected.

The Qin Dynasty and Legacy of Qin Shi Huang

Main article: Cultural Profile: Qin Dynasty, Ancient China’s First Empire

Construction on the Qin Shi Huang Mausoleum finished in 208 BCE. This elaborate tomb was built to honor Qin Shi Huang, the conqueror and emperor that unified China and created the Qin dynasty. It’s estimated this complex stretches across 56 square kilometers. The terracotta soldiers were included to offer protection from invaders and give him an army to control in the afterlife.

The pyramidal burial mound housing the tomb of China's first emperor, Qin Shi Huang
The pyramidal burial mound housing the tomb of China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang

To understand the significance of this burial monument, we need to understand why it was constructed. The tomb was built to secure the afterlife of Qin Shi Huang, a last grasp in his lifelong obsession with achieving immortality. Before Qin, the region that would become China had been fragmented and divided into several independent kingdoms during the Warring States Period. 

During his reign, Qin Shi Huang would overtake these competing kingdoms and eventually unify China. His initiatives and policies would play a leading role in shaping the future of the country. For example, Qin established standardized measurements and writing throughout the empire as well as beginning construction on the earliest sections of the Great Wall.

Included in these massive undertakings, Qin had an elaborate chamber built to house him following his death. Following his death, Qin was placed within the sealed tomb, which lies in the middle of the complex. Built on top of this burial chamber was a large earthen pyramid, which although grander in ancient times, now appears as a natural hill.

Rediscovering the Qin Shi Huang Mausoleum and the Terracotta Army

One of the most interesting elements of the Qin Shi Huang Mausoleum’s history is how it was found. In 1974, there was a group of farmers who were digging to find a well. During this process, they discovered an underground chamber that contained the first of the terracotta warriors discovered.

This would become Pit 1. 

A sign marking the location of the well where the Terracotta Army was first discovered in 1974
A sign marking the location of the well where the Terracotta Army was first discovered in 1974

Since then, archeologists have been systematically surveying the area, discovering 3 more Terracotta Army pits along with working to slowly unearth the tomb and rediscover its other buried wonders.

This is expected to be a slow process with several challenges that will need to be overcome. The most problematic of this is that, unlike traditional archaeological excavations, they can’t simply dig down. The mount over the tomb forms an essential part of the monument’s history. It designates that an important leader is buried there. 

There is also the risk that this process will cause a collapse, damaging the tomb. Because of this, a cautious and carefully planned excavation strategy must be developed for the entire area.

Additional challenges include:

High levels of mercury. Measurements of the toxic element mercury are incredibly high in the ground surrounding the tomb. While this helps to corroborate some of the extravagant legends of the interior tomb, including “rivers of mercury”, it means an extremely dangerous environment for anyone involved in excavations.

Irreparable damage to the artifacts. During the initial excavations of the Terracotta Army, the statues maintained the original bright colors that they had originally been painted with. However, these pigments were only preserved over 2000 years due to their sealed environment underground. As soon as they touched the open air, these colors began to fade away into the more recognizable gray seen today.

Terracotta Army figures on display at the Shaanxi History Museum in Xi'an
Terracotta Army figures on display at the Shaanxi History Museum in Xi’an

To date, archeologists have been able to unearth four pits containing the Terracotta Warriors (one incomplete and empty) and at least two pits adjacent to the tomb itself.  However, the full complex is much larger than the two active, protected excavation areas. According to some estimates, it might be as much as 13 times larger.

While further surveys and digs take place, all the unearthed sections need to be protected. This has resulted in the establishment of the protective structures housing the three main excavation pits today, as well as the renovation of the central burial complex into a landscaped and well-maintained park.

Discoveries Inside the Qin Shi Huang Mausoleum

Buried chariots and horse skeletons on display at the Shaanxi History Museum
Buried chariots and horse skeletons on display at the Shaanxi History Museum

Over time, there have been a few important artifacts found throughout the Qin Shi Huang Mausoleum complex. While the terracotta warriors might be the most well-known, many other other  important items have been uncovered, including:

  • Human remains believed to possibly be the emperor’s children
  • Horse skeletons
  • Half-sized bronze chariots
  • A zoo that contained exotic animals
  • Stone suit of armor
  • Mass tombs for those who created the site
  • Bronze cranes and swans
  • Likenesses of well-known artists and dancers
  • Terracotta depictions of those in the Emperor’s court

Historical Accounts of the First Emperor’s Tomb

Ancient accounts of what the mausoleum would have looked like shortly after its completion were written by the Chinese Han dynasty historian Sima Qian (c. 145–87 BCE). While these accounts often read more like a work of embellished fantasy than a detailed history, they have nonetheless helped to explain some of the most intriguing discoveries.

According to Sima Qian’s description, 

“Palaces and scenic towers for a hundred officials were constructed, and the tomb was filled with rare artifacts and wonderful treasure. Craftsmen were ordered to make crossbows and arrows primed to shoot at anyone who enters the tomb. Mercury was used to simulate the hundred rivers, the Yangtze, Yellow River, and the great sea, and set to flow mechanically. Above were representations of the heavenly constellations, below, the features of the land.”

Sima Qian, Records of the Grand Historian 史記

Taken literally, this describes the inner chambers of the tomb (located under the earthen pyramid) as containing a recreated landscape of Qin’s domain in ancient China. In addition to mountain ranges and coastlines, the two great rivers of China, the Yellow and Yangtze are said to be recreated with flowing mercury (sometimes quicksilver) and pearls embedded in the ceiling to simulate the stars shining at night.

It’s important to note that Sima Qian’s writings date from nearly 100 years after Emperor Qin died. This fact combined with the fantastical nature of the descriptions led researchers to dismiss them for the most part. However, the rediscovery of the Terracotta Army and the elevated levels of mercury in the nearby soil has led to this conclusion being reconsidered.

Sima Qian also discusses booby traps, like arrows that are rigged to fire at intruders as well as other mechanized features within the tomb. In order to further safeguard these secrets, says Sima Qian, all the craftsmen who had designed and constructed them were sealed inside the mausoleum as well.

This account concludes with Sima Qian describing how the pyramid tomb was seeded with trees and other plants in order to appear as a natural hill, much like it (and the dozens of other similar tombs) appears today.

The Layout of the Mausoleum

Main article: Architecture Profile: Ancient China’s Pyramid Tombs

The Qin Shi Huang mausoleum was an immense construction, particularly for the era, with the entire complex estimated to cover 56 square kilometers. The modern height of the burial mound is around 53 meters, while historical sources such as Sima Qian claim its original height to be around 115 meters. However, over 2000 years of erosion and human activity like farming have taken their toll and worn away over half the height of the earthen hill.

An early photo of the Qin Shi Huang burial mound on display at the site museum
An early photo of the Qin Shi Huang burial mound on display at the site museum

Construction of the entire complex is estimated to have taken a team of 700,000 people around 36 years to finish. One significant contributing factor in the construction was the use of indentured or even slave labor, something also employed in a number of other Qin-era building projects. 

The mausoleum’s interior supposedly contains a range of chambers lined with bronze and filled with rare riches and artifacts. To this day, none of these chambers have yet been explored or dug up.  However, most archeologists agree that some semblance of an underground palace replica was likely constructed under the base of the rammed-earth mound. 

Based on a combination of historical sources and non-invasive scans by ground-penetrating radar, the main internal burial chamber is believed to be 15 meters (49.2 feet) high, 80 meters (262.5 feet) long, and 50 meters (164 feet) wide. It’s estimated to be 15 meters high.

Surrounding the burial mound were two rectangular enclosure walls also made of rammed earth. The inner wall measured 1355×580 meters (4445.5×1902.9 feet) while the outer wall was 2165×940 meters (7103×3084 feet). The walls were originally approximately 8 meters thick and contained gates with watchtowers.

Emperor Qin’s Terracotta Army

Perhaps the most iconic discovery from the mausoleum is the existence of the Terracotta Army. These are lifesize clay soldiers which have been ornately sculpted to accurately resemble real warriors. Their attire and even remnants of their original coloring have given archaeologists more insight into the way people from the Qin dynasty era dressed.

However, the thing that has captured the world’s attention is the number of warriors there were. It’s estimated that there are;

  • 8,000 warriors
  • These were spaced across 20,000 square meters
  • 130 wooden chariots with 520 horses
  • 150 cavalry horses

Some of these have been unearthed several kilometers away from the funeral mound. It’s believed that these troops would be carried with Qin Shi Huang into the afterlife. This would give him an army to command. They would also be able to offer him protection in our world. This is why most of the troops were found to be facing towards the east. This is where the biggest threats would have come from.

Interestingly, there is also some variation in the design of the warriors. The generals are slightly taller than the rest of the troops. The uniform they wore also changed depending on their rank. It’s also believed that they were painted. This would make them look even more realistic.

Today, the terracotta warriors form a crucial part of Chinese history. Because of this, some have been sent to museums around the world. This provides a chance for everyone to appreciate their appearance. Many, though, remain in the mausoleum where they can be protected and studied.

Accessory Pits Around the Qin Shi Huang Mausoleum

Dozens of smaller excavations have also taken place in small pits in the vicinity of the Tomb and Terracotta army. Officially known as “accessory pits”, these digs often yield surprising finds that provide a much greater context to both the burial and the great Qin-era culture.

Among the more important accessory pits are:

  • Pit K0006 – Contained terracotta figures of public officials, charioteers, and the skeletons of 9 real horses 
  • Pit K0007 – Contained ornate bronze figures of varying species of waterfowl
  • Pit K9801 – Contained a large cache of Qin-era armor and helmets made from stone
  • Pit K9901 – Contained ceramic figures depicted as performing physical and acrobatic feats
  • Sacrificial Animal Pits – Contained rare animals buried in coffins to recreate the Emperor’s hunting gardens

Additionally, many accessory pits in the area are generally dubbed as Stable Pits, Slaughter Pits, and Graveyard Pits

  • Stable Pits – Contained the remains of horses that were likely alive when intentionally buried (signs of struggle and restraining straps were found). Over 100 Stable Pits have been found over 2 sites.
  • Slaughter Pits – Contained the remains of individuals (20-30 years old) who were intentionally killed, as demonstrated by their heads being separated from their bodies. These are thought to have been other royals and nobles killed by the 2nd Qin Emperor. At least 17 Slaughter Pits have been found.
  • Graveyard Pits – Contained the buried bodies of workers employed to construct the tomb. These bodies all show signs of violent trauma, indicating they were killed after the completion of their work. In total, 106 Graveyard Pits have been found dating from the Qin period.

Qin Shi Huang Mausoleum Atlas

Although conceived of and built as a single large necropolis, the Qin Shi Huang Mausoleum suffered the same fate as so many other pyramid burial mounds in China. Like those monuments from later dynasties that it would serve as the template before, the Qin Shi Huang Mausoleum was forgotten and built over in the 2000 years since the First Emperor’s death. 

Today, the archaeological site is divided into two main tourist areas, one centered on the Terracotta Army and the other on the tomb itself. Visitors arrive at the Terracotta Army Tourist Center, located 1.5 km from the tomb. This is the location of the 3 excavation pits, the onsite museum, and free shuttles to the actual tomb.

Map of the Qin Shi Huang Mausoleum

*Google Maps in China is intentionally distorted. Placemarkers here are based on the satellite view, not the roadmap.

Terracotta Army Tourist Area

When you first get off Bus 306 from Xi’an, you’ll be in the tourist area. This is essentially an outdoor shopping center or strip mall filled with restaurants, souvenir shops, and an outdoor theater. For the less adventurous foreign visitors, there are even the familiar KFC and Subway restaurants.

Following the main path through the Terracotta Army strip mall, you’ll arrive at the entrance to the excavation pits and site museum. After purchasing the entry ticket (CNY 120 / USD 19.00), you will have full access to Excavation Pits 1-3 and the Emperor Qin Shihuang’s Mausoleum and Terracotta Army Museum.

Emperor Qin Shihuang’s Mausoleum and Terracotta Army Museum

The archaeological site’s main museum is located next to the main excavation pits that house the Terracotta Army. Inside is a decently sized exhibition area describing the site’s initial discovery, the resulting excavation pits, the process of making the Terracotta Army, and the subsequent establishment of the museum and tourist area.

One personal nitpick I had with the Emperor Qin Shihuang’s Mausoleum and Terracotta Army Museum was that the informational displays were (in my opinion) more about the history of the museum itself than about the tomb and Terracotta Army. While there is certainly invaluable information on the history of the archaeology site, you’ll learn much more about the early days of the excavation and the establishment of the museum.

Terracotta Army Excavation Pit 1

Pit 1 is the largest of the three Terracotta Army excavation pits and the one that draws the biggest crowds. It’s also likely the one you’ve seen the most photographs of, as it contains the iconic long row of excavated soldiers standing in military formation. And while already the largest of the 3 pits, Pit 1 is still not fully excavated.

The excavation pit is 230 meters long by 62 meters wide and is covered by a protective roof. There were estimated to have been 6000 lifesize statues (both soldiers and horses) buried in Pit 1. These were originally contained in an earth-and-wood subterranean building, although most of this has been lost after it was reburied by Qin’s construction force.

The viewing area of Pit 1 extends around the entire circumference of the pit and is entirely enclosed within the protective building. Because the Terracotta Soldiers were left in their original locations beneath great level, the viewing area provides a full view from above. However, visitors are understandably not allowed to go down into the excavation pit up close to the Terracotta Army.

Terracotta Army Excavation Pit 2

Excavation Pit 2 was discovered in 1976 immediately to the north of Pit 1. Located 20 meters from the eastern end of Pit 1, Pit 2 is the second-largest pit and contains the most diverse finds of the three main Terracotta Army excavation pits. 

While Pit 1 contains mostly infantrymen, Pit 2 contains a mixed force of archers, chariots, cavalry, and infantry. Small sections of the roof that once covered the soldiers of Pit 2 can still be found in parts of the exhibit. 

At the time of my visit, excavations in Pit 2 were still ongoing.

Terracotta Army Excavation Pit 3

Unlike the other two excavation pits, which are rectangular, Pit 3 is an irregular U-shaped construction. The third pit was discovered in June of 1976 and contained 68 figures, a chariot, and a cache of bronze weapons. Due to the nature of the statues and its small size relative to the first 2 excavation pits found (and also in relation to the later-discovered Pit 4), Pit 3 has been dubbed the command pit. However, notably missing from Pit 3 is the commander, whether that would be a general or the Emperor himself.

Much of 520-square-meter Pit 3 was in a heavily damaged state, including many of the figures missing their heads. This has lead researchers to speculate that it was broken into at some point in the past.

Terracotta Army Excavation Pit 4

In 1996, a fourth pit was discovered. Although this pit had clearly been intentionally dug out, there were no terracotta statues or significant artifacts found in Pit 4. Pit 4 is conspicuously located in the center of the other three pits, with Pits 2 and 3 to the east and west, respectively, and Pit 1 (the largest), running the east-west length immediately to the south of Pits 2, 3, and 4. 

There are two main theories on what the original purpose of Pit 4 may have been:

1) It is an unfinished pit meant to house a 3rd Terracotta Army unit representing Qin’s calvary.

Beginning in the Shang dynasty (c. 1600 BCE), the armies of ancient China made use of a 3-unit army. These would be divided into left and right arms of the soldiers with a mobile unit (cavalry) behind them. The position of Pit 4 would fit this pattern if Pits 1 and 2 are interpreted as the right and left armies, respectively. 

The theory continues that the terracotta soldiers planned for Pit 4 were never created due to the political instability that took place after the death of Qin Shi Huang. 

2) It was simply a backfill pit.

Due to the total absence of any artifacts whatsoever in Pit 4, the idea that it was never meant to house anything has also been proposed and that it was instead used as a backfill pit from the other pits around it. Supporters of this hypothesis point out that if Pit 4 was intended to house more terracotta soldiers, it would have been planned and constructed in unison with the other pits. 

However, Pit 4 does not contain the same indications of planning as the other pits. Its shape differs from the others, being wider from north to south, while the others are wider from east to west. Pit 4 also lacks the ramp gateway present in the other pits. 

Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s Mausoleum Site Park

An onsite map of the Qin Shi Huang Mausoleum Site Park
An onsite map of the Qin Shi Huang Mausoleum Site Park

The Qin Shi Huang Mausoleum Site Park (also called Li Shan Yuan 丽山园 or “Li Mountain Garden” after a nearby mountain chosen for auspicious reasons) is the location of the First Emperor’s actual tomb. The park opened on Oct 1, 2010 and consists of the pyramid burial mound and the area surrounding it, the entire park takes up 2.26 km2.

The Mausoleum Site Park was created to preserve both the physical tomb and a number of archaeological finds in the immediate area. These include what little remains of the mausoleum’s inner and outer rammed-earth walls and watchtowers as well as the foundations of some additional buildings that were found within the walls.

There are also three protected accessory excavation pits within the Mausoleum Site Park itself, Pit 0006 Pit, K9901, and Pit K8901. 

While walking around, you’d hardly be aware that you were in an archaeological site, as the footpaths and greenery are all landscaped in a way to feel much more like a park than a historical monument. 

The Burial Mound

The main feature of the Mausoleum Site Park is the burial mound itself. Although it only looks like a small hill from the ground immediately surrounding it, at 53 meters (originally 115 meters high, it dominates the park.

That said, all the footpaths and landscaping prevent visitors from getting too close to the mound itself, relegating it to a piece of background scenery. 

Excavation Pit K0006

The Pit 0006 enclosure is located on the southwest side of the Qin Shi Huang burial mound (only 50m away) and contained an odd assortment of items. These include parts from a destroyed wooden chariot, skeletons from (at least) 9 horses, four chariots, 12 terracotta figures believed to represent charioteers (4) and public officials (8). Other smaller finds in the pit included 4 bronze axes, a bronze ring, and one ceramic jar.

8 Terracotta Public Officials – These figures were all depicted with their hands in long sleeves, and intricate headgear indicative of a high-ranking official. They were equipped with scraping and knife-sharpening tools attached to their right sides. Under each statue’s left arm was an open space to carry something like a wrapped bundle of bamboo. Seven of these figures were found in lying positions arranged in a straight line, their heads to the north and feet to the south. The eight was found standing while facing west.

4 of the 12 terracotta figures from Pit K0006
4 of the 12 terracotta figures from Pit K0006

4 Terracotta Charioteers – These figures also wore similar headgear, however, their stance was that of someone driving a chariot. Both arms are outstretched in front with their handles in the position to hold a horse’s bridle. Three of these figures were found in lying positions arranged in a straight line, their heads to the north and feet to the south, while the fourth whose head was to the south.

9 Horse Skeletons – The skeletons of these adult horses (8 confirmed male, 1 possibly female)  were arranged in a line with their heads to the north and tails to the south.

Remains of a Chariot – A single wooden chariot with 2 wheels. The carriage base (thill) measured 220 cm  (7.2 feet) in length and 10 cm (3.9 inches) in width, while the chariot box where the charioteer would stand measured 110×40 cm (3.6×1.3 feet). 

Although discovered in 2000 and subsequently excavated entirely, the purpose of Pit 0006 is still debated, with some interpretations stating that it represents a public official who was in charge of prisons or that it represents the Emperor’s own stable.

Excavation Pit K9801 

Pit K9801, also called the Stone Armor Pit, was first excavated in 1998 and contained a large collection of armor and helmets recreated in stone. These are not thought to have been used in actual battles due to their weight and the time involved in carving and making them. Instead, it’s more likely that these were simply for show and ceremony.

This pit is the largest of all the accessory pits so far found and is, by area, even larger than Pit 1, which contains the Terracotta Army.

Excavation Pit K9901 

Pit K9901, also called Acrobatics Figures Pit, was first excavated in 1999 and contained a number of ceramic figures engaged in physical and performance activities. These include wrestling, dancing, pole climbing, and weightlifting (although here referred to as “tripod lifting, where the performers would life a large bronze cauldron on 3 legs.)

This pit was sectioned into three areas by wooden barriers, although these were found to have burned at some point. Additional artifacts found included the large bronze tripod referred to above, stone dice, and several other bronze utensils.

Sacrificial Animal Pits

This area between the inner and outer walls consists of 31 separate pits arranged in 3 north-south rows. Each pit contained a coffin with a rare animal skeleton inside and was accompanied by a small bronze statue depicting a kneeling warrior. Many of the skeletons had bronze rings or collars around their necks, indicating they were tied up.

Archaeologists interpret this as representing the Emperor’s royal gardens and the statues as the caretakers of the animals. By placing this garden inside the Mausoleum city walls, it would provide a place for the emperor to hunt in the afterlife.

My Visit to the Qin Shi Huang Mausoleum

Our visit to the Qin Shi Huang Mausoleum was a day trip from central Xi’an, leaving early in the morning to catch one of the first buses in hope of beating the crowds. Ida and I left the Hantang Inn around 8 am with Shaf and Verity, an Australian couple we had met during our stay there. 

The Ride to the Qin Shi Huang Mausoleum

The bus station, called Huaqing Pool Station, is located along Xi’an’s northern city wall and was about a 20-30 minute walk from where we were staying. Once we arrived it took a little bit of asking around, but we found Bus 306 that drives the regular tourist route to the Terracotta Army.

After a short wait, we were on the bus out of the city. As we neared the archaeological site, we passed the massive earthwork that was the Emperor’s Tomb on its southern side. Unfortunately, this was too quickly for me to get any photos from the raised road.

Touring the Terracotta Soldier Excavation Pits

After we arrived, the signs leading the way from the ticket booth through the tourist mall quickly brought us to Pit 1, the largest pit that was also the first discovered.

Pit 1 was enclosed in a large, climate-controlled structure with crowded walkways surrounding the entire excavation area. As per usual in major tourist attractions in China, large bunches of people were gathered trying to get the best selfies. While not exactly seeking selfies, I was trying to get into the same area to find some opportune photos of the long rows of the soldiers themselves.

Between the extensive protective barriers, security personnel, and the ubiquitous surveillance camera found everywhere in China, one thing becomes immediately clear: that the tourists are not allowed near any of the statues themselves. Overall, this is for the best given the huge crowds drawn to this collection of remarkable artifacts.

Working our way around the far side of Pit 1, the four of us eventually made our way into the neighboring Pits 2 and 3. While not as large, these pits each provided a slightly unique experience but were, overall, nowhere near as impressive as Pit 1.

Inside the Qin Shi Huang Museum

Rounding out our time in the main tourist area, our small group stopped into a small coffee stand outside of the museum. While Shaf and Verity hung back at the cafe, Ida and I went into the museum.

In general, China has some of the best museums I’ve been to in any country. While the Emperor Qin Shihuang’s Mausoleum and Terracotta Army Museum (yes, a mouthful) didn’t quite measure up to some of the excellent provincial museums I’d been to around the country, it still is certainly worth the time to see the history of the excavations and the artifacts on display.

Also on brand for Chinese tourist attractions were the photo ops and gift shop at the museum. One set-up included replicas of kneeling soldiers in front of a fake backdrop of Pit 1 that you could take photos at. Another engraved your face onto a Terracotta Soldier’s body in a holographic glass prism.

When in Rome …

Visiting the Qin Shi Huang Burial Monument

The entrance to the Qin Shi Huang Mausoleum Site Park
The entrance to the Qin Shi Huang Mausoleum Site Park

While the Terracotta Army is by far the main tourist attraction of the archaeology site, the actual burial monument is located just a short shuttle ride away. This burial mound, which takes the form of a rammed earth pyramid, was the first in a long series of such monuments being constructed by kings and nobles going well into the Han dynasty and later.

In more recent times, these have unfortunately because subject to many of the same conspiracy theories as other archaeological sites, ranging from ridiculous speculation of ancient aliens to conspiracies that the Chinese government is hiding their existence. This is despite the fact that two of the largest, the Qin Shi Huang Mausoleum and the Maoling Mausoleum, are both major tourist attractions or that the Xi’an International Airport is built in the vicinity of the highest concentration of these pyramidal mounds, making them easily visible from incoming and outgoing flights.

Most of park looked like this
Most of park looked like this

After arriving at the Qin Shi Huang Mausoleum Site Park, we found it to be mostly just that — a park. Pathways lined with well-landscaped greenery led around the ancient monument, however, you’re never able to get too close to the mound itself.

Occasional signs point the way to accessory pits found within the ancient mausoleum walls, and even to what are supposed to be remnants of the walls themselves. However, despite my best efforts to follow these signs, I couldn’t locate walls. Either they have become too eroded as to be noticeable, or I was just looking in the wrong spot.

Inside Excavation Pit K0006
Inside Excavation Pit K0006

Other than the occasional glimpse of the burial mound through the trees, the main site we saw at the park was Pit K0006, a smaller covered excavation pit with a sloped ramp leading down to where 12 terracotta sculptures representing non-military personnel were found. Four of these statues were in the pit at the time we visited.

By this point, it was late in the afternoon. Shaf, Verity, Ida, and I caught the return shuttle back to the main tourist area where the buses were returning back to the city. Not long after, around 6pm, we were getting off the tourist bus back at the Xi’an city wall and making our way to the guest house.

How to Get to Qin Shi Huang Mausoleum and Terracotta Army

GPS Coordinates: 34.38494, 109.27319

The Terracotta Army and Qin Shi Huang Mausoleum are best visited as a day trip from Xi’an, China’s historic capital city. Bus 306 from the Chongqing Railway Station goes directly to the Terracotta Army tourist center, where you can easily access the museum, burial mound, and view the Terracotta Army.

The northern city wall where the tourist buses depart from the Xi'an Railway Station
The northern city wall where the tourist buses depart from the Xi’an Railway Station

Along Xi’an’s northern city wall is the old train station, not to be confused with the high-speed rail station that is located in the north of the city. In front of the old Xi’an Railway Station is a parking area where direct tourist buses (Bus Number 306) also leave from. From here, buses go to the Xi’an suburb of Lintong, where the Mausoleum is located.

The tourist buses will drop you off at the entrance to the Tourist Area. This is also where you can find the free shuttles that go from the Terracotta Army to the Mausoleum Site Park, where the actual tomb is located. 

Fast Facts


Han dynasty 汉朝
The ruling dynasty of China from 202 BCE – 220 CE. Han doctrine was characterized by economic prosperity through outside trade via the Silk Road creating the earliest sense of a single Chinese “Han” identity.

A large building or construction containing one or several tombs.

Qin dynasty 秦朝
Chinese dynasty established in 221 BCE by Qin Shi Huang after conquering and united all rival Chinese states. Modern China derives its name from this dynasty, which is significant for being the first unified Chinese state. The Qin dynasty lasted until 206 BCE and was soon succeeded by the Han dynasty.

Qin Shi Huang 秦始皇
The “First Emperor” of China who created the Qin dynasty by conquering all rival Chinese states and unifying China for the first time in 221 BCE.

Qin state
One of the Chinese Warring States that lasted from ~9th Century BCE to 221 BCE, when it conquered the rival states and was declared the Qin Empire.

rammed earth
A construction technique of compacting and compressing dirt into solid walls, floors, and building foundations.

Silk Road
A vast trade network connecting China to India, the Middle East, and Europe through Central Asia that was responsible for the intercultural spread of goods and ideas. Although trade began along these routes prior to the Qin dynasty, it began flourishing during the Han dynasty when they secured the Hexi Corridor.

Terracotta Army
A buried army of ceramic soldiers, horses, and chariots excavated near the mausoleum of Qin Shi Huang.

Warring States Period 战国时代
A period preceding the Qin dynasty (c. 475 to 221 BCE) that saw many rival kingdoms throughout China.


Benjamin Williams

Hi all, my name is Ben. I’m a native Michigander with a passion for human culture and new places, and more than that, new experiences. I have degrees in archaeology and writing, pursuing a career in the latter. However, I never quite lost that fascination for archaeological theory. For the past 11 years, I’ve been living and travelling between Asia, Europe, and North America, documenting ancient sites and the peoples who built them, and then adapting them into practical archaeological travel information at


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