LINZI, China -- Frozen in time, 38 chariot horses lie where they fell 2,500 years ago.
Sacrificed in honour of a duke, their bodies sagged and shrivelled eons ago, leaving bones showing through the dried-out hides.
But the once-mighty steeds still have a presence.
Some lying apart, several still in their yokes, horizontal shells were sewn to leather traces, the halters resemble cross-shaped plum flowers, some flowers on the heads were worn in single strands, while others were bronze.
The chariots, with "dagger-axes" found in the broken wheels, once carried leather-clad warriors into battle, loosing arrows or stabbing at rivals with long weapons and swords amidst clouds of dust churned up by their horses. In the ancient world, land meant everything and territories were held or taken though wars.
Walking along the glassed-in walls that surround the relics, I wondered how they came to be in Houli village near Linzi in Shandong province. In ancient times, Linzi was the capital of Qi, a state of the Zhou dynasty founded around 1046 BC. About 30 km from the modern city of Zibo, it is surrounded by more than 100 burial mounds.
China's most powerful state during the Spring and Autumn of the Warring States, Qi was known as "the state of 1,000 chariots."
As in many ancient cultures, the death of a royal or nobleman was often accompanied by the sacrifice of horses, which were considered his most valuable possessions.
Across ancient China, horses or chariots were placed with or near a body, to maintain the person's status after death and to bear him on his last journey into the land of the immortals. This burial pit, however, was the first unearthed with both chariots and horses.
The State Bureau of Cultural Relics included it in the "top 10 archeological findings in China in 1990."
Pottery horses were later buried with leaders, instead of sacrificing live ones.
Those found beside the Jinan-Qingdao Expressway were from a herd of 600 buried under 20 mounds near the tomb of Duke Jing of Qi, the 25th monarch of his dynasty, who reigned from 547 to 490 BC. He was buried on the bank of the nearby Zi River, but graverobbers stole most of the artifacts and his remains became dust long ago.
The 8,000 Terra Cotta soldiers, 130 chariots and 520 skeletal horses discovered in 1974 in Lintong District, Xi'an, Shaanxi province, are well-known relics outside of China. In 2010, Royal Ontario Museum visitors got to see some of the silent, lifesize stone sculptures on their first Canadian visit.
The remains located here 20 years earlier predate the Terra Cotta Army by 300 years.
Believed to have been anesthetized, 32 horses lie in a 32-by-5-metre-long pit with 10 chariots, six in an adjacent 8-by-3-metre pit, beside three chariots.
Displays in the aptly-named Museum of Chinese Ancient Chariots, which was built to protect the mummified remains, tell the story of chariot-making and styles in ancient China.
There are also examples of renovated chariots -- one surrounded by brightly-coloured canopies and pulled by an elephant, another by a camel -- plus wooden wheels, and a cannon. Some were also decorated with elegant fittings of gilt bronze, plus gold and silver inlay.
Interpreters and pamphlets explain the construction and importance of chariots and horses in wars, transportation, production, plus the role of decorated carts in demonstrating the occupant's status. The development of cavalry about 2,400 years ago reduced the importance of war chariots, but they were kept as a way of showing a person's rank and wealth.
One Linzi poet wrote that the streets were "so choked with chariots that the hubcaps struck against one another."
With a combination of relics, ruins and other displays, the museum is regarded as the first and the most complete facility of its kind in China.
Its Ji Xia Amusement Park has several exhibition halls, including one devoted to folk-customs, another to local birds. There is also an archery field, a botanical garden, a Bonsai garden and a small racetrack.
Despite the various attractions, I broke away from our brief tour to spend more time in quiet reflection, drawn to the remains of the horses. Despite having died more than 2,000 years ago, they demonstrate how the ancients -- including their animals -- still have something to tell us, if we look and listen.
IF YOU GO TO CHINA
Cathay Pacific offers nonstop service to Hong Kong from either Toronto or Vancouver. From Hong Kong, Cathay Pacific's sister airline, Dragonair, flies daily between Hong Kong and Qingdao International Airport in China -- from there, it's just a short journey by road to Shandong province. Dragonair also flies to more than 20 destinations throughout China and provides excellent service, having recently voted "Best Airline -- China" by Skytrax. For more information, visit cathaypacific.com/ca and dragonair.com. Zibo is the closest city to Linzi. Take bus 73 from the central city of Zibo to the museum.
You can also see Qin clay figures in Linzi Museum of Ancient Chariots in the Linzi District of Zibo City.
NEED TO KNOW
For details on travel in China, visit tourismchina.org or call the China National Tourist Board at 416-599-6636. Canadian travellers need a visa, which can be arranged through the Chinese Embasssy in Ottawa or consulates in Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver. See ca.china-embassy.org/eng/.