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Walking among China's ancient warriors

By Peter Alexander, NBC News Correspondent

XIAN, China – We walked right into the Terracotta Army exhibit, standing side-by-side with 2,000-year-old relics. Imagine visiting the Constitution and being invited inside the glass.

We filmed, uninterrupted, for three hours. For my on-camera element, what we call the "stand-up," I was given permission to walk among the warriors. The security guard begged, "Very be careful!"

The tour was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. But, the road to get there was a study in Chinese bureaucracy. Here's how it happened:

Image: Qin Shi Huang's mausoleum
Thousands of terra-cotta warriors watch over Qin Shi Huang's mausoleum, in Xian, China.

First try
It sounded like an unforgettable Friday. First-class tickets to Xian, home of the Terracotta Army. One of NBC's best cameramen as our crew.

The exhibit is made up of roughly 8,000 figures, dating back to 210 B.C., that make up what's essentially a clay army. The warriors are considered one of the most significant archeological finds of the 20th century. A family of farmers accidentally unearthed them in 1974, while digging a well, searching for water.

But, after a 5:15 a.m. wake-up, a 30-minute airport shuttle ride, a two-hour flight to Xian, and a one-hour private van to the museum, we hit a roadblock. Her name was Madame Zhou.

Madame Zhou is Assistant to the Section Chief of the Xian Province Relics Bureau (try fitting that on your business card). She was also our government "advocate" – meaning her job was to facilitate NBC News' access to shoot the warriors. On day one, we got access to the museum alright (indeed, the statues are very cool,) but just never got to shoot a frame of video for broadcast.

Not so fast
For nearly five hours, we waited – our gear stacked in the van – as museum and provincial government officials tried to sort out our permits. They shuttled us from one smoke-filled, unventilated room to the next, serving us refreshing glasses of water exclusively available in two temperatures: hot and steaming.

Despite the assurances we received from Madame Zhou while still in Beijing ("Everything is taken care of," and "I guarantee you will be satisfied"), we left empty-handed. An NBC first for all of us.

The museum folks blamed the local government and the local government folks blamed the museum for not completing the application process properly. I even hand-carried the pre-set filming fee all in cash. It didn't matter. Money wasn't the issue. Whatever the problem was, even though it was Friday, apparently, it couldn't be corrected until Monday. Welcome to China's bureaucracy. Here, when it comes to reporting, nothing comes easily.

We decided to overnight in Xian's Old City at the trendy Sofitel Hotel and try our luck the next day.

(Which leads to a question: When presented with a free Friday night in central China, where would you dine? At a Japanese seafood restaurant named Koi? (Remember the closest ocean is better than 500 miles away.) Azur, Mediterranean. (Even further.) Or Le Chinois - Chinese food – or just food, as it's called here. We went with the Mediterranean, of course. If you're ever in Xian, I recommend the Fusilli Arabiatta. Just terrific.)

Wall lifted
The next morning, if only to snap a few photos for ourselves and give it one last try, we returned to the warrior museum. Again we were assured money was not the issue. (In fact, we learned the Chinese government had ordered all filming fees be waived during the build-up to the Olympic Games.) Our permits had been issued properly. Apparently all the museum wanted was an apology from Madame Zhou. The Relics Bureau, it seemed, hadn't gone through the proper channels before our visit.

But Madame Zhou was MIA.

With our infamous madame out of the picture, the grey cloud seemingly began to lift. At the museum's gates, we were met with open arms.

A three-man greeting party was awaiting our arrival. Our translator, Joy, hopped out first. Then, after a short conversation, she turned back to the van, smiling and waved us in.

Image: Terra Cotta Warriors
Mark Avery / AP

A terracotta statue, on loan from China, is seen at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, Calif., on May 6.

The museum is divided into three sections – Pit 1, Pit 2 and Pit 3 -- named in order of when they were discovered and excavated. Our van was directed straight to the outside of Pit 1 – the largest pit that's filled with columns of soldiers followed by chariots.

Inside, when cameraman Ray Farmer began setting up to shoot from the general admission area alongside the mass of tourists, our escorts looked at one another, confused. Then, they lifted a red rope, "This way, please!"

The statues are life-like and life-sized. Actually, they're larger than life. During the Qin Dynasty, the average man was 5 feet, 4 inches tall. The clay warriors stand closer to 6 feet. Historians believe Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China who commissioned the statues as part of his mausoleum, surrounded himself with the biggest, strongest men in the land. There are over 8,000 terra cotta soldiers in total – as well as chariots and horses. No two alike.

Rounding out our shoot, we interviewed the museum's top tour guide, named Tiger. (He was born in the Year of the Tiger.) He was the perfect interview, punctuating every soundbite was a smile and a boyish laugh.

On the way back to Beijing, our cameraman Ray Farmer summed it up best: "Today made my entire trip to China a success."

The Chinese bureaucracy can be complicated and confusing, but by the end of our Xian trip, it was clear, our hosts saw value in letting us share their relics with the American audience.

Madame Zhou, you were right. We were satisfied. Satisfied, indeed.

Watch Peter Alexander's report on the Terracotta Army exhibit on the Today Show later this week.