Monday, February 13, 2012

A Wealth of Antiquity in Xi'an

[Note:  Sorry it is taking us so long to write about our trip to China.  It's now mid-February, and we're busy with whatever it is that keeps retired people so busy -- to the amazement of non-retired people.  Our blog continues with our visit to Xi'an in late October 2011]

One wonders what Xi'an would be like today if seven farmers had not gone out into a field twenty or thirty miles east of Xi'an to dig a well in the Spring of 1974.  They accidentally discovered some pieces of terracotta that were recognized by a local historian as of potential historical value.  Potential, indeed!  The so-called Terracotta Warriors are now one of the world's most amazing archeological finds, and have made Xi'an the second-most-visited city in China!

It's not been so grand for the farmers.  A British paper wrote this sad story about their fate a few years ago:  Indeed, we did see one of the farmer/discoverers when we visited the site, waiting to sign a copy of a book about the place for a few yuan extra.  For still more yuan you received permission to have your picture taken with him.  What a strange way to spend your retirement years.

Of course we came to Xi'an to see the Terracotta Warriors, but we found quite a bit more.  We arrived on an overnight sleeper train, somewhat sleep-deprived.  Louise had taken an Ambien sleeping pill, but it only works for so long, and while it does put her to sleep, it's rarely a quality sleep.  Jeff stayed awake past midnight listening to music on his iPod while one of our two sleeping compartment companions trained for a snoring convention where we think he'll get a gold medal, and the other stayed up reading.  Since the train was on time to arrive at 6:45 a.m., the sleeping car attendant woke us up at 5:45 to be sure we'd be ready.  Gee, thanks!

Luckily our hotel had a room available when we arrived early, and we had a terrific breakfast buffet for about $8 each. Many hotels in China have these, almost always offering western items like scrambled or fried eggs, Chinese dishes such as potstickers and stir fries, and lots of fresh fruit.  But few were as reasonable in price or as outstanding for selection and quality as this one.  By the way, the photo shows only half of the food offerings!   

We had a low-key first day in Xi'an, with the morning spent doing more planning for the coming two weeks, then a seven mile walk through the city.  In America many Chinatowns have a gate signaling the entrance.  In Xi'an there was a gate marking the entrance to the Muslim Quarter, which is actually quite sizable here.  We walked past numerous stores open to the sidewalk where food was being sold and sometimes even made, such as at this noodle factory, and picked up a half kilo of the most scrumptious sesame candies that were being made a few meters away.

At last we came to the center of the city, the Bell Tower.  It's ten stories tall and was built in 1384.  For a modest fee we were able to climb the steep steps to the top and look out.  We took lots of photos because we were curious to compare them when we got back to Seattle with photos Louise took in 1979 when she visited China and climbed this same tower.  Louise travelled with a group of women from the American Club in Tokyo, one of the very first western groups to tour China after it was "opened" to the west in the late '70s.  Well, we're back in Seattle now as we write this, and we can show you the comparison in two different views.  In the first one, the nearby and smaller Drum Tower is a landmark in both shots, and one of the only constants in these pictures taken only 32 years apart.

Here is the comparison looking towards what is now the South Gate:

Quite the change!  Even the South Gate is missing!  In case you're wondering, here's Louise earlier on that trip, in Guangzhou, and we'll leave it to you to decide how much she's changed in those same 32 years . . .

As we were about to leave the Bell Tower we heard . . . bells!  But not the large bells once used to announce the time or approaching armies.  There was a short concert being given in the hall high above the city, complete with five performers on a variety of instruments, if you want to consider that wall of hand bells one instrument.  We heard three pieces, the first two obviously Chinese, the last one Auld Lang Syne!

On the way back we decided to pop into a Pizza Hut for a Mango Smoothie and one of their Italian Sausage, Grilled Chicken and Shrimp Ball Pizzas.  Yup, those pockets in the crust alternated between chunks of melted mozzarella cheese and fried shrimp balls just like you find in a dim sum cafe.  Quite the treat, actually!

Our next day was our one guided tour of the trip.  A minibus picked us up at our hotel at 8:50 and then 7 other passengers at 2 other hotels.  Ironically, for this English language tour we were the only people out of 9 passengers and 2 staff (driver and guide) for whom English was a native language, as our fellow guests were from Denmark, Germany and Mexico!  Here are a few of them at our lunch stop, and in the second photo you can see "Sophie," our Chinese guide.  Her English was impeccable and her humor amusing, as when she told us that she, like most folks in Xi'an, got to work by BMW -- by taking a Bus to the Metro and then Walking.

Our first stop was the Banpo Matriarchal Village, an excavation site for a neolithic village that flourished about 6,000 years ago. The diorama helps understand the actual excavation site. One of the interesting things the villagers did was bury you face up and with pottery if you were respected, face down with no afterlife accoutrements if you weren't. One of the skeletons -- face up, thank you -- had quite the grin and a pretty respectable set of teeth.

Next was the obligatory stop at a terracotta warrior "factory" where we were supposed to do our part to sustain the Chinese kitsch industry.  Our saleslady/"guide" was enthusiastic and informative about how authentic-looking their terracotta warriors were, but we just didn't think we needed one in our condo.

At last it was time for the main event.  It's pretty impressive!

In 221 BC, Emperor Qin (pronounced "chin") unified China for the first time.  His dynasty barely outlived him -- he died in 210 BC, and the dynasty fell in 206 BC -- but his name lives on as the origin of our name for his country, "China."  The Terracotta Army was created at his command over many years, and it numbers around 7-8,000 soldiers, over 600 horses, over 100 chariots.  Or so they think -- not all of it has been excavated yet.  In the photo above, much of the left side and almost all of the rear sections await digging, and there are two other pits, though much smaller, with yet more treasures.

When Louise came here in January 1979, the building was not even completed and the only statues you could see were those in the corner nearest the camera in this next shot.  The second and third shots give you some idea of how hard it has been to reconstruct all this -- not a single statue has been found unbroken!

As you've no doubt heard, another amazing thing about all this is that every statue is different!  The bodies are basically alike, though in several different configurations depending on the role (archer [on the left], footsoldier, charioteer) and status (common soldier, lower officer, high-ranking officer).  But the faces . . . !

We had plenty of time to see each of the three pits -- here's a shot of what appears to be a conference of generals in Pit #3 -- and the museum and gift shop, of course.  We caught one group posing as if they were in the midst of the pits, something that just isn't done, but you can pretend, yes?

When we returned to Xi'an we were dropped off at the South Gate.  For about $6 each we were able to walk by a little demonstration of ancient martial arts and to climb up onto the walls of the city of Xi'an, and for another $6 we rented clunker bicycles.  WOW!  We had a blast circling the city, 40 or 50 feet above street level.

Amazingly, these massive walls around the center of the city were almost gone when Louise visited in 1979.  To the left is a photo she took of what was left in one area.  Down below is a model showing the relationship between what was left of the walls and what they look like now.  Unlike Pingyao's walls, which are indeed authentic, these are almost entirely reconstructed!  It took an hour and a half to do the 8.5 mile circuit.  Pretty unimpressive, but we stopped a few times to take photos and also struggled with our clunky bikes and with the bumpy surface of the wall.  But half an hour after sunset, as it was almost too dark to ride, we completed our circuit by passing these colorful watchtowers.

We spent the next two days and one night on a side trip to Luoyang which we'll describe in our next blog entry.  Our luggage stayed in Xi'an, and we returned for one more night there plus an almost full day of sightseeing before boarding our second and final overnight train for Chongqing at 8:15 pm.

Given the night train, we kept our sightseeing goals modest for the last day and focused on the Xi'an History Museum.  Our guidebook said it was one of the best in China, and we were not disappointed.  We took the subway to get there, probably the newest subway line in the world as it had opened for public use only one month earlier, in September 2011.  In another year or so Xi'an's second subway line will open and there will be a subway station right outside our hotel, but for now it's a 1 km walk. 

Along that walk was an elementary school, and they were having an 85th birthday celebration for the school.  We joined dozens of other rubberneckers on the sidewalk and from the steps of a pedestrian bridge close by.  One of the speakers was from a private middle school nearby.  He talked in English, with no translator, about a partnership of some years standing between his school and theirs, then told the students that his school was starting "American-style" English classes next year, and that a certain number of students from those classes would get scholarships to take a short trip to the U.S.  Obviously many of the students understood him, because there was an immediate shout of excitement.

As we said, the museum was terrific.  Here are a few of the older treasures: 5-7,000 year-old hairpins; a 4-5,000 year-old wine jug; bronze water vessels each about 2,000 years old; and two examples of a type of self-righting jug for getting water out of a well or a stream, a style found throughout ancient Chinese culture.

The newer treasures were equally entrancing.  Here are just a few.  We'll start by showing you on the right a Tang dynasty (618-907 A.D.) camel we saw in the Gifford Pinchot historic home in Pennsylvania the previous year, and then a Tang dynasty camel at the museum.  Not sure which we prefer!  We also have a Tang dynasty dancer and then two figurines of women.

The masterpiece of the museum must certainly be this collection of 300 funerary figures created for a Ming emperor about 500 years ago.  Each one is about 6" high, and has his role written in ink at the base of his pedestal.  Some of the figures used to carry wooden staffs, but those have long since crumbled away.  Luckily the statues themselves survived.

We'll leave Xi'an with a splash.  From the museum we walked a short ways over to the Big Wild Goose Pagoda, not to see the pagoda but rather to visit North Square, a new park just north of it.  As it turned out, it has the largest musical fountain in Asia, and we watched in awe as water squirted and swayed to music played throughout the park on loudspeakers, a few Chinese tunes but also the William Tell Overture and the overture from Carmen.   As you can see, it was a crowd-pleaser.

In our next blog we'll tell you about a valley outside Luoyang filled with over a thousand Buddhist statues carved into the hillsides, and about our journey there, the best train trip of our visit to China.