Friday, December 30, 2005

Ancient Xian

So after an ok sleep and a rather rude awakening, (conductor threw open our door, flicked on the light switch and yelled something in Chinese before moving on to the next compartment) I said my goodbyes to my bunkmate and hopped off the train. When I exited the train station, the first thing that came to mind was "Wow, foggy" and that turned out to be true throughout the day. After the initial look around the group of people holding name cards, I spotted mine and headed off to introduce myself to Bryan, my guide for the day and our driver, "nameless chinese-only speaker in black leather coat driving black VM Santanna". It's quite nice to finally be one of those people important enough to have someone holding your name when you arrive in a city.

So the day's itinerary included breakfast, a visit to the Xian City Walls,The Terracotta Army and lunch before heading back for the train back to Beijing. Breakfast was ok, kind of Western style (if you exclude the spaghetti) with passable coffee at a nice hotel near the center of town. The most interesting part of it was that the urinals in the men's room all had ash trays on them, guess them Chinese folk REALLLLLY like to smoke. After breakfast, we headed back to the car for the short ride to the City walls.

Xian is one of the most ancient of ancient cities. For a period spanning over 2000 years, over a dozen Chinese dynasties rose and fell in and around Xian. The city was the starting point for the famed "Silk Road" to the Middle-East and to this day over 100,000 Muslim-Chinese people live here. To put things in perspective, 200 years before Rome was founded, and 500 years before Buddhism started, Xian was already a classic world city. The population today is somewhere around the 7 million mark, and it is still an important city in China, not only as one of the premiere tourist attractions due to the proximity of the Terracotta Army. The city served as capital for many dynasties and as such was protected by huge city walls which have recently been restored\rebuilt. We entered the wall from the South Gate, and headed east towards the East Gate. This is the main guardhouse near the South Gate.

If the emperors at the time knew barbarians such as I would be hopping around on their wall a few thousand years later, I wonder if they still would have built it?

While the fog didn't do much to help with lighting for these pics, it did lend an eerie feeling to the whole walking of the wall thing with towers disappearing in the distance as you can see here. The wall is 12 meters wide at the top, wider at the bottom and is interspersed with archery towers. Since the arrows at the time only had a relatively short range, the towers are built every 100 meters or so to ensure adequate coverage. This later became unnecessary with the advent of firearms but the wall was still used as a defensive measure during relatively recent conflicts when it was mounted with canons for defense.

I don't quite recall the whole story behind this lovely tower, but it was built to honour the bureaucrat in charge of literature for the city, I think.

This is the tower which guards the southeast corner of the city. It is offset from the wall and provides lines of sight to both approaches as well as the distant hills and was used to track enemy troop movement.

Of course there is modern (kind of) life still going on inside the city walls. Here is an open air market where local residents are buying fruits, vegetables and other goods. Most of these traditional neighbourhoods are being razed and replaced with "modern, but looking like traditional" housing, all along the walls.

Having reached the East Gate where our car was waiting, we headed out of town to see the Terracotta Army. This along with the Great Wall, was definitely a highlight of my trip to China.

Here's a quick rundown of the history of these bad boys. Over 2 thousand years ago, Qin Shi Huang led a military campaign to unite China, which until then had been in the throes of constant infighting between the many warlords controlling their respective regions. In 221 B.C., having finally conquered all his enemies, he established the Qin dynasty and named himself the first emperor. He immediately started construction of a huge Tomb Complex through which he could be honoured after his death for having brought peace to China. As part of this massive project, covering over 56 square kilometers, he ordered a massive army to be built to ensure his continued supremacy into the afterlife. The first emperor of the Qin Dynasty was not a popular one, leading by force, purging huge amounts of people and using forced labour in huge construction projects. And so it was that after his death in 210 B.C., his son and successor was overthrown and the Huan dynasty was eventually established. As was customary at the time, any and all symbol of the former regime was to be annihilated and so Qin's tomb (including the Terracotta Warriors) was attacked, sacked and destroyed. And so it was that for over 2000 years, the army lay underground with no one the wiser. In 1974, some peasants digging a well stumbled upon what some say is THE most important archaeological find of the 20th century. The Chinese government immediately ordered a massive archaeological dig, and initially found over 6000 soldiers in what is now called pit number 1. They've undertaken an extensive restoration project and are slowly piecing the soldiers back together and arranged them as they once were. As you can see, it must have been one hell of a puzzle to put these guys back together after they were so thoroughly destroyed by the marauders.

In pit number one, you can see a classic battle formation with three lines of archers, crossbowmen and spearmen (long distance fighters) supported by columns of cavalry and infantrymen. There are many types of statues, each with a distinct and unique face and with a posture according to his purpose. Each soldier had been outfitted with actual weapons, most of which were stolen during the attack.

Of the 8000 and some odd soldiers unearthed so far in 3 different excavations, only one, this kneeling archer was found completely intact. The reason it was missed was likely due to it's kneeling posture, it was probably covered in debris during the attack and luckily was not damaged. You can still see the colour on the back of his neck and the intricate detail of his hair... amazing!

This was quite the experience, to be in the presence of such pieces of art which are over 2000 years old was astounding, again too much to put into words. Following this trip out of town, we headed back in. Since it was only 2PM, my guide suggested he could take me around Xian a bit since we had about 5 hours to kill before my train left. The driver unfortunately put the kibosh on us getting around by car saying his job was over when he got me back to the train station, he promptly lost his tip at this point. Bryan then suggested he could take me from the train station by bus and still tour the city, since he had to stay with me until my train left anyway. So that's what we did, hopping on an old Double-Decker bus where I got some really strange stares from everybody. Price was good though, only 1Yuan (about 16 cents) and we got to the Muslim Quarter. As I mentioned before, Xian has a substantial Muslim population, stemming from the existence of the Silk Road which served as a trading route to and from the Middle-East. The area is covered in small stalls selling everything from arts and crafts to food and watches with Chairman Mao waving at you. The atmosphere was definitely different than that in the rest of the city, much quieter and the salespeople not at all pushy.

At the top of the "sights of the Muslim quarter" is the Great Mosque, the largest mosque in China. It is still an active holy site and holds prayer sessions several times a day. The architecture is of course traditionally Chinese, and most of the grounds serve as parks, must be really nice in the spring.

The carvings were just amazing.

This is a gate leading to the main prayer hall, which can hold over 1000 worshipers. Notable guest to this mosque include Pakistani president Musharaff and Boxing legend Mohamed Ali.

The walk through the Muslim Quarter led us to the Drum Tower, which you can see here shrouded in mist.

Near the drum tower, Bryan pointed out this building which is the largest Chinese dumpling restaurant in all of China, with four floors serving only dumplings. This building is of note since Utsunomiya as we all know is "famous" for it's Gyoza, a Japanized form of Chinese dumpling. Unfortunately, it was quite busy and I didn't feel like waiting so I didn't get to try the real thing.

This building is the Bell Tower, which is now located right next to a major shopping center, interesting contrast, too bad it's so misty.

Heading out from the Bell Tower to another shopping\market area, we went through these undergrounds tunnels which serve as a market\shopping area. (See a main theme here?)

This is the shopping area we were heading for, which is filled mostly with calligraphy supply stores (popular with the Japanese tourists) and galleries as well as jade shops... all way above my price range for this trip.

Finally we headed into the Forest of Stone Steles Museum, where Bryan's eyes lit up and he started spouting off more historical facts than he had all day, I guess this must be one of his passions. This museum sits on the site of what was once a Temple and it now contains hundreds of priceless stone carvings as well as the heaviest collection of books in the world. It was originally used as a library of sorts when Xian was used as capital and it developed quite an extensive collections. Among the more notable stone tablets was a series written by some isciples of the great philosopher Confucius recording conversations they'd had with him... Confucius himself! Another tablet of note records the arrival of Christianity to China when the first Nestorian church opened in the year 781. There is also a large stone tablet outside one of the buildings which was actually carved by one of the Tang (I think) Emperors. Most of the stones (The ones older than 600 years, newer ones don't deserve protecting, lol) were covered in glass and so I didn't bother with pictures.

These stone sculptures were originally tied to the front of rich people's houses and guests could tie off their horse\ox\mule\etc. to them... quite interesting. So that was pretty much the day, Bryan was great and I gave him a good tip (100Yuan, equivalent to 100 bus rides, 10 KFC combos, 30 bottles of coke or a number of meals) and he seemed quite happy. I didn't mind forking out the cash, though tipping is not the norm in China, since he showed me so much more than the 2 items our itinerary had us covering for the day. he could have had me sit at the train station for 5 hours instead! So I hopped back on the train along with about 60 other foreigners belonging to a few tour groups, and again had an on-and-off night of sleeping. Xian was interesting, is was nice to get around by bus here for the first time. One thing I did notice throughout the day, since we were in what is considered a much less cosmopolitan city than Beijing, is that it was difficult for me to hide my relative wealth. I wasn't wearing any jewelry, but damn was I still a marked contrast to the people around me. For the first time, I was approached by women dragging dirty kids behind them begging for money, horribly disfigured people sitting on the cold pavement and hoardes of migrant workers carrying their shovels on their backs looking for a job for the day. Quite the contrast to the "New" China which I've seen emerging all around me. The gap between rich and poor is definately growing here, though people tell me the government is trying to deal with the problem. If it weren't for the constant military presence, you'd forget you were in a communist country here... I doubt the USSR had a Ferrari dealership within walking distance from the Kremlin... quite an interesting trip.

Was picked up from the train (not the station, she actually came onto the train and to my compartment) by Joy today for the ride back to my hotel. I told them I wanted to go elsewhere instead and I was dropped off near the Temple of Heaven and we released the driver. She had some time so we had breakfast together and I helped her with some English while I waited for the Pearl Market to open. She's quite nice, has great big dreams which I hope she realizes. She then took me into the market and did some haggling for me in Chinese, though she said I was doing fine on my own. We parted ways and traded email addresses and I went off and got myself some dress shoes and then turned in to the hotel for a much needed shower and change of clothes. I had planned on heading back out for some shopping this afternoon, but this whole blogging thing has taken me a while. I don't mind though, it helps to remind me of the million things I've done in the past 5 days! My stuff is now strewn throughout my room as well, so I may sort that out instead of shopping and will head out to the Chaoyang Embassy area for a nice dinner, it's not too far. Tomorrow is another busy day with the Forbidden City in the morning and The Llama Temple in the afternoon. Sunday I'll keep pretty mellow since it's a national holiday here and all, lots of people will probably be out and about, not sure what I'll do... and then I fly out on Monday morning and arrive into the arms of my lovely lady sometime around 5PM.

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Blogger indscribe said...

Very interesting story.
Adnan, India

11:46 AM  

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