Xi'an and the terracotta army

Sunday, March 14, 2010

The overnight train we took from Beijing to Xi’an was certainly better than the Egyptian variety, but I have to say that “Hard Sleeper” class lives up to its name. The mattresses are, well, let’s just say that to call them mattresses in the first place is charitable. I did manage to sleep, but woke with an aching back feeling a bit grumpy and out-of-sorts. To be honest, my grumpy and out-of-sorts moments have been growing more frequent the longer I travel, and I worry that at some point they’ll simply blur together and become my default state.

Hard Sleeper class, from Beijing to Xi’an (Pronounced “Shee-Ann”)

Xi’an literally means “Western Peace”, (xi means west; an means peace), and the city was once one of the six ancient capitals of China. It was also the start of the Silk Road to central Asia and Europe, so it was a major trading centre. During the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD) it was the largest city in the world, but it declined along with the Tangs and didn’t flourish again until the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 AD), when the impressive city walls were rebuilt. Those Mings were fiends for wall-building – though it was our friend Qin Shi Huang who started the wall, and whose exploits we will revisit later in the post – it was the Ming Dynasty who refurbished and refaced the wall into the form we know today.

The city walls of Xi’an form a neat rectangle with a perimeter of about 14 km, so naturally I thought it would be a great venue for running. Then I reconsidered because the longest run I’ve had since the marathon has been about 9.8 km. Instead I set out with David, Claire and Tony and we rented rickety bikes to make the circuit of the walls. We were lucky enough to be there just after Chinese New Year’s, and a long section of the south wall was taken up with a display of silk lanterns. And I’m not talking about mingy little table-top / patio lantern kinds of things. These were more like parade floats – huge constructions made out of brightly coloured fabric in an array of themes. We passed by Chinese characters, trees and flowers, Russian dolls, Egyptian sphinxes and pyramids, the Sydney Opera House, totem poles, African animals, and giant pandas.

Me and the maple trees

The walls themselves were impressively wide and well-maintained, but the surface was pretty rough, and the bikes were not exactly off-road monsters, so the circuit was a bit rough. Or perhaps I was just feeling my age and general lack of fitness in trying to keep up with the young kids. Either way, it was more of a workout than I expected, and came on top of a session of Natalie’s Killer Hotel Room Workout (first one since Uganda), and the Great Wall walk the day before. Still, we had the chance to peer over the wall into a park that was filled with locals doing all kinds of local things. There was a man playing the Chinese violin with two women performing what I could only assume was excerpts from Chinese opera. And there were knots of old men playing some kind of Chinese card game type thing, though of course Chinese playing cards are very different. Despite that difference, it looked like every other knot of old men I’ve seen gathered in every public square anywhere I’ve been – playing cards, backgammon, dominoes… whatever.

The cards are long and skinny and seem like a cross between playing cards and dominoes

Impressive city walls aside, our real reason for being in Xi’an was to see the famous Terracotta Warriors, east of the city. This is not just a blockbuster site for China, but a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the most famous archeological finds in the world. (I really should figure out how many of those UNESCO sites I’ve been to on this trip…) The site was discovered in 1974 by three local farmers who were drilling a well and pulled up, instead of another bucket of dirt, the life-sized clay head of an ancient warrior. It turned out they’d drilled their well on top of an enormous underground vault that eventually yielded thousands of the now-famous terracotta statues of warriors.

As area of the underground vault. The little white sign on the left indicates the site of the original well.

And here we come back to our friend Qin Shi Huang, because the warriors are actually part of his tomb complex, which covers more than 56 square kilometers and is therefore the largest in the world. Astute GSRED readers will remember that Qin Shi Huang was the emperor who first unified China, and who strung together the Great Wall. His accomplishments are even more impressive than that – he ruled for only 36 years, but in that time he created an efficient centralized government, standardized the systems of measurement, currency and writing, and built more than 6,400 km of new roads (Thanks, LP!). Unfortunately, he managed all these by being a total nutter, enslaving hundreds of thousands and killing about ten percent of the total population of the country at the time (that’s about one million dead). Further evidence of his somewhat unstable nature is his tomb complex – estimates are that more than 7,000 warriors in 60 different vaults guard the Emperor’s final resting place. It took 700,000 workers 39 years to build the whole thing. And x-rays and ultra-sound readings indicate that the actual tomb is surrounded by a river of mercury. Clearly our man was not playing with a full set of mahjong tiles.

In an ironic but entirely appropriate turn of fate, the vaults of warriors were broken into by local farmers only two years after the emperor died. Angry with the brutal methods of the emperor, they burned the wooden roof beams and smashed thousands of the terracotta statues. To date only one intact figure has been recovered, that of a kneeling archer. The figure is unique, and so famous that an American collector reportedly offered $100,000,000 U.S. dollars to buy it; his offer was refused by the Chinese government (and rightly so).

The famous kneeling archer

The statues really are impressive, not just because there are so many of them, but because the face of each individual is different. (Just like snowflakes. Awwwww….) The hair styles are different, the armour is different, the facial hair, the expression – it really is amazing. Each statue sits on a square base that bears the name of the maker and the name of the solider on whom it was modeled. It’s nice that they credit the artist, but our guide told us that being able to identify the maker was also to facilitate a system of punishment. If a statue’s hand came off due to shoddy workmanship, they would cut off the maker’s hand. And if a statue’s head came off… well let’s just say that there would be one fewer statue-builder in line for his bowl of noodles that night.

A close-up look at one of the faces

Large sections of the vaults have not been uncovered yet – they’re deliberately being preserved. This is because though we’re used to seeing the terracotta warriors as plain monochromatic brown figures, they were originally painted in bright colours. The Chinese are now working with German scientists to develop technology to preserve the colours of the statues once they’re exposed to air. Until that time, the untouched areas will remain covered.

There are three “pits” open to the public, the most impressive of which is certainly Pit #1, which we saved for last. It’s also still actively being excavated, so while we could see the ranks of restored figures in the front of the building, we also got to see the work in progress. It must be painstaking. You can see a lot of parts of the different pits where the broken statues have been uncovered, but no restoration work has been done yet. They’re just a jumble of arms and legs and bodies and heads. It’s like the world’s biggest jigsaw puzzle. I can’t imagine how long it will take to put everything back together.

That’s job security…

The results of all that work are undeniably impressive.

Here’s a look at the best restored part of Pit #1.

The trip to the Terracotta warriors was good – and I’m glad the tour included it. Not visiting the site would have been like going to India and not seeing the Taj Mahal. Our trip out to the site involved a local city bus, and an intercity bus that took over an hour each way. By the time we got back into Xi’an in the late afternoon I was ready for a nap. Instead, I headed out to the local supermarket to stock up for the next overnight train trip. China is the most challenging food destination of the trip so far by a long, long, long margin. I could probably do a Steve’s Weird Food post every day I’m here and still have plenty left over by the time I reach Hong Kong. Going to the supermarket is just bizarre. There are whole aisles of stuff that’s completely alien. I can’t even identify what category of food it might be, or if it’s food at all. Then there’s the stuff that’s familiar, but done with a Chinese twist.

Yes, those are Lay’s potato chips. Kiwi flavour and blueberry flavour. I didn’t bother taking a picture of the corn flavoured candy.

Then there’s the stuff that’s identifiable, but you really wish it wasn’t. Take Tony’s favourite snack – chicken feet. These come vaccuum packed in plastic and the packages hang out like beef jerky, unrefrigerated. And they look like, well, like chicken feet. I actually tried to sample one at lunch and I could barely manage to pick it up, let alone taste it. Sorry, Steve. I’ll give it a shot another time. They’re just so… feety. And there’s really no meat on them at all, you just eat the nasty, leathery skin. Skin is like a whole other food group in China. The famous Beijing duck (which I sampled, naturally, in Beijing) is really mostly about the crispy skin and the layer of fat underneath it. A nice piece of Beijing duck skin is like a mouthful of melty lard with a bit of crispiness. The duck meat itself is kind of secondary.

I am, however, getting reasonably adept with the chopsticks. We each got our own set of them at the start of the tour, in keeping with Intrepid’s enviro-friendly policies. We’re meant to bring them with us to meals to cut down on the number of disposable chopsticks we use, and I’ve actually remembered them every time so far! There are different levels of skill with chopsticks in our group, and I was surprised to learn from Huang that there’s no single way to hold them. Apparently everyone does it slightly differently, in whatever manner is comfortable for them. One of the Danish girls (Nanna! I know their names now!) uses a technique that involves gripping the bottom chopstick with her index finger and thumb and manipulating the top one between her middle and ring finger. It’s baffling to me how she manages to successfully convey food to her mouth in this fashion, but she hasn’t gone hungry yet. (Then again, the Danes did bring a load of Danish “sweets” with them that they may be surviving on. I tried one of them – a salted liquorice fish-shaped thing that tasted like DEATH. No, wait, it tasted like death that has been left out in the sun for a week and then and stomped on with sweaty feet.)

I did enjoy the trip to the supermarket, partly for its cultural value, but mostly, I admit, because it meant I got to buy a few familiar foods. I’ve had fruit and yogurt for breakfast for three days in a row now, and have had many cups of normal black tea. I even found single-serving tubes of Skippy peanut butter, which made me so happy I tweeted about them. They may not be environmentally friendly, but they’re convenient and sooooo good.

And that was Xi’an – walls, lanterns, sore legs, terracotta warriors, chicken feet and peanut butter. Now I'm on another overnight train - a 17 hour long crawl to the city of Chengdu in Sichuan province, home of spicy food and giant pandas, both of which I'll be sampling, though hopefully not in the form of spicy panda hotpot. Then again, that would be an excellent Weird Food...


Kathryn said...

The fruit flavoured chips didn't make it out of the early 80s here...guess they all got sent to China.
The pics of the Terracotta Warriors are so impressive - very jealous you got to go there. But even more jealous about upcoming panda viewing. At the San Diego Zoo you have to stand in line for ages to get into the enclosure and then you are whisked around so quikly you are lucky to get a glimpse - kind of like the Royal Jewels at the Tower of London! So, I expect lots of great Panda pics.
And remember my food advice....look out for Spicy Donkey Tail soup.

Global Granny said...

Good-NESS! That's quite a little tomb entourage! Unfortunately, I missed that legendary site on my own visit to China in the '90s. Just goes to show that many of these "Must Sees" are so named for very good reason.

Thanks for the history lesson along w/ more great pics. And yes, I too make a point of hitting local grocery stores wherever I travel - such an interesting potpourri of local flavors/packaging (indeed, I still have a green glass Coke bottle scripted in Chinese!)

Colleen said...

Pam: Enjoyed your description of the Forbidden City and Great Wall. My visits there were the opposite -- 37 degrees C and high humidity. Our moment of relief came in a shady courtyard with a small, old glass bottle of coke -- sugar and caffeine will re-hydrate you quickly! Great to see the picture of Xian -- it is a wonder. Enjoy! Colleen

Unknown said...

I am sooo glad you are back and keeping me educated! I see you are now in Chengdu.... which I believe is Winnipeg's sister city in China.

Anonymous said...

Glad you're back blogging Pam! Don't beat yourself up 'bout feeling grumpy....you're rising to a LOT of challenges every day and letting us live vicariously through your adventures. When you're no longer coping with weird foods, Hard Sleepers, etc., your normal resilient disposition will be there along with your native wit, which hasn't deserted you (or us). Gambatte!

Lisa said...

Awesome post! I've seen other pictures of the terra cotta army from other people I know who have been there...your descriptions are way more enlightening though..

I have to admit when I saw the packages of Lay's I thought "Yay Pam found CHIPS!" until I saw the flavours...uh..kiwi?

An finally, my laugh for the day was your description of the possible taste of chicken feet as being "feety"...too funny!!!

Unknown said...

Great post... the education and vicarious living continues, thanks!!

dallas criminal lawyer said...

Looks like a great adventure. Nice blog.

Anonymous said...

Hello Pam,

i would like to republish this article on my online Mag:


Is that o.k.?
Please contact me via email if that is fine: info@newdynasty.com.cn

greetings from Xi'an,

Unknown said...

ranks upon ranks terracotta army of souvenir stands, subpar and overpriced terracotta warriors snack joints manned by aggressive shills and wheedling vendors.

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