Still Standing Guard After 2,200 Years, China

Saturday, August 1, 2009

We are on our way to Xi’an via the overnight train.  Our last day in Beijing was good and bad – the camera shop was able to fix my camera to my great delight but Amy’s bad tooth developed into an abscess by the end of the day and Bing had to take her to the hospital.  They gave her some strong antibiotics and pain pills then sent her back to us in time to catch the 9:30 pm train. She’s not happy.

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The overnight train ride and the insanely busy Beijing train station are some of the best examples of everyday life in China. There must have been a million people in Beijing’s central train station. This is not any exaggeration.  Remember, this is China, with a population of 1.3 billion, most of whom live in bustling urban centers. I’m confident that my count of one million is accurate. Thank god Bing was in charge of us – handling the tickets and the direction of our movements. We were helpless.

We waited for the train in a “waiting room” for which 5 yuan is charged for the privilege.  It’s the VIP section of the Chinese train station.  Remember that 7 yuan = $1 and 50 pence for the Brits. We handed our money over with a smile!

The trains are laid out into 6-bed compartments with narrow bunks that open perpendicular to the sides of the train, 3 on each side open to the air (no doors, no curtains) with just enough room to raise your head to get out of bed and NO more. Six of our group stayed together while Amy, Steph and I bunked with three strangers.

Most Chinese are a good deal shorter than Westerners, so perhaps the lack of headroom in between bunks is not an issue for them – however, for me, it was an exercise in agility and patience just to get in and out of bed. I choose the middle bunk.  I felt that the top bunk would be claustrophobic and the bottom bunk would be too low to the ground.  I was wrong. The bottom bunk is best – note for future train trips.

Top left is Alice and top right is Katy
Bottom left is Sara and bottom right is Mandy

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All along the windows there are pull-down seats – these are for the poor slobs (like me) who selected anything other than the bottom bunk. There is no sitting on either the middle or top bunks. It’s a fight to get one though – you have to get your attitude on if you want one. As you can see, none of us got a seat. So, we’re standing or sharing space on the lower bunks. It’s going to be a long wait for bedtime.

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It didn’t take long to realize it was a smoking train as well…sigh. Could things get worst? Of course. Not long after the horrid realization that I would be sleeping inside an enclosed smoke filled steel tube, the temperature began to rise due to the number of people squished into a very small, tight space.  We tried to open a window but soon discovered that the straight as boards, not to be messed with, undoubtedly trained by the People’s Liberation Army, railroad officials locked our windows shut. Based on the impenetrable smog in Beijing, we joked this must be for health reasons due to hazardous outdoor air quality.  I don’t have any idea how we all survived airplane trips when smoking was allowed.

The lack of fresh air, cigarette smoke, hordes of humans and heat soon had the train ride feeling like some sort of Chinese torture chamber.  None of us slept much that night and we were up and more than ready to get off the train when we arrived in Xi’an at 8:30 am.  The trek to our hotel took some maneuvering – as I’ve said before – no one packed light – we’re all carrying or lugging 50 – 75 lbs.

After extricating ourselves from the station, we walked out into the sunshine, the heat and just a bit of humidity.  Bing told us that we would trek across the square to catch a public bus to our hotel – something none of us was excited about because there is never enough room for all of us plus our bags on public transport.  We nixed that suggestion and said we wanted taxis instead.

So we entered the taxi line, along with 50 or so Chinese who, if you’ll recall – don’t play nice in lines. They just kept moving around us – I can’t explain how this happens – but damn if they didn’t get around again. We were never going to get a taxi!!!

Thirty minutes of heat and aggravation go by when Bing yells out “Come with me – I call for a private bus”. There was a moment’s hesitation, because, by this time, we were actually close to the front of the line…to go or not to go. But we dutifully followed Bing.  Several excruciatingly hot minutes later, Bing stops and begins his now familiar circling pattern, something that he adopts when he’s confused. Bing is back on the phone with someone who is not giving him good news.  He turns to us and says “we go back to taxi stand”.  So I say again, it took some maneuvering to get to the hotel.  This would not be the last time we followed Bing through hell and back.  And whenever he knows that we’re a little frustrated with him…he smiles at us and says in his

So I say again, it took some maneuvering to get to the hotel.  This would not be the last time we followed Bing through hell and back.  And whenever he knows that we’re a little frustrated with him, he smiles at us and says in his sing-song English voice “nothing stop us now!” and he just marches off to wherever he’s decided we’re to go next and we follow.

We eventually arrived at the City Hotel Xi’an.  Steph, Amy and I are all alternating single rooms and because Amy was not feeling well she took the single room for this stint.  Of course, the rooms weren’t ready for us at 9:30 am so hot, sweaty, tired and a little cranky, we followed Bing out the door of the hotel and prepared to make the best of his short city orientation tour.

At 1:00 pm, after our 56th Chinese lunch, we were allowed into our rooms and we all headed for the showers immediately feeling more human for the experience!  Then we rented bikes and rode around the city wall.

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It’s a total distance of  8.7 miles and took us about 1 ½ hours to make the full trip.  It felt so good to be outside and active, especially after the night from hell AKA the overnight train.

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Bing went to University in Xi’an and has lived here for four years.  He’s got lots of favorite haunts. He took us to one of them for dinner and promised us a surprise for the next night!  Along the way, we passed outdoor grills being fired up outside of restaurants.

Scallops on the half shell and grilled eggplant

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Dinner was awesome! A sweet and sour fish that was delicious AND we had a new beer to try – pineapple beer. Too sweet for my taste but we all gave it a shot! Mixed with regular beer, it was drinkable.

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Men sitting at a table near us were smoking up a storm and spitting on the floor throughout their entire dinner – I’m pretty sure they don’t have a job classification for Health Inspector in China!  Between the smoking, the spitting, the toilets and the general personality of the Chinese people – the jury is out on a return visit.

The next day we set off with another guide, Coral, to see The Terracotta Warriors.  The names our guides tell us to call them are chosen by them.  When they are in high school – about 16 years old – they are told to choose an “English” name.  For the guides, these names come in very handy as we are unable to pronounce their Chinese names.  They choose them from movies, TV programs, books or just names that they’ve heard from other English people.

But back to the Terracotta Army, which is a form of funerary art that was buried with the first Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang in 210-209 BCE.  Their purpose was to help him rule another empire in the afterlife.

Qin Shi Huang was thirteen years old when construction on his mausoleum began in 246 BCE and required over 700,000 workers.

The site is huge. We had to take a tram to the first excavation site.

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Qin Shi Huang also built the Great Wall

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What surprised me most about the Terracotta Warriors was that the entire site was an on-going archeological dig area.

Back in the early 70’s three farmers, while digging for well-water, came across the first warrior, told officials about their find, and were given 30 yuan ($4) each for their troubles.  The site of the actual find is where you view the statues.  Two of the farmers have passed away, but the third one is now (finally) being compensated by the government and actually spends his days on site in the gift shop signing books.

We watched a movie about the story of the warriors – the who, what, when and where stuff.  The Emperor wanted his mausoleum to be the largest ever built and he wanted all of his warriors buried with him so they would travel to the afterlife with him.  A wise man with some common sense convinced the emperor to build the terracotta warriors in the “likeness” of each real warrior instead of burying all the real ones.  Yes, that was the plan. When the Emperor died, so would his warriors. Each terracotta warrior is different – unique and individual – just like each and every real warrior.  They say that no two are exactly alike.

Entering the first site

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The figures vary in height according to their role, the tallest being the generals.  The figures include warriors, chariots, horses, officials, acrobats, strongmen, and musicians.  Current estimates are that in the three pits containing the Terracotta Army, there were over 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots with 520 horses and 150 cavalry horses, the majority of which are still buried in the pits.

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Ranks of the Terracotta Infantrymen

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The terracotta figures were manufactured both in workshops by government laborers and also by local craftsmen. The head, arms, legs, and torsos were created separately and then assembled. Studies show that eight face molds were most likely used, and then clay was added to provide individual facial features. Once assembled, intricate features such as facial expressions were added. It is believed that their legs were made in much the same way that terracotta drainage pipes were manufactured at the time.

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This would make it an assembly line production, with specific parts manufactured and assembled after being fired, as opposed to crafting one solid piece of terracotta and subsequently firing it. Upon completion, the terracotta figures were placed in the pits in precise military formation according to rank and duty.

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The first excavation site is the largest, containing the most statues. They claim that this is the eighth wonder of the world and I’m certainly not going to argue that point.  It’s amazing what man – with his single-minded purpose – can achieve.  Also, I realized that this must be an archeologist dream dig! We spent about 4 hours on site – walking through several excavation sites – each containing more finds.

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The actual site of the army is pretty mind-boggling and it’s a little hard to get your mind around it.

It’s hard to imagine, after all, that a subterranean life-size army of thousands has silently stood guard over the soul of China’s first unifier for over two millennia.  Whether  Qui Shi Huan was terrified of the vanquished spirits awaiting him in the afterlife, or, as most archaeologists believe, he expected his rule to continue in death as it had in life – either way, the guardians of his tomb today offer some of the greatest insights we have into the world of ancient China.

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Over 6000 warriors and horses were buried in battle formation…all facing east. The infantry was accompanied by 35 chariots but being made of weed, they have all since disintegrated.

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Actual weapons and armor from battle were placed with  these figures creating a realistic appearance. The original weapons were stolen by robbers shortly after the creation of the army and the coloring has faded greatly. However, their existence serves as a testament to the amount of labor and skill involved in their construction. It also reveals the power the First Emperor possessed, enabling him to command such a monumental undertaking as this.

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The craftsman had to put his “signature” on the foot of the warrior he created and sub-standard work meant death.  Interesting quality control.

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Site two

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After the mausoleum was completed, the Emperor had everyone who worked on the site killed and their bodies dumped in mass graves – leading toward his general unpopularity with the public – you think?

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Site three

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I couldn’t resist!

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The detail is amazing – notice the strands of hair above

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–and the texture added to the bottom of the shoe below

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They were painted also – but most of the color has long since worn off

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A four-horse war chariot

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In 1999, it was reported that the Terracotta warriors were suffering from “nine different kinds of mold,” caused by raised temperatures and humidity in the building which houses the soldiers, and by the breath of tourists. In addition, it was reported that the figures have become oxidized grey from being exposed to the air, which may cause arms to fall off, and noses and hairstyles to disappear. However, officials have dismissed these claims. Chinese scientists found soot on the surface of the statues, concluding that the pollution introduced from coal burning plants was responsible for the decaying of the terracotta statues.

Recently, officials have begun to bury sections of the pits, to preserve the figures. I’m glad for the chance to have seen this amazing collection before the Chinese Government seals the pits! It was everything I could have imagined and more.

We spent the rest of the day exploring Xi’an.  They sell just about anything on the street.

We just hoped that these were meant to be pets – not dinner. Not kidding – we saw a deep fried turtle being served to someone.


Calligraphy demonstration

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Special caligraphy brushes – hundreds of them –
all the different styles hanging from the ceiling

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Lunch. And so goes the phrase – never touched by human hands

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Muslim Street was our biggest find of the day! It’s filled with street vendors selling everything from Chinese fans to dried fruit.

Dried kiwi

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Different shish-ka-bobs

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We tried to taste everything – it was so good and so different

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A leg of something…too big to be cat or dog…

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It was just like any street fare you would find at home…everything was deep fried and as long as you could identify the ingredients…it was pretty good.  We actually tried quite a few things and they were all excellent! We bought some quail eggs…and some deep fried spicy bread that was very tasty!  We weren’t brave enough to try any of the meat — it had been sitting outside in the heat for too long – and most of the meat was unidentifiable.

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Deed fried eggs — they were good!

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Then Bing took us off for our surprise – a karaoke bar!  This was unexpected. We were taken into a giant mall – up the escalator and into a casino-like place.

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Bing went to the counter and paid for three hours of time…then a uniformed man ushered us down a hallway that had doors on either side with numbers on them.  He showed us into room number 67 and shut the door.  There was a large rounded couch that could easily have fit 15 people on it with a big screen TV directly across from it.

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On one side of the couch, there was a monitor…where you could search for and select the songs you wanted to sing.  On the other side was a small, raised platform with a stool and a microphone for that brave soul who wanted to stand in front of his/her audience and sing.

Otherwise, there were two microphones on tables in front of the couch – for those of us who had no desire to sing in front of an audience…but would from the safety of the group.  Two beers each later and we were all belting out John Denver’s  “Rocky Mountain High” at the tops of our lungs!  Bing was probably singing the loudest of us all and we were hard put not to laugh at our crazy guide who knew every word to the song.  Britney Spears followed (the girls choice) and Rich sang “Heartbreak Hotel” by Elivs.  My choice was “Sweet Home Alabama” (I had just watched the movie on  TV in Beijing) and it was a big hit!

After our songfest, Bing took us downstairs to the game room.  There was a bull ride.  I had to get on it.  This drew a large audience of Chinese – all thrilled to watch some westerner ride the bull and get thrown.

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It started out fun..but then he cranked it up! I was laughing and bucking and finally yelling “Make it stop! Make it stop!”  63 seconds!  Not bad.  Everyone got lots of pictures – but I don’t see myself asking for them anytime soon! Some things are just better left to the imagination – and me on a bucking bull is one of them!

Rich climbed on and made it 54 seconds.  But honestly, the guy really cranked Rich’s ride.  Katy wanted to ride…but was wearing a skirt.  We had fun – got a good laugh – and really entertained the locals.

Next day and we’re on our way to Chengdu to see the Panda’s. The only thing marring this pleasant vision is the fact that to get there, we have to take another train ride from hell and this one is 17 hours long!  I won’t go into details – suffice to say that it was unpleasant – but all part of the journey and we survived it.

Chengdu is the capital city of Sichuan province and home to the Sichuan Hot Pot…a dish that we would be trying later that night. Sichuan Province is the second most populous province in China. With more than 120 million people jammed into an area the size of France it has a larger population than all but 10 countries in the world. Sichuan, which means Four Rivers, is both crowded and wild.

The Sichuan Basin is one of China’s main agricultural areas. The province produces 10 percent of China’s pork; 8 percent of its cooking oil and 6 percent of its rice, wheat, and other grain.  It is also one of China’s poorest provinces. The Sichuanese are regarded as tough, lively, passionate, earthy and warm and are famous for their ability to “eat bitter.” But they are not well-liked. Sichuanese women are regarded as among the most beautiful in China but also have a reputation for being temperamental, tempestuous and loose. Sichuan men are thought of as tricky and sly.

The hotel in Chengdu is OK – nothing great – but they do have a lovely massage center on the second floor that I would visit the next day for a well-deserved foot massage ($4).

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After checking in, cleaning up and changing our clothes, we headed out on a bus to see The Panda Breeding Center.  Panda’s are in imminent danger of extinction and China thankfully recognizes this fact.  They are committed to protecting this gentle animal and the breeding center reflects this commitment.  It’s designed to replicate the panda’s natural environment.  We walked through tunnels of bamboo trees and over wooden bridges that crossed over natural springs.  It’s a beautiful place!

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A bamboo canopy

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A bamboo forest

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Everything here centers around two things…pandas and bamboo!

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Pandas eat between 20 and 40 lbs a day! Why so much? Because bamboo is not high in nutrients – very low in fact. They supplement their diets with bugs, fruit, and bulbs if they can find them and surprisingly – small rodents, musk deer fawns, birds and fish.

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The sanctuary has created beautiful, natural environments for each panda.

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And I’m awake!!!

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We spent time with the Giant Pandas as well as their smaller cousins, the Red Panda.  An Englishman standing next me to me remarked, in a lovely British accent, “these guys are real time wasters – they really don’t do a lot of anything 🙂 Sort of like babies – they eat, sleep, poop, and look cute”.

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Kick-ass tail

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We were extremely lucky in that we were able to view – for just a moment – the newest additions to the panda clan.  Babies had been born just days earlier and they allowed the public to walk by the incubator.

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Just walking through the park was pleasant.  At the Koi pond, we stopped to watch the feeding fish frenzy.

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And no journey through the breeding center would have been complete without a stop in the gift shop.  We purchased our share of panda items.  Leena is getting panda mittens for Christmas!

Tonight we experience the Sichuan Hot Pot – sort of like the Chinese version of the fondue.  We sat down at tables that had holes in them – designed to fit the huge pots of a spicy concoction that would cook whatever we put into it.

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Inside the large pot of spicy something – was a smaller bowl of a fish water – boiling as well.  We knew it was fish water because a whole fish was floating in it.

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They say that China is the place for food and Sichuan is the place for flavor. While we’ve really enjoyed some of their dishes like huiguo rou (boiled and stir-fried pork with salty and hot sauce) and gonbao jiding (spicy chicken with peanuts – one of my favorites) -this particular hot pot was not a big hit.  It could be because Bing ordered the dishes for us and we don’t like what Bing likes – and most of it was unidentifiable.

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As we all sat around that table looking – with some trepidation – at the boiling concoctions – and the staff as they began bringing out plates of raw food.  About this time, I was wondering where the broccoli was…?

Mandy put one of these (lg rolled up meat wraps) into the large bowl of boiling liquid – but it just sort of sank to the bottom.  It didn’t come out crispy or anything – just oily and brown.

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We recognized some of the food items – a plate of quail eggs and a plate of sliced raw potatoes.  But the other stuff?  One plate looked like tofu – but after a taste – Amy declared it inedible – and certainly not tofu.  After some conversation with Bing – we determined that it was some sort of processed meat – a combination of various parts of a meat source that was – unidentifiable.

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Well, you get the gist of it.  We all ordered a second beer and began to try some stuff.  Most of us ended up eating the eggs and the potatoes – though Mandy and Sara were brave enough to eat the meat. Not exactly what we all had in mind. So after dinner, we took ourselves off to an ice cream shop for desert!

Tomorrow, we are off to see the largest concrete Buddha in the world and we’ll be overnighting in a couple of monasteries – whoo hoo!















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