After three days of touring Beijing and surrounding areas, we hopped on a China Eastern Airlines flight to Xi’an. That flight made me wonder if I’d make it to Xi’an. The turbulence was so dramatic, I would have completely bounded out of my seat if I hadn’t been strapped in. In the airport, I enjoyed just wandering through the various shops before take off. The selection of various “goodies” is really interesting- although half the time I had no idea what I was looking at!
When we got to Xi’an, we loaded the bus and set out for the ancient city wall that encircles the city. This wall was built during the Ming Dynasty around 1370 according to our guide. The wall encircles the entire “old part” of the city, and was built, much like the Great Wall, using bricks put together with sticky rice. I would say that rice to the ancient Chinese people is sort of like our duct tape- multi purpose and holds stuff together! Ha!
The wall is hardly recognizable as a wall once you climb the stairs to get up on it. It seems more like a really wide walkway and feels like you are on a bridge. We entered through the South Gate and rented bikes for an hour. This is a very popular thing to do- there were loads of people riding their bikes. The bikes were 10 Yuan for an hour. (In US dollars that would be roughly $1.42). When I got on my bike, I realized that this was not necessarily going to be “smooth sailing” down the wall, because the wall’s floor was extremely uneven- like cobblestone with square rocks! It was a bumpy ride! (See below the photos of the wall- I posted the video I tried to take while riding my bike!)
After our biking adventure we went to a local restaurant for dinner. Once again, the food was served family style, with all sorts of interesting options. The photo on the top right of the collage below shows a fried duck that was part of the meal. When the server put that plate down, she took out a knife and cut the head off- I guess so no one would mistake it for an edible part?
After dinner we walked a few blocks to catch the bus to the hotel. On the way, I bought a funky little Chinese recorder from a street vendor and played music whilst I walked! One day I hope to be able to play a tune on this thing as well as the salesman did…
Before we left the restaurant, I stopped to catch a little of the Chinese television broadcast. I saw either news, singing shows, or old-time Chinese soap operas whenever I passed by a television.
The hotel, a Holiday Inn Express, was modern, clean, and located in a convenient part of Xi’an. The air conditioner was working fairly well, and the beds were significantly better than the brick beds of yore! I also never had a single regret in taking up suitcase space with my traveling box fan. It honestly was a great thing to have since some of the hotel AC units were not exactly “cold”.
The breakfast at the Holiday Inn Express was the best one of the trip. According to tour guide Molly, there are more varieties of noodles in Xi’an than anywhere! “People love their noodles here,” she says. “One really popular noodle is called BANG BANG noodles, because when they stretch the noodles on the machine, they make a bang bang sound! In this city, a woman is only considered a good wife if she can make good noodles!”
Not only were there great hot and cold options, but there was a soup bar manned by a cook. I was able to have fresh wantons, cooked in front of me, served in a delicious soup! Breakfast of CHAMPIONS! I have no idea what was in those wantons, but they were scrumptious!
The highlight of our next day was our visit to the Terra Cotta Museum. This was one of the places I was so excited to see, and it did not disappoint. The site is beautifully kept, with flowers and trees covering acres and acres. Regardless of what the rest of the world has to say, the Chinese people, according to Molly, consider these soldiers and the site of the archaeology work to be “the 8th wonder of the world”.
The excavation sites were fascinating. There are a series of three giant “pits” from which the archaeologist teams are still working from to this day. They have unearthed 8,000 soldiers and they are estimated to be 2200 years old! It was fascinating to learn that the original statues were discovered by a local farmer who was digging a hole for a well. He found some bronze weapons and some old pottery. The first of three “pits” was excavated in the early 1970s, and two more followed. Our guide said, “The Terra Cotta soldiers were buried in the ground by the first dynasty to serve as a burial representation. They were into the ceremony of burial. As a side note, the emperors also insisted that their concubines be buried alive with the dead emperor! Yes, human sacrifices!”
The Bronze charriot and horses were the first Pit (3) that we visited. When this was unearthed, it was broken into 1,555 pieces. It took 8 years for the chariots to be put back together. The expert archaeologists could tell amazing things from studying the horses once they were completed. According to our guide, they had teeth that indicated the horses were six years old. They also had tassles dangling from their heads, which indicated the high social clout of the riders.
In PIT 2, we were able to see the actual site where the horses and cavalry men were buried. They are still working every night, for hours, after the museum closes, to put more of the soldiers and horses together. It takes up to 2 years to complete the restoration of ONE soldier! According to our guide, the soldiers were buried in a pit five meters deep. The pit was covered with a wooden roof. When the ancient people covered the pit and roof, the wood collapsed under the weight, which is why all the statues fell down into pieces and were damaged. I can’t even fathom having the patience to dig out all those pieces and put them all together. Seeing the massive scope of this project left me exasperated!
The soldiers are all human size, the tallest being six feet. Out of all 8000 uncovered, only the kneeling archer had no damage. He even maintained his original color. Many of the soldiers have facial hair. The guide said, “Soldiers had to have a mustache in order to be considered handsome.”
One of the most interesting thing about these soldiers is that no two faces are the same. Every single man had a different face. The guide said that this was because the emperor called on all of the men in the area to come and pose for the sculptors. The artists created these men from the clay found on the nearby Li Chen Mountain. This is, apparently, the ONLY place where scientists say the clay is the quality of these statues. When word got out about this clay, tourists and locals flocked to the mountain to dig up their own helpings of the clay- so much so that the Chinese government had to shut down the mountain for fear the clay would disappear.
PIT number 1 was the largest and last pit that we visited. They uncovered 3,000 soldiers from this pit alone. For Jackie Chan fans, his movie “The Myth” was filmed in Pit number 1.
After leaving the Terra Cotta Museum, we headed to a local art museum, called the Tang Bo Museum, where we had a guided tour through the art followed by a calligraphy lesson. The guide in the museum was so knowledgeable about the art and shared wonderful bursts of history with each section of the museum. She walked us through not only the history of the art, but also the particular mediums that each was done in. The painting with the woman and child on the horse was particularly interesting. She told us that the piece was called “Visiting the In Laws”, and it represented the promise that husbands make to the wife’s parents at the wedding to return their daughter twice each year to show that they still love the parents. The return on the solstice and the Chinese New Year in order to pray and ensure a good crop for the coming year. The bottom left photo is of a Chinese shadow puppet. These were displayed on a wall and we were allowed to touch them. I was surprised to realize that they were cut from plastic! They would put these in front of a light screen and have puppet shows. The crazy part, however, is that the audience never saw any of the color- they could only see the shadow of the puppet!
After enjoying the art, we were led into a large classroom and given a paintbrush, rice paper and ink. The rice paper was smooth on one side and rough on the other. “You only paint on the rough side,” instructed Wang, our teacher. She instructed us in the development of Chinese characters and we drew out 6 different characters. This was quite an experience! It is not as easy as it looks! (Some of my examples are in the photo in the middle on the right).
After we worked hard to copy the history of Chinese figure writing, we left the wonderful art museum and headed to the Muslim Quarter Street Market. Our local tour guide told us that the Muslims came to China in the 7th century, but were upset to be so far from home. They lamented, and eventually began to be referred to as the “Hui” nationality, which means “go home”, because they wanted to leave China.
This market was a mix of food and trinket shops. When I say food, I should warn that it is really NOT the place for vegans or vegetarians! There is meat displayed every three to four feet all through the marketplace! There is nothing to disguise the meat, either. Our tour guide Molly said, “I do not recommend you eat the meats in the marketplace. You don’t know how it will be for you. American stomachs are not like Chinese stomachs. Sometimes we don’t know how long that meat has been sitting around…” With that kind of intro, I don’t think meat would be on anyone’s bucket list for that visit!
It was sort of shocking to see full carcasses being picked apart right on the street. Refrigeration is not something that is necessary in China- not for drinks and not for meat! Every time I bought a water bottle, it was always room temperature or warmer- even when it APPEARED to be in a cooler. (The refill stations at the airport came in two temperatures: warm and hot).
I enjoyed the shops and the people were eager to bargain. I went in to one shop in search of a larger bag to take home. I saw a giant duffle bag that would be perfect. It was a “North Face” bag, so I figured it would be way overpriced even though I knew it was fake. For the heck of it, I asked the store clerk if it was real North Face. He smiled wide and said, “Oh yes! North Face made in China!” He started out asking 400 yuans for it, and I talked him down to $180. In US Dollars that was roughly $25.75. Not too bad!
There were numerous stands that sold those bright yellow and brown cake-looking things. My roommate and I both assumed it was some sort of pineapple cake. She ended up getting one only to realize that the yellow part was yellow rice and the dark brown was a soy sauce glaze! I’m sure it was tasty, but not when you are expecting cake!
I had perhaps one of the worst experiences of the trip in the Muslim Marketplace. It was situational irony at its absolute best. I was walking down the street, just looking around at everything- I’m always trying to fully soak in my surroundings. I noticed this dude in a manhole, literally brimming with wires. I thought it was such an odd sight that I actually took his picture! As I walked past him, I stepped on a “fake” manhole cover, it completely gave way, and I FELL IN THE MANHOLE!! I remember thinking, “Holy CRAP! (Okay, maybe I may have used other expletives.) I’m in a Chinese manhole!”
I looked down and really couldn’t see the bottom. I was hanging there, holding on with my elbows, petrified to move. My forearms were shaking, but I was frozen in shock at my situation. The falling had caused a “dent” in my right shin, but the worse wound was on my upper thigh, just below my hip. I was bleeding and had a massive bruise, about the size of a piece of bread. The entire scene was sort of surreal, and happened relatively quickly. I remember a strong arm grabbing my right arm and yanking me up from the manhole. It was a police officer, who, as soon as he set me back on the sidewalk, began yelling at the streetwalkers. I couldn’t understand his words, but there was no mistaking his angry tone!
I stumbled forward and felt the sharp pain in my upper leg. My arms felt weak from holding my body weight above ground. There is no telling what might have happened had I not been able to hold myself. I believe it was a LONG WAY DOWN. I shudder to think what might have been at the bottom! Rats? City Sludge? Thankfully I will never know.
Below I wanted to share a video of one of the “street butchers” just to really show how this animal meat carving thing went down on the streets. When I first saw this guy, I did a double take about what he was doing. Then, as humans are wont to do, I stayed with a sense of morbid curiosity. That knife just chiseled away at those ribs. It was quite a sight to see. I kept hearing Molly’s warning in my mind- “you don’t know how long this meat has been around, so don’t eat it.” It was such an interesting place- festive music playing in the background with this butcher standing on a stool happily carving the meat from the bones…
Our next stop was the Tang Dynasty Dinner show. While we enjoyed a delicious pre-show dinner, I interviewed a few of the folks who saw me fall into the manhole. Since no one took my photo in the manhole, I wanted their “take” on what it really looked like…
The dinner was probably my favorite of all thus far. We had a delicious 5- course meal including a dumpling salad, a black mushroom consomme, a tender plate of king prawn and fish with glazed cashews, a plate of fillet of beef with sweet and sour sauce and rice, an orange sago, and a platter of “Dim Sum”, which are Chinese cookies. They also served Jasmine tea.
The Tang Dynasty theater was breathtakingly beautiful. The costumes and stage were so full of color and radiance it almost hurt to look at it for too long! The music, performed by a live orchestra, was beautiful and powerful. The performance on stage was to relay the history of the Tang Dynasty, which, according to our guide, was the most prosperous in the history of the 13 dynasties in China.
We made it back to the hotel for one last night before departing for Shanghai the next morning. I would have enjoyed one more day to explore in Xi’an. It was surprisingly bigger than I anticipated, and I never realized it was once the imperial capital of China. I learned a great deal in this town- perhaps most importantly to look down occasionally whence I wander.
The China Eastern flight to Shanghai was MUCH smoother than my previous flight, but the food was horrible. Oh, well. You can’t win them all!
Stay tuned for part 3 of my travels through China, coming soon! Next up: Shanghai!