Saturday, June 18, 2011

From Beijing to Xian

[Conjure for yourself here a picture of confusion and consternation at Beijing Airport as various passport data-entry errors are discovered.  Picture dread and consternation as our flight is late in departing.][International incident narrowly averted.][Endless ride in darkness from the new, soaring Xian airport to Xian city accompanied by our guide, Mr. Harry Wu.  From the window of the bus we see coal plants belching smoke into darkness.  We pass through mysterious intersections where cars are stopped curbside and numerous ladies are observed strolling the sidewalks. There seems to be quite a lot of activity in what feels like the middle of nowhere. Much of it feels like an industrial area but occasionally we pass by groups of children playing under streetlights. A Dantesque landscape?  Or was I just tired and hungry?]

Xian is a large city now, but at its core is the old, walled town that was a major stop on the Silk Road.  In Xian we observed much greater ethnic and racial diversity than in Beijing, because there is a sizable Muslim population, the result of movement west to east along the Silk Road hundreds of years ago. Xian has much to recommend it, but here the trip began to feel a little like a Long Walk, with stops for feeding, whether we were hungry or not.  The weather began to be much hotter too.

Our first morning in Xian we took a long bus ride toward the mountains (there are pandas up there somewhere, but they were not on our agenda), eating lunch in a restaurant with a very local feel to it, and finally arriving at the location of the famous Terra Cotta Warriors. Peter Hessler in Oracle Bones offers an interesting description of the accidental discovery of this very significant 3rd-c BCE archeological find and the history of its excavation.  1974! Imagine! This vast repository of individualized, life-size (and larger) terra cotta figures, including horses, and chariots--truly an army--was discovered by a farmer that year. I can't help thinking of Shelley's poem "Ozymandias" here as the mundane activities of the humble farmer and the intended glorious afterlife of the first emperor of China come together in a field.

To this point, China hadn't seemed so crowded to me, but on this particular hot, dusty day, part of a holiday weekend in China, thousands of people had shown up to see the army of Qin Shi Huang. It started out feeling like Disneyworld (crowds! lines! trams!) without the fun rides and Mickey. The warriors that have been excavated are in three different areas and, fortunately for us, they are now covered by protective buildings. Getting through the entries to each building was a test of our individual aggression and physical strength.The crowds inside the buildings meant that it was hard to get up to a railing to see the dig and this raised the level of paranoia among some of the shorter members of our group who feared being trampled, crushed, lost or all three, but the sight of the warriors is breathtaking and thought-provoking and I think that at some point each of us experienced a moment of, simply, awe. The trip was long, the day was really hot and the crowds were daunting, but my advice is...just don't go on a holiday weekend. Duh.

Xian has many other attractions, though we only took in a few.  We had a pleasant morning stroll along the top of the city wall, where many people enjoy riding bikes, and an evening of dinner and entertainment at the Shaanxi Grand Opera House.  Dumplings are the specialty of the Shaanxi area, and we had a wonderful dinner that evening featuring too many dumpling varieties to count as well as delightful music from traditional Chinese instruments and dancing.  The experience was a little dinner-theatre-ish but the performances were consistently interesting and I came away with the feeling that I had gotten at least a little flavor of the cultural traditions of the T'ang dynasty.  I discovered I really enjoy the music of the seven-stringed qin (guqin) and the zheng or guzheng.

One of the best things about Xian is the Shaanxi Provincial Museum.  Don't let the word "provincial" fool you into thinking this is some kind of dusty little set of shelves with a drowsy docent at the front desk.  This is a large and beautiful museum with artifacts of the four dynastic periods carefully displayed in a way that avoids overwhelming visitors and allows each object to be admired.  This is a very fine museum that is well-organized and contains many quite spectacular items including a kneeling archer from the Terra Cotta Army.  Finally, a chance to get close to one without others' heads in the way.

About this time, the group staged a mini-strike and opted out of some of the visits to ancient monuments, though quite a few people ended up taking non-forced strolls to the Bell and Drum Towers.  The proximity to Starbucks may have had something to do with this.

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