Off to China and Thailand! travel blog


Xi'an has been an interesting experience on a number of different levels. It's our last day here and as usual, we are in "clean-up" mode. We tend to have a number of administrative-type tasks and errands to accomplish, on our last day, kind of like tidying up before we move on.

It's a time worn adage, but there is nothing like location to make or break an experience. We have had another great experience with a very reasonably priced hotel located smack dab in the middle of Xi'an. We've been located on the 6th floor overlooking a large public square that occupies nearly a square block and separates two of Xi'an's major landmarks -- the Bell Tower and the Drum Tower which look like huge Chinese stone gates. Beneath the square and across the street are huge shopping centres as well as the central post office. Near the Drum Tower is the Muslim quarter with one of the best souvenir markets in the city, and on the major street heading east of the Bell Tower traffic circle is a great shopping street a'la Yonge (for the Ontarians in the crowd) or Granville (for the wet coast bunch). The square below is an ongoing source of interest and amusement. Early each morning, groups of workers engage in tai chi, fan dancing, calisthenics and kung fu. Later on, couples wander amongst the flower beds and troupes of tourists (mostly Chinese) follow the flag-waving leader from the Drum to the Bell Towers. From time to time, there are exhibitions; the first day we were here, there was an "extreme sport" exhibition featuring BMX bikes, skateboarders and rollerbladers. Coincidentally, the performers were staying across the hall from us (the bikes in their room tipped us off) and we even discovered that one was from Montreal -- the world is a very small place, indeed!

Unfortunately, we had our first bout of bad health here in Xi'an. First Adrian, then Robin and finally Dan were ill with a gastro-intestinal bug. Nothing too unusual, just your basic vomiting and diarrhea, but it kept us close to home for several days. Ironically, it happened after dinner at the local McDonalds; I suspect the orange juice. Anyway, everyone is back to normal now (thank God and kaopectate -- my Florence Nightengale routine was getting a bit worn-out) and chowing down on steamed buns and noodles once again. Fortunately, our tried and true response to g.i. disturbances is rice and tea --easily gotten in these parts. Interestingly enough, the visit to the McDonald's was our first experience with a "walk-thru" as opposed to a "drive-thru" restaurant; there was a metal bar cordon area with a huge line-up of people in it in front of the McDonald's. Half way through the line-up, you gave your order to the order-taker who filled in a form; you then took the form through the line to the front where you were advised when you could enter. Inside, it was bedlam. Dan used his best scrum elbowing techniques to get to the front of the line while upstairs, the boys and I beat people away from our saved seats. The whole restaurant was bulging at its seams!

But back to why we came to Xi'an in the first place. Xi'an was the first capital of a unified China, as all the warring states were brought together by emporer Qin Shihuang Ling in around 221 B.C. Emporer Qin ascended the throne at the age of 13 and began his quest to create a nation; at the same time he began to build his burial tomb. The terra cotta warriors are hailed as one of the most important -- if not the most important-- archaeological find of the century. Like others of his time, Emperor Qin believed that he would reincarnated after his death, and therefore, would need all the daily necessities to "live". His notion of the afterlife seemed to be that he would be about half of his normal size but that he would need to be protected by a full-size army. To this end, he created an army of warriors to protect and defend him as well as daily necessities to look after himself. The incredibly detailed bronze, silver and gold chariot and horses created for his own transportation is beautiful in its intricacy, complete with half-size bronze handkerchiefs and flasks. The army of warriors he had created are full-size, each standing around 1.8 m high and weighing 150kg. Each of the 6000 warriors has an individual face; some are happy looking, some sad, some even crying. They are identifiable by their hairstyles which indicate marital status and occupation, as well as by their clothing which indicates occupation and rank.

The warriors were first discovered in 1974 by a farmer digging a well on his property. Instead of a basketful of dirt, he hauled up the head of a warrior. Since then, excavation has been ongoing with 4 sites available for viewing at this time. Sadly, it seems obvious that the first digs were handled poorly, as the warriors lay uncovered and unprotected for several years. All the colour was lost from them as the pigment that was remaining on them disappeared between 3 and 90 days from when they were unearthed. (Since the discovery came on the heels of the Cultural Revolution, one has to wonder who exactly was doing the excavation -- proper archgts or whoever the Maoist govt decided should do it?). There is a 5th site being readied for viewing, and excavation continues, although not all the warriors have been excavated from the existing sites. The sites have been x-rayed to determine their contents and the decision has been made to continue to excavate elsewhere for new finds and leave these sites for later. The estimates for how long it would take to excavate the existing sites are staggering -- around 150 years!! Indeed, one week prior to when we visited, a major find was announced of a huge statue of what is thought to be a judge, or some symbol of justice, as he is holding something akin to a gavel in his hand. Our guide told us it will be on display next year.

Many warriors in the existing sites were found broken and thus the job to repair each warrior has been painstaking; it takes around 3 mos per warrior to finish the repair using the original terra cotta materials. Each of the warriors is signed by the original artist, and it has been determined that artists were brought from all over China to work on the warriors, even from as far as Shanghai. The story goes that after his death, Qin's 18th son had all of the artistans, engineers and builders put to death to ensure the secrecy of the tomb. As well, he had 3000 of Qin's 6000 concubines buried alive with Qin. All told, 170,000 people were massacred by the 18th son in his takeover of the throne from the first son and intended heir. Ironically he lasted only 4 years and the empire was overthrown by the Hans.

One of the new sites they are currently excavating has complete, unbroken warriors in it, and they seem they have found techniques to fix the pigment to preserve the colour. It's exciting to think that this is an archaeological site that will be interesting to visit over time as more items are found.

What is most striking about this silent army is the incredible detail that has been put into each figure. On some, the lines in the palms are visible so that their fortunes could actually be told by a palmist! Another one's upturned shoe reveals that the artist has carved hand-embroidered soles for him. Belt notches are visible on another, and very often, the occupation of the warrior is reflected in his physical stature; the officers often have slight beer bellies while the foot soldiers are trim. They are incredibly life-like.

Bye for now,

F, D, A&R

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