Saturday, February 13, 2010

Gel Together in Xi'an

Hello again! I’m back with updates about our latest adventure in Xi’an. (pronounced “She-ahn”) We kept it short and sweet with this city, which is probably a good thing given that in the winter it is extremely cold and dry. Xi’an is the site of the ancient Chinese capital called “Chang’an” and thus is home to many extremely old and important pieces of Chinese history. It has established itself as a popular tourist destination mainly because of the terra cotta warriors, but it also has numerous tombs and is itself a sort of antique. The city is not very big (compared to Beijing and Shanghai) but is fairly developed and clean. Every now and then the more fun and local mannerisms come out because it wasn’t prepped and polished quite as completely as the other big tourist cities before the Olympics. The old city wall, built during the Ming dynasty, still stands surrounding the center part of town, but Xi’an has since overflowed these walls and developed far beyond them. Still though, the wall is kept as a tourist attraction and offers scenic strolls and tandem bike rides along its broad “Great Wall style” walkway. At the center of the walled city is the old bell tower, and slightly offset is the drum tower, both built with traditional Chinese wooden architecture and used in ancient times to tell time or to give warning signals. Because of the cold weather and short amount of time, we didn’t get to go up on the city wall, but our hostel was very close to its beautiful south gate so we saw it pretty often.

We stayed at a place called Ancient Street hostel, which is very close to the south gate and Calligraphy Street and about a 10 to 15 minute walk into the center of town. When we first got there I was feeling a bit suspicious and defensive because of our last hostel experience, but the staff there was so sweet and accommodating that I kind of felt bad afterwards. The room was a bit chilly and only had one large bed, but it was much larger than our last few rooms and had a functional bathroom and lots of large blankets so we were pretty happy with it. After checking in and dropping our stuff, we walked down to the drum tower and then explored the Muslim street. Xi’an is home to a group of the Chinese Muslim minorities and the Muslim street is the center of their area, where most of the restaurants and other vendors are owned by and/or cater to them. They have very distinctive types of street food, including red bean and sesame sticky rice, spiced meat kabobs, and lots of sweet, dried fruit. After browsing a bit, we stopped for dinner and tried their most popular soup dish, which has shredded pieces of condensed bread, some green veggies, and beef in beef broth.
The next morning we woke up and met up with a tour we had signed up for the night before. Our tour guide was not quite as exciting as Eric, but her English was pretty good and she smiled a lot. She always seemed to be in a rush, though, which was kind of annoying. There were nine people on our tour: two from Ireland, two from Germany, two from Canada, and one from Texas. Carly tried her best to befriend the Germans in hopes of scoring a place to stay when she travels in Europe this summer. It didn’t quite work out, but they were very friendly and they gave her some good tips about where to go.
Our first stop was the Banpo Museum, which was the first “on site” museum in Xi’an. I had never heard of it before, but it was actually really cool. The Banpo people were the inhabitants of this area around 6000 years ago. They lived in a matriarchal society and the museum shows the excavated areas where they lived, fired pottery, and buried their dead. They had uncovered a few graves, where you can see the skeletons of the people and also the pots they were buried with. Since males were so inferior to females, they were buried separately. One grave showed a group of four females buried together. I guess it’s the ultimate form of the “going to the bathroom in groups” phenomenon. From the different burial patterns it is thought that the people were buried either facing upwards if they were “good,” downwards if they were “bad” and sideways if they were killed by an animal or in a fight. Each person is buried with a pot for water and a pot for food.

The pots were very well formed, probably made from coiled clay and then fired. It’s pretty crazy to think that people were living in such organized societies 6000 years ago, with the technology to fire pottery. Carly and I were wondering what people would think of our societies if they found remains in 6000 years. Maybe we should start burying people with computers and stuff so they’ll have something to go off of.
After that we were taken to a large, government sponsored store where they make fake terra cotta soldiers in the “same way” they were made 2200 years ago and try to sell them to you. I guess they didn’t figure out that you’re supposed to put the gift shop at the end of the tourist site.
Our lunch was pretty mediocre, but still a Chinese family style feast. According to proper form, we all filled our bowls and began shoveling food into our faces as fast as possible. As this was going on, a man from the large table of Chinese tourists next to us stood up, completely flabbergasted, and shouted as loud as possible while pointing to Carly: “OHH!?? THE FOREIGNER CAN USE CHOPSTICKS!!!!!” Slightly embarrassed, I tried to explain to him that in America, a lot of people can use chopsticks. He was still unable to hold back his excitement and continued to make all of the people at his table stand up and take a look at how she was using her chopsticks “just like a Chinese person!” Sigh. I guess we taught her well at least.

Finally, we arrived at the site of the terra cotta warriors. The warriors were made about 2200 years ago as a supplement to the tomb of the emperor of the first unified Chinese dynasty: the Qin. There is a full army of them, including generals, cavalry men, infantry men, standing archers, kneeling archers, horses, carriages, etc. They are all life size, made of clay, and were once intricately carved and painted such that each one has a unique face. They were placed in battle formation into underground corridors that had brick floors and wooden panel siding. The corridors were then covered with strong wooden beams, a thick layer of woven mats, and then soil. The soldiers are buried a few kilometers away from the mound that houses the emperor’s tomb. The ancient belief was that the dead person could take what was buried with him to the next world. I guess that emperor anticipated a lot of armed conflict. I sure hope he was wrong. Anyway, there is no written record of any of this happening, which seems odd because it clearly took a lot of people and a lot of time to make hundreds of soldiers. The rumor is that all the artists and people who knew about it were killed when it was completed. So then in 1970, some farmers were digging a well to set up an irrigation system for their crops and came across some angry looking life-size clay people. Unfortunately, most of the soldiers were broken into little pieces, possibly because of tomb raiders shortly after the emperor’s death. Archeologists came, studied the area and reassembled many of them, but there are still many that are not yet uncovered. The emperor’s tomb (which we visited after the soldiers) has also not been uncovered or opened. The hope is that soon we will have technology that will allow us to excavate ancient sites like this and not expose them to oxygen, which damages them. Our tour guide said to come back in 15 years and that should be good.
The soldiers are still mostly standing in their rows in the uncovered corridors, which are covered now by large tent-like buildings and surrounded by walkways so that you can look down and see them. The size of the largest group is about the same as two football fields.
It’s pretty insane to see, but probably more impressive to know the story and how old they are. Only one of the farmers who found the site is still alive, but he is thought to have very good luck, so he now sits in the museum all day and will shake your hand or sign a book for you if you’d like to have good luck too. We shook his hand, but are skeptical because we still haven’t won the lottery on the Chinese receipts.

After the soldiers, we visited the emperor’s tomb, which pretty much just looks like a large hill now, although apparently when it was built it was a trapezoid. The story is that the emperor had automatic weapons buried in the ground around his tomb, so that if any tomb raiders tried to dig in the area with shovels they would be shot. This made the tomb raiders believe that it was guarded by evil spirits and so supposedly it remains intact. I guess we’ll have to wait 15 years to find out. At the very least we know that emperor had some serious issues with paranoia.
Since the New Year was so close most of the stores and restaurants were closed when we got back. We did, however, find a nice Pizza Hut and Starbucks to get our Western food cravings satisfied. I am ashamed to say that this is my second Pizza Hut adventure in Asia. On the bright side, you can’t get beef and kimchi pizza at Pizza Hut in the States. Later on, we checked out the bar whose music blasted very clearly into our room and listened to a live Chinese rock band. We had noticed the bar before and thought that it was called “Gel Together Club.” We thought this was very clever and were impressed by the club owners’ command of the English language until we realized from the business card that it’s actually called “Get together club” … or maybe “Get Together Elub”... Either way it was disappointing.
This morning we got up and made our way back to the airport to fly to Shanghai. It’s Chinese New Year’s Eve, which is the beginning of the most important holiday here so almost everything is closed, but firecrackers and fireworks are popping, crackling, and lighting up the sky. We have five days to explore Shanghai and then we’re off to Japan. More updates to come.
Xin Nian Kuai Le!!! (Happy New Year!!!) 新年快樂!

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