Terracotta Army

It was a long bus trip from Xian to see the Terracotta Army. We had made sure that we had boarded the right bus – and not the ‘blue bus’ which is apparently a tourist rip off. We took the bus the locals take, with it stopping to drop people off at work stops along the way.

It was raining outside and the bus windows were misted up. Inside the bus, we bought tickets from a bus conductor who spoke no English, and we sort of listened to her when she stood in her uniform and talked for a long time into her headpiece microphone.

A swipe across the glass window revealed just how many terracotta army businesses there are along the way – the soldiers stand still and silent on the pavement, sustaining many families, restaurants and businesses.

We arrived eventually, to no rain, and the place where the bus stopped was a wide parking lot with no obvious ‘enter here to see the army’ buildings.

Thereafter there was a lot of walking. There were food stalls everywhere, and there were also stalls selling full animal pelts and strips of fur to make collars, which were all hung up on wire fences.

We walked past them all in search of entry tickets, or indeed the place where they were sold. Eventually, we found the building, after a detour to dump our rucksack which L had been labouring under.

We followed a path with others which wound through some just budding trees and finally came upon the huge structures which house the three main pits containing the clay army.

There were groups of foreigners on tour here and there. We heard German and English and some Scandinavian language – it was the first time we had seen so many foreigners for months!

We moved into the buildings and were relieved to see that our timing was good. There were relativity few people inside and we could easily approach the rails and gaze down into the archaeological dig – the pits containing the clay figures.

It was also easy for us to get close to the metal statues recovered from the pits which now stand boxed and glowing behind glass in their dim chambers.

Terracotta Army

 

Terracotta Army

We moved to the rail, after waiting for a minute or two for a gap to open up.
And there the soldiers stood beneath us, made from clay, their wooden bows and other weapons having long since disintegrated, leaving them clutching air in their clenched fists.

Terracotta Army

I was surprised by the feelings and emotions that stirred in me as I gazed down at them.

I had read the story around them of course and knew a little of their history. The army is a relatively recent discovery, and the massive pits under huge dome roofs containing them are still working archaeological digs.

And so they felt different from any other historical site I have ever seen. I felt moved to tears as I stood and stared at all those thousands of ancient motionless clay soldiers.

Terracotta Army

On the bus back to Xian I noticed again the hundreds of replicas lining the road outside various businesses. I myself had only bought two small fridge magnet soldiers as reminders of the real thing.

The real soldiers were never made to be works of art – but with the belief that they would, in fact, come alive one day, and live to fight for their creator…

I wondered if that was why they had stirred such emotion in me.

Made from dust, as they are, they have, in some small way, achieved the goal of living forever after all.

I wondered if, in looking at them, we look at ourselves. They stand as clay men, created as they were to one day live, waiting to have life breathed into them.

Terracotta Army

They wait in rows, sealed in, wearing the individual faces given to them by one or other of the 700 000 workers who made them. Only a few body and head moulds were made, but all the faces were allowed to be created differently.
They stand there, being stared at by millions, on the bucket list of many – with some still waiting, hidden in their pits, to be uncovered, together with their chariots and horses ( I spotted one, with only the rump and back legs emerging from the wall of clay) to be pieced together, restored and returned to their rows.

We will be forever grateful that we visited the terracotta army when we did – just at the beginning of Spring. We have heard stories of the crowds experienced there during the summer months.

There was a lone military type Chinese man pacing backwards and forwards along one side of the main pit – but still, we felt that we could have reached out and touched the soldiers if we had dared. They felt very accessible to us.

Terracotta Army

I was sorry that there were no archaeologists working in the glassed off section behind the pit where apparently workers may be observed putting together the armless, legless, headless clay soldiers who are moved there – supported and sometimes covered, between desks and other archaeological paraphernalia.

Still – I was sorry to leave and walk the long path back to collect our bag – this time nibbling on a spicy Chinese kebab bought from a food stall.
The soldiers stayed with me for a long time – I think of them still.

National Geographic video on the Terracotta-Army

 

The Muslim Quarter in Xi’an

Xian

Lex and Michelle - Holi FestivalAfter our shower, in which we failed to remove all the Holi Festival paint, we set off, me with a pink streak in my hair and L with a flash of pink in his beard, to visit the Muslim Quarter street market, set within the walls of old Xi’an.

It had stopped raining, and we were grateful for that as we climbed aboard the bus that would take us there.
Xi’an is even more beautiful at night, which we discovered as we travelled through the wonderfully lit streets.

Muslim market
We got off at the Drum Temple and strolled to the entrance to the Muslim Market, where people stood on the few small stone pillars there, for the purpose of taking selfies, featuring the brightly lit and colourfully detailed Drum Temple in the background.

lady selling chicken sticks
The streets of the Muslim Market were filled with people, and the sidewalks crowded with a multitude of stalls all manned by Muslims, wearing their distinctive little white hats. The women had their heads draped and covered by fabric decorated with silver or gold brocade and white lace.

They all laboured intensely at their various stalls exhibiting their skills of pounding sugar, or peeling the flesh cleanly off the bones of an animal (mutton or beef?) leaving the skeleton to hang, picked completely clean of flesh as if by some large bird of prey.

Slicing meat
Women demonstrated their skill in making ice cream over a frosty steel plate, spreading and scraping and finally rolling the ice cream into bud like spirals, and then placing them together into a small tub, like so many rosebuds.

At one stall a man pushed a millstone around, like a mule would, crushing a mound of chillies and then scooping them all up into jars with oil (one of which L bought).
The variety of stalls were endless and the street, flanked on either side by ancient buildings visible above the stalls, stretched on for miles.

Making spicy lamb pita pockets, which L loved!

Every now and again a Muslim man would stand out on the pavement outside his stall and bark some words, almost aggressively, at the passing crowd. I suppose he was advertising his wares.

Lady selling gourds
I wondered about this community, the Hui, and stood still in the street, gazing at their marvellous faces, all toiling together under the soft yellow glow of the lights. I wondered if they were mostly family-run stalls, sisters and brothers, uncles and aunts, and young men and women with the destiny of their roles already written as they were born.

We hardly bought any food (we were still full from our Indian dining..). We opted, instead, to spend some money at a silver jewellery store, mainly because of the woman seated at the entrance, dressed in a kind of silver armour and an elaborate headdress, who was banging away at a strip of bright silver.


L decided that we should buy a pair of extraordinary earrings there for me ….made of ‘canary stone’, which is what our Chinese translation app told us they were made of, but later we found out it was yellow jade.
The transaction was sealed by the saleslady pouring a colourless tea into small blue porcelain bowls, each of which contained a small fish charm made of silver. We both drank our tea and the deal was sealed.

Later we bought a small book of Mao Tse Tungs quotations, simply because I loved its redness and we managed to bargain the stall owner down from 80 yuan to 20 yuan.


Later we drank cappuccinos under the very modern roof of a nearby Starbucks and viewed the brightly lit Bell Tower in the middle of the busy street above us.
We were tired and gladly walked out to catch a bus, and we slept very well under the crisp white linen in our hotel room.

Tobacconist at Muslim market
Tobacconist at Muslim market

Xi’an weekend

We had our first ride on a Chinese bullet train when we went away to Xi’an for a weekend. We knew we were travelling at speed because the speed appeared in red letters on a digital screen in the carriage at regular intervals.

Speed

I sat facing, with my long legs a little cramped as we swept in and out of tunnels. I suppose the train travels fast and straight and cannot manage the curves and gentle ascents and descents of the hills we saw around us.Julie and Michelle

The view through the windows alternated between darkness and dry terraces, a few scattered low houses, and after the outskirts of the city, there were more and more half-built concrete blocks of apartments.

We were travelling together with our Indian friend to join him in celebrating the Holi Festival. Xi‘an boasts an Indian Restaurant – it looked like it could be fun.

Ganesha (special to him and special to us – the Elephant God – remover of obstacles) had already helped us out by making a bus stop for us early that morning – we were the only passengers he stopped for – and thus ensured that we made our early morning train.


Now, after our arrival at the unbelievably confusing station, followed by a mind-blowing underground tube network (thanks dear Chinese speaking and reading friend…) we surfaced onto the streets of Xi ‘an and made our way to the restaurant.
It was raining a little but little Ganesha statues led us up a stairway to another large marble Ganesha statue against the wall.Ganesha and Michelle

We were also following the music, which we had heard from a long way off. It sounded like an Indian soundtrack from a Bollywood movie. Our Indian friend had been excited for weeks and as he bounded up the stairs we followed.

It was drizzling slightly but there were a few Indian men and Chinese women and men with faces already smeared with paint, dancing in front of a large printed screen which was standing in the open courtyard, depicting scenes from a previous Holi Festival.

A tray was prepared with burning incense sticks and other bowls, including one containing a red paste which was offered to Ganesha (his curled trunk was touched with a finger that left a red print) and we were invited forward to receive a red dot gently printed at the place of the third eye between our eyebrows – and then the party could begin.

Our friend could not be contained and swept up by his enthusiasm and energy we all joined in, sliding about on the damp tiles which soon turned into a multitude of vibrant colours as the powder paint, piled high on platters, began to be thrown about.

L and I were not spared and our hair and faces were soon turned to an assortment of exotic colours.

Many photos were taken, and later we saw that everyone had been photobombed by a collection of pretty Chinese girls ( and we were glad of it).

We were hungry and soon tired of the dancing and were ready for the promised Indian meal. We had surrendered our black coats and other clothing to the rain and they had been painted by the powders that had fallen upon us.

We went inside and queued in front of the fragrant aromas of the buffet. We left colourful fingerprints on our plates (even though we had washed our hands – the paint was hard to remove…) We went ahead and ate the delicious meal mostly with our fingers, tearing up the naan bread and dipping and scooping the chunks into bowls of chicken tikka masala, basmati rice, a delectable array of curried vegetable dishes and gently fried pakora bits and pieces.

We washed it all down with Tiger beer to the accompaniment of Bollywood images and a soundtrack played on a huge flat screen. Occasionally the stage was taken by young Chinese women, all veiled and dressed in belts of shiny coins and colourful chiffon, who danced for us with graceful arms and expressive hands.

The place was filled with many Western people, and there were a number of very attractive young Indians who held their own private party at a smoky table over a shared hookah and much beer, and danced in the aisles with a beautiful freedom and abandon that made us all smile.

We tried to wash more of the paint off in the bathroom, but the majority of that work was left for our hotel room, where I caused the glass box wet room in our hotel to be decorated with a splattering of pink and green dots against the white enamel.

Lex followed and added his own selection of colours to our bathroom.
We washed it all away but as I dried my grey hair later I realized that I still had a swathe of pink running through a large section of it. L’s beard was still a little pink on one side, but we shrugged and got dressed because we had plans for the evening.

The next day we would leave Xi ‘an and catch a late train back to Lanzhou. We arrived at the station at close to midnight and joined a long queue of weary travellers all waiting for a taxi. Our exhausted group of foreigners lagged at the tail of it and prepared to wait – until – suddenly we were waved to the front by some station official. We were confused, but we did not hesitate and followed his lead as he guided us to the very front of the queue – I don’t think any of us looked to left or right – I made no eye contact with anyone, but I swear I could feel the love…..
We were bundled into a waiting taxi and whisked off.
Now, you see, this is the way China often treats its foreigners – like royalty – or perhaps it was simply Ganesha again – finishing off what he had started the previous day… and seeing us happily home!