Xi’an: Chain Whips and Warriors

The night we arrive I have too much energy to go to bed early, so I take a walk. While we drove into town I made mental markers of where I wanted to go, and so it’s a fun game in the twilight hours. This ties back to my post on getting lost.  Can I flip the map and backtrack to the neon lights and statues I saw earlier? T

I can. The city, which seemed sort of dead during the heat of the day, comes alive at night. People spill into the parks and streets, and I walk the considerable length of a park, which starts at the Wild Goose Pagoda and ends at a mall and a giant collection of statues celebrating the Tang Dynasty (I believe it’s the Tangs) in a plaza lit by giant LED columns. To be clear: this was one of many such statue collections. The half-mile or so of walking has multiple monuments. There are scholars being inspired by a fountain, generals on horseback, lots of musicians and on-lookers. It’s like seeing a parade, frozen in metal.

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Outside the Wild Goose Pagoda, there are dancers and street merchants selling mini terra cotta warriors, fans, statues – just about every knick-knack you could want to buy, and buy incredible cheap. I pick up a giant fan (it’s still quite warm) for less than two dollars, and keep walking. There are men, sweating and shirtless, cracking whips in one of the side plazas. Upon observation, I realize they’re not bullwhips, but chain whips – a length of wood, a length of chain, and then the actual woven whip at the end of the chain. In order to get the proper speed and form, the men have to gain momentum through three point spins, getting the chain swinging around with enough force to move the leather. It’s quite a sight. It’s late when I return to my hotel room, feeling much more ready for sleep.

The next day we have a late start. I get the distinct impression that there is not really as much to do in Xi’an, since the schedule is so loose. We’ll see the wild goose pagoda, the terra cotta warriors, and in the evening the Tang Dynasty Dumpling show. Tomorrow it’s the Muslim Quarter, the city walls, and that’s it.

We walk to the Wild Goose Pagoda. Our guide – who took the English name Tom – tells us of the Buddha and of the monks who lived in the temple. They were hungry, and in desperation prayed for deliverance. At that moment, a flock of geese flew overhead. So the pagoda was named – a very tall, yet squat, brick structure surrounded by temples and jade carvings.

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Tom is young. He makes me smile because he delivers his information like Siri, and actually chastises Dad for stepping over the threshold of the temple on the wrong foot (the left foot). Realizing that he probably made a mistake in correcting the paying customer, he tries to turn his rebuke into a joke, and fails miserably. Dad is having too much fun to get upset, and like I said I was amused. Tom is clearly afraid of us – especially me. When he found out I’ve been living in China, he acts as though I’m going to reveal all the secrets of their tourism economy. There is some truth in this – I know when we’re being fleeced, and I know where we’ll be forced to go for said fleecing.

The fleecing arrives at the terra cotta “workshop,” where we watch artisans “make” all the warriors which are sold in their store. I’m sure this empty workshop also hums along at some point or another…no I don’t. I bet those statues never move, because when would I come back to check? Those ovens are probably never heated, and have been packed with the same thousand tiny torsos for months. And even if I believed that you made all your terra cotta warriors by hand, I know you didn’t have a part in the furniture, rugs, porcelain, jade, nor any other thing also featured in your store.

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You are fooling no one!

You are fooling no one!

But kudos to your persistence – you almost got Dad to pay $1000 for a terra cotta head. Not a full warrior – no, you charged just as much for the detachable head, which Dad thought might look cool on over our fireplace. I might be crippling your economy with my “insider” knowledge, but then you should have gotten that from Ted, who gets a kickback from your sales.

Sorry, but I get really irritated when I feel like I’m being taken advantage of because I’m a westerner and therefore must be rich. Nope.

Ted is a bit disappointed that we bought nothing, but we press on to the tomb of the Terra Cotta Warriors. Our driver reminds me of Chengdu drivers – he is less civilized in his turning radius than a Beijing taxi driver. He breaks at the last minute, cuts out semi trucks, and generally goes as fast as he can. It’s blazingly hot outside now, and even after a small repast at the site, we’re starting to flag. They’ve redesigned the museum so that it is not accessible by walking (or it’s not easily accessible). Instead you must pay to take a small golf cart. We stand in line, sweating, pressed up in the now familiar mob of bodies. They all brought umbrellas to combat the sun – they almost create their own giant awning.

I ask Ted (who meets us at the end of the ride), why we could not walk, and why we can’t walk back.

“It seems that you would want to ride back, after walking through the museum.”

“There is a cultural village. Very traditional. Good for shopping. Everyone wants to see that!” Ted says. I sigh inwardly. “Cultural Village” is code in China for “Strip Mall.” They’ve designed the park in such a way that they drive you far away from the entry point on purpose, so that you have to walk back through their stores. In essence, they’re trying to force shopping.

I did not really know what to expect when I saw the rows of warriors. My Uncle told me that they were not to be missed, that they were a true marvel. The terra cotta warriors were one of the top attractions in all of China, I read, and one of the greatest archeological finds of, if not the second half, then the whole of the twentieth century.

There were a lot of them, to be sure.

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It’s the details which I think actually impressed me. The idea of a different face model for each figure. That the emperor laced the ground with mercury because he thought it would protect him in the afterlife. There is so much mercury in the ground around Xi’an that they don’t know how to excavate the tombs safely. And then, much like the Great Wall there’s just the sheer scope of it all. Thousands of statues, with ranks and roles – it’s like a child laying out a plastic army, except everything is life-sized.

But you can’t go near the statues. You walk around and above them. There aren’t as many unearthed as I thought there would be – the photos made it seem like there are rows upon rows of pristine figures to admire. This is not the case. There are lots of figures, yes, but most are in pieces and in piles, waiting to be sorted and rebuilt by the archeological teams. The next building, which houses the horses and generals, is actually a series of empty trenches. Everything is underneath the dirt, revealed by sonar and such. There are perhaps two full chariot teams.

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It would be incorrect to say I felt let down by the warriors. I liked seeing them, and they are impressive. But given the sheer hype of the place, I thought I’d see more figures and fewer theoretical ones. It seemed there were whole buildings dedicated to implication. Underneath those mounds there are countless more figures, but….

It’s still a great story. A farmer in the 1960s is digging a well and finds this great forgotten tomb. He decides to say nothing because he doesn’t want the government to arrest him for digging a well wrong. His neighbors report it for him (or report him – hard to say). That man now lives in an air-conditioned hut at the museum site. For the past thirty years or so all he has to do is autograph a book with his face in it. He’s met presidents and dignitaries and has never had to plant a thing, other than his butt in a chair.

That night we go to the Tang Dumpling show – the most famous show in all of Xi’an! After several failed attempts (I scared the waitress by asking too many questions, poor thing), we get twenty different kinds of dumplings! Dumplings shaped like koi! Dumplings with shrimp! Dumplings with mushrooms! Dumplings for everyone! They were decent dumplings, made better by my knowledge of how to make a delectable dipping sauce.

The show… ok, I always get embarrassed at cultural shows. I went to one in Morocco that wound up being belly dancing to techno music at a glorified strip club, and ever since then I’ve felt guilt for what we make other cultures go through to entertain us. This one was not nearly so rough as that – this was a song and dance show, heavy on the dance. It was a serviceable lacquer-job show of what I’m sure are venerable traditions – like a show at Dollywood. I do theater – I’d take the steady paycheck too.

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I’ve waxed long about our first and only full day in Xi’an – there was a lot to take in. I really felt a connection to the city, more than I have in other places in China. There was a vivacity, an energy which seemed youthful, that was great to find in one of the oldest cities in all of China. Tomorrow we go to the Muslim Quarter and then back to Beijing. The trip is ending.

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