Sunday, December 2, 2012

Asian Chronicles - 5

Xi’an (pronounced Shee-ahn) - Home of the Terra-Cotta Warriors 9/30/2012

Tap on photos once to enlarge and tap X in upper right corner to shrink.

Our wake-up call came at 0600 and bags were collected for an early flight to Xi’an. I tucked my breakfast-in-a-box beneath my arm and boarded our bus which groaned as we pulled away into the darkness. I watched the city lighten from elevated freeways snaking their way through Beijing’s cement canyonlands.
The day broke clear and bright. Beijing, infamous for smog so thick it burned and left a disagreeable tang on one’s tongue, once again basked in clear skies lassoed by the God Maui and dragged trans-Pac for his people.

Dawn beget the Moon Festival, a mid-autumnal festival held on the full moon of the fifteenth day and eighth lunar month. While we know China as an industrial powerhouse churning out goods faster than our rapacious appetites can consume; they know themselves as agrarians. The Moon Festival is one that celebrates harvest. Notice its proximity to the equinox, a time of nearly worldwide thanksgiving.
“The full moon is round,” Angela said, “Round is a symbol of heaven, perfection, and family. The Moon Festival is a national holiday and a time to return home.” 
Moon Cake is a flakey pastry filled with sweetened black beans and lotus blossom seeds eaten in remembrance - to celebrate the sweetness of life and family. This year, the full moon on the fifteenth day of the eighth lunar month fell on September 30th. 
October 1st is China’s National Day. Equivalent to July 4th, it is the day Chairman Mao stood at the Tiananmen Gate of the Forbidden City in 1949 and declared the founding of the People’s Republic of China. It is the first day of a national holi-week. That the two holidays fell conveniently together, creating eight consecutive days without work, was fortuitous. The government lifted all road tolls and the Chinese mobilized.  
There is great internal demand by the Chinese to tour their own country, for it has only been allowed in the last decade. Why am I in China at this time, competing with them to see their antiquities? I became suspect of a tour company who would schedule my 14-day tour during an 8-day national holiday.

“Yes, time flies. Our three days together almost over,” Angela bid us farewell. “You are a very lucky group: no fake money, no pick-pockets, even the weather,” she pointed outside the bus, “Blue skies. You saw many things in Beijing,” she said before summarizing our trip. “I hope you return to Beijing again. How will we know one another from Green Bus? What’s our code word?”
“Ding-ding hou!” we chorused before erupting in laughter. 
“Yes, twenty or thirty years later we will know Green Bus from ding-ding hou,” she laughed. We hugged Angela and boarded our two-hour flight to Xi’an. 

In-flight we discussed our personal want for more museums, artifact, antiquities and less shopping.
Derek said, “If we do that, half the people sit outside; they don’t want. The government makes us go to pearl factory, to jade factory because so many people get rip-off buying fakes. They complain and the government can say - look, we gave you a chance to buy the real one.” I heard a low growl from a dark recess - Monkey curling a lip to bare his teeth. (Ask Dr. Google about Monkey and Monkey Mind.)

The local guide palmed our green flag and microphone. “Nē hoú,” his deliciously deep voice resonated through the bus.
“Nē hoú,” we echoed.
“Welcome to Xi’an. I am called Peter.” Peter is a 40-ish scholar working on his PhD in Chinese History - purrrfect!  He is tall, six-foot or so with a longish crew cut standing straight as bristles. Wire-rimmed glasses perched on a puggish nose over buggish eyes. I wondered about his thyroid function and scoured his anterior neck with my eyes, wanting to palpate the gland and instruct, “Swallow.” 
“Nē hoú má?” (How are you?) Peter asked.
“Ding-ding hou!” we chorused again to laughter he could not comprehend.
“Oh, that good?” His brows rose, he smiled broadly, his words more statement than question. “So you know how to say good and var good. What if you are not so good? Do you know ma-ma-hu-hu?” He waggled a splayed hand at us, “So-so?” 
Our heads shook no.
“Ma means horse. Hu is tiger.” His intonation was precise and deliberate. “Ma-ma-hu-hu is horse-horse-tiger-tiger, or so-so.” He waggled his hand again. Love it! “Can you say ma-ma-hu-hu?
“Ma-ma-hu-hu,” we echoed.
“Var good,” Peter smiled, “How do you say thank you?”
“Xièxie (pronounced sheh-sheh),” we said without hesitation.
“Var good,” Peter said, “How about no thank you?”
“Bullshit,” Collin said laughing.
“Bùxuè(pronounced boo-sheh),” Peter corrected, laughing, shaking a finger at him. “They know bullshit. Bùxuè is no thank you. If you want something stronger you say bùyào (boo-yow). That means 'NO! I REALLY don’t want.'”

Xi’an is one of China’s ancient cities dating back to 2700 BCE. “Confucius was from Xi’an,” Peter said. “Chinese Buddhism start here. Seventy-six Empros ruled Zhong Guo from Xi’an. Zhong Guo means Middle Country; it is the ancient name for China. Xi’an was the capitol city for 1500 years.” He pointed to several green hills dotting the landscape between the airport and city. “Those are toom,” Toom? “Crypt of Chinese Empro.” Ah, tombs of the Emperors.
Eleven mound tombs with 200-300 chambers apiece surround Xi’an. Legend says Emperor Qin (China’s first Emperor) was buried in an elaborate tomb, between two rivers of quicksilver, surrounded by an army. It was thought to be mythos until 1974, when a farmer digging a well uncovered a clay soldier. He thought he found ghosts of the “element generals”: earth, wood, metal, fire, and water.
One by one, an army of thousands emerged from the soil: infantry, archers, cavalry, charioteers, horses, acrobats, dancers, singers, bookkeepers, flagman, etc. They would become known as the Terra-Cotta Army, putting Xi’an on the map, and catapulting tourism to its top industry.
The farmer was compensated approximately 10 USD, a generosity because land and air are owned by the government. Under different circumstances, he might bask in the lap of luxury as his farm generates an enviable income for China. Rather, he signs books in the gift shop, apparently an embittered old man.
“Twenty-one hundred years ago Xi’an was invaded by Ghenghis and Kubla Khan. So there are many Mongols in Xi’an. Many Muslims came over Silk Road so Xi’an is var multi-culture,” Peter continued. “We have many Muslims and a mosque. You will see women with veil. We have tolerance for many people. My family came here during Culture Revolution, to run away. Some of my family were imprisoned. I have no love for Chairman Mao.” I was surprised by his candor.

We drove immediately to the Xi’an City Wall - one of a very few intact city wall fortifications remaining in all of China. Unlike some crude rubble sections of the Great Wall, Xi’an’s wall is of ashlar construction, probably filled with crude rock (and bodies) and veneered in finely masoned rock brick with thin, mortared joints. Scaling this wall would be difficult. We clustered inside the moat at an exterior gate; sheer walls towered sixty feet overhead. Clearly, approaching enemies were easy pickens’ for archers perched above.
There we watched a “gate opening ceremony” with dancers, acrobats, and a fellow that tossed a large vase into the sky to catch and juggle it with shoulders or legs or head. The narrator, a young woman in costume, spoke English phonetically. Her initial proclamation was nearly over before I realized she was speaking English. We encountered this memorized, phonetical English in several prepared speeches - their words mispronounced and mis-intoned. It was more difficult to understand than you can imagine. 
Inside, we climbed a long, steep stairwell to the top of the wall. A guard tower housed a small museum with old uniforms - raw silk with plates or disks of metal and leather attached as armor. They were both utilitarian and artful.
Marathons are run atop the wall - three times round its eight-mile square. Stairs are outfitted with metal ramps and they rent bicycles. Had we more time, I would have loved to pedal its circumference. 
We attended a Tang Dynasty show and were served seventeen different dumplings for dinner. Dumplings shaped like koi, encased fish. Snout shaped dumplings contained pork. Rooster head dumplings held chicken. They were creative in their presentation both at table and on stage.
The Chinese version of a geisha playing a koto sat on stage and hammered at a guzheng. She was joined and the quartet played the guzheng, an er-hu: a boxy, stringed violin of sorts, a suona: a nasal, reed oboe and a pipa - a plucked mandolin. I was reminded of the thin, reedy music my Popo played on her transistor radio.
“S’cuse me, ham dumpling” our server hollered before plunking the platter onto the lazy-susan.
“Did she say ham?” Collin asked after tasting it. “I think she meant to say Spam.” How fortuitous! Hawaiians consume more Spam than the rest of the world. How could our hosts have known? The theater was dark, my eyelids heavy. We fell into bed that night - exhausted.

Terra-Cotta Army and Wild Goose Pagoda 10/1/2012

“Nē hoú. How you lie brehfus?” Peter asked. “Var good? Today we see the terra-cotta soldier of First Empro Qin (pronounced Chin), Q-I-N,” Peter said as our bus left the hotel. “This is the first day of one-week holiday; we see soldier first, before many crowds. Then we have lunch. In north China we grow winter wheat and make noodoo, no rice.” he shook his head. “I eat noodoo every day,” he said, rubbing his belly. “I love so much. Today I take you to noodoo house.”
I love noodles so much myself. Sometimes I sign-off with “toodles noodles” in deference to my love for noodles. I am liking this character Peter var much. We speak noodooz!

We stood outside the gate, tickets in hand when Peter’s voice came through my earbud. “Sticky rice, sticky rice,” he said, making gathering motions with his arms. “When I say sticky-rice, we stick close together; okay?” We nodded. Already the crowds thickened. 
“Sticky-rice,” he instructed while we were counted, passing through the secured entrance where bags were scanned airport-style. We queued for electric trolleys and rode into the Terra-Cotta Army Museum. 
Four excavation “pits” are housed beneath large hangars.  Seven thousand figures have been unearthed. They are full-size and each is different. The theory is that I carved your face while you carved mine. Most faces are Chinese: small, narrow, with flat cheekbones and small nose. Some faces are Mongol: wide with high cheekbones and broad foreheads. The conquered, the captured, the  enslaved, they theorize.
Collin-need I say more?
The Army’s silk clothing and wooden weapons have long decayed but the soldiers, the soldiers are clay and they have endured. Each soldier was painted but when they are unearthed and exposed to air, the paint oxidizes and quickly disappears. Because of oxidation, digging has slowed and some areas have been reburied.
Niece Lael & me
Pit 1 contains the infantry. Pit 2 contains archers, their top knots askew to enable rapid retrieval of arrows from their quiver. Pit 3 contains guards and chariots. Two bronze chariots have been found. They are built to 1/3 scale and are believed to be two of eighty-one. One general, standing seven-foot, a full foot taller than the rest, has been disinterred. 
Obviously, the Terra-Cotta Army Museum is a UNESCO site of world cultural legacy. The presence of underground artifacts inhibits building and digging in Xi’an.

Guide Peter
Pit 1 was an enormous hangar. We strolled along its edge and peered into the dirt. At the far end, the “hospital” mended the fragmented warriors.
“Aloha,” Peter’s voice interrupted my thoughts. “Green bus, I’m here.” Okay, I’m HERE; where are you? Our guides actually did this frequently enough to be annoying. “Aloha - Green Bus, I’m here,” is not a particularly helpful piece of information. I need to know where here is i.e. “Green Bus, I am outside Pit 1 between two buildings, near the bathrooms.” This would be far more useful and was precisely where I found Peter gathering the group for a lua-break (lua = Hawaiian for bathroom) before entering Pit 2.
We descended approximately twenty-feet below grade, into a dimly lit, underground Pit 3 to view the chariots. The crowds were ten-deep and I waited, consistently pushing forward until I reached their encasement. Green Bus had long passed when I finally snapped my pictures and raced after them.
Our last stop was a theater in the round playing a documentary recounting the tale: the well, the discovery, the excavation, the confiscation, the collection, the wealth. It emptied into the gift shop where the hapless farmer works seven days each week, signing books. He allows photos when a book is purchased. His photo was captured via shoot-from-the-hip iPhone (not mine).

Our group surged into another Museum gift shop, flowing over their sales floor and up the stairwell to the  Noodle House. Two noodle chefs were at work. A young, tall and lean man twirled and twirled noodles like a jump rope in a process that thins and elongates. When it stretched sufficiently, he cut a section and began again, twirling and twirling, the rope of noodles hitting his floured table with a loud thwack at every rotation. He worked next to a large, boiling vat where the noodles cooked before they were scooped, with a wire ladle, into bowls. His noodles were mein: long, thin, spaghetti-like noodles. 
An older, stout fellow worked with a lump of noodle dough from which he whittled thick, short sections. He stood away from his boiling vat and his whittlings jumped into the pot. He made fahn noodles: broad and thick like sagnarelli - a flat, ribbon cut pasta. I wondered if their physical  likeness to their noodles was more than coincidental. 
The noodle sauces were Szechuan-style, spicy and thick with black beans. The buffet contained many vegetables and a childhood favorite - boiled peanuts. It was easily the best meal I ate in all of China and I was longing for something besides onions and bell peppers. I echoed Peter’s sentiment, “I love so much.”
Emperor Qin’s mausoleum is the only one that has not been plundered, pillaged or excavated. Apparently the quicksilver legend is true. They conducted extensive ground penetrating sonar and have identified his tomb 150 feet below grade. A sarcophagus sits on marble floors in a large room with the bones of his wives - who were entombed alive. Of the two rivers... they obtained core samples using penetrating probes, the area is highly contaminated with mercury. It will be many, many years before his tomb is disturbed.
Emperor Qin diverted substantial manpower to his soldiers and tomb, and China's the fields lay fallow and his young country starved.

We paused at the nearby “reproduction factory” where you too, for a mere 6000 USD, can have a life-sized warrior made in your likeness.

Leaving the warriors behind, we boarded our bus for the Wild Goose Pagoda (Dayan Ta) Park. “You will like var much,” Peter said, beginning to tell its tales.
Built in 652 CE, the Wild Goose Pagoda was part of the Da Ci’en Si Buddhist Monastery until Mao, in his effort to cleanse the nation of God, sent the Red Guard to execute monks and nuns. Some were thrown from the Pagoda which stands at 64 meters (210 feet). 
“Hello?” Peter’s phone interrupted his tale. His face took on a somber expression. “Yes, I sink so. Yes.” He looked up at us. “That was our company telling us to be var careful. A bus crash today in Beijing. They have thirteen German tourists, six died. We have sher-fu, var good driver, masterful. He will be careful.”

The monastery was beautiful with cobbled walks, old pines, lush undergrowth, ancient pillars, and a temple bell. The Pagoda leans, its crumbling rock, chinks, and frailties hidden in the glow of late light. It was originally erected to house 1,335 volumes of Buddhist scripture - which were destroyed by fire in 1968 on Mao’s orders. One does wonder what sources Mao’s continued reverence; doesn’t one?
I sought a small, jade Buddha, a request from my buddy Wade. I thought it appropriate to purchase a Buddha within monastery walls, and so I did.
We strolled through a curious garden of marble steps and pillars. What the heck? The steps are for horse mounting and dismounting, the pillars for tying one off. We left the monastery as daylight faded.

“Tonight we eat hot-pot. You know hot-pot?” We gave Peter a puzzled look, shaking our heads no. “Hot-pot is shabu-shabu.” 
“Oh-h-h,” we chorused. 
“I don’t know shabu-shabu,” Peter continued, “But Hawaii people tell me hot-pot is shabu-shabu and I am sinking dis is so.”
We sat at round tables and each had a small brazier and pot filled with broth. A separate table displayed various condiments. I rounded the table, gathering greens, mushrooms, shoots, and seasonings for by hot-pot. This is more like it! Within minutes I had blanched vegetables over noodles. YUM!
“This is a better way to eat; yeah?” Collin said. “You eat less coz you get full while you’re cooking.” 
“There is some physiologic evidence for that,” I said. “It let’s your brain catch up with your belly. It lets the signal for satiety get there.” Its why Weight Watcher’s advises drinking 8oz. of water 30-minutes before meals. Its why we tell people to chew 30-times before swallowing. Its why we advise putting your fork down between mouthfuls. It slows the meal and allows transit time for the chemical signal from belly to brain to suppress the drive to eat. For some, this signal travels quickly; for others, not so fast and they eat and eat and eat. Hot-pot is definitely a good food strategy for the arsenal.

“Set your bags out tonight,” Peter said as we rode toward our hotel. “Tomorrow we have var early flight. We pick up your bags tonight. But remember to keep clothes for tomorrow.” He told the tale of John from Utah who packed all his clothes and slept naked. John was missing at breakfast and queuing for the bus. Peter went to his room. 
“John, John.”  In his retelling, Peter knocked at the air in front of his face. “John, are you asleep?” John wasn’t asleep - he was nude! They wrapped him in a tablecloth and intercepted his luggage at the airport before his flight. “Don’t do that,” Peter poked his finger at us while we laughed and laughed.

I later reflected upon these Chinese antiquities, so old yet not tumbling and crumbling as the ruins of Europe.
“Do you think they were better masons,” a friend asked.
“No, I think they had harder rock.”

1 comment:

  1. I think this was my favorite post. Your opening about "cement canyonlands," captured my imagination. The photo of the hanger filled with terra cotta soldier gave me a true feel for the immensity of the burial site. Even eating the noodles . . . glad you had a good meal. What kind of wood was the buddha carved from? Looks almost like olive wood.