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Published: September 1st 2009
Sitting at the crossroads of history, Xi’an is famous for not only being the termination point of the epic Silk Road, but it was in this region where China was united for the first time under a common ruler, that of the belligerent Emperor Qin Shi Huang, whose other legacy is the legendary terracotta army.
After what seemed a prolonged period of flight connections (mainly because it was) I wearily trudged into Xi’an airport, and I immediately headed to the Han Yanglin Mausoleum, where the fourth Emperor of the Western Han Dynasty, Emperor Jindi, was interred. Jindi was a far less pugnacious fellow than his more famous predecessor, Emperor Qin. Emperor Jindi lived by the philosophical Daoist philosophy which encourages harmonious living with the surrounding world - partly achieved by following a course of non-action or non-intervention. This resulted in lower taxes, friendly relations with neighbouring states, a focus on agricultural development and lessening the punishments for criminals. Obviously, Jindi was a popular leader whose citizenry enjoyed a peaceful and harmonious existence.
The mausoleum draws only a smattering of visitors, which is surprising because this is a first rate attraction. After donning delightful cloth slippers that covered one’s shoes,
the visitor would proceed across a glass floor that passed directly over the excavated pits. Emperor Jindi’s interest in non-military affairs is reflected in the contents these chambers - instead of the more famous warriors, weapons and other accoutrements of war, these contained a microcosm of daily life - such as workers, farm animals, wagons and pots. The darkened interior with soft lighting that dimly illuminated the artefacts gave the whole mausoleum a hushed and reflective ambience - perfectly suited for the Daoist philosophy that so influenced Emperor Jindi’s life. Prior to my leaving, I was fortunate to meet the diminutive and ebullient Grace, an employee at the mausoleum. Two days later she gave me a private sightseeing tour around Xi’an - but more on that later.
After leaving the mausoleum I proceeded to the bustling city of Xi’an. This was cleaner, friendlier and more traditional than my preconceptions, though the usual traffic chaos one associates with modern China was present. I witnessed people reversing on roundabouts, bicycles heading directly into three lanes of oncoming traffic and other feats of bravery or idiocy - term is as you like. It is a minor miracle that the Chinese population has
reached one billion when you consider the driving habits of some of its citizens.
After a restful and much needed sleep, my second day saw me sally forth to the famous Army of the Terracotta warriors, where at least a monumental 8,000 life-sized terracotta soldiers were buried with him. I decided on taking the public bus to the officially named Museum of Qin Shi Huang Terracotta Warriors and Horses, which proved to be a great option, for it was clean, smooth, quiet and the air conditioning worked - all bonuses as far as bus travel is concerned. The fine weather that greeted my arrival the day before now turned decidedly damp as heavy clouds and a fine mist rolled in - yet this did not deter the seething hoards of visitors that descended on one of China’s prime attractions. I particularly dislike tour groups, but can tolerate the smaller versions (a dozen or so) however the terracotta warriors was besieged by mobs of 30-40 or more - all lamely following their tour leader who would wave coloured flags on poles to attract the attention of their group - much like how waving rags will attract the attention of cattle -
an apt comparison.
There are three pits uncovered at the site, plus a fourth museum area. I had read that it was best to visit the pits in reverse order - so my first stop was the museum and it contained two incredible pieces of artistry - a pair of miniature bronze chariots with horses. I have a particular fondness for bronze works, and the Chinese certainly excelled in this craft, but these chariots were stunning beyond description. I lingered long at these marvellous creations and doubt I shall see a more superior working of bronze in my lifetime.
Pit three now beckoned and it was small, not much to hold one’s attention, but it was my first glimpse of the warriors in their natural surrounds, and it was exciting to finally see their silent faces and beautifully ornamented armour. So it was with a hurried gait that I entered pit number two and the scale of this pit was incredible - I gasped upon entering as the enormous enclosure, and it was encircled by a long walkway that enabled one to circumambulate the pit. The low lighting that heightened the mood so effectively within Emperor Jindi’s mausoleum
An excavated portion of the Han Yanglin Mausoleum - Xi'an, China
The damaged section at the top was caused by tomb-robbers many years ago.
was also present here, but on a much larger and spectacular scale. Some warriors were displayed in glass cases which enabled a close examination of these impressive 2,200 year-old warriors. They still looked magnificent, timeless almost - age has not wearied them.
The final stop was the more famous pit one, and if pit two was enormous, then pit one was stupendous, though the unsubtle lighting diminished its atmosphere. Columns upon columns of unearthed warriors formed disciplined lines, Emperor Qin’s militaristic pursuits are well reflected here - a stark comparison to the bucolic interests of Emperor Jindi. My arrival on an elevated vantage would be similar to a leader who strides onto a platform to gaze down upon his troops. The incredible power that Emperor Qin must have felt when looking upon a living army of this size would be difficult to comprehend, as even their terracotta replicas provided a tingling sensation on first sight.
Unfortunately, the ridiculous concept of a 40 person tour group was proven correct, as the narrow passageways around this pit made any walking here a difficult prospect for all concerned. Perhaps the warlike ghost of Emperor Qin was influencing my thoughts as I
considered the possibility of the terracotta archers coming to life for long enough to thin the ranks of these larger groups to ease the passage for all.
After three hours amongst the warriors, I returned to a dampened Xi’an to visit the Beilin Museum. My journey from Xi’an’s bus station to the museum in a Chinese version of a tuk-tuk was chaotic - we weaved dangerously close to cars, buses and other large objects to reach the museum. Stupidly, the driver tried to overcharge me by a ridiculous amount, so I placed the money I knew to be the fair price beside him (as he refused to accept it in his hands) and whilst he regarded me with a loathsome look I sauntered off. Shouted words spewed from his mouth, but what a total waste of energy on his part, my lack of Chinese language meant his tirade was as effective as speaking to a lamp post. These antics occurred under the watchful gaze of stoic-faced policeman who stood only a few paces away, but he did not intervene for it was obvious that the money I paid was generous enough. Once in the museum, I gazed at a
Traffic aplenty - Xi'an, China
Why would you drive a bicycle headlong into this?
wonderful collection of stone-chiselled Chinese calligraphy, including a stone tablet of Confucius’ Analects. The museum has been described as housing the heaviest library in the world, and with over 3,000 stone pieces in its collection, it certainly is a contender. To examine this ornate writing, so painstakingly carved into rock was incredible - the wonders of Chinese artistry seems to know no end.
On the final day, I met Grace and our first destination was to plunge into the Muslim Quarter - an area choked with narrow alleys, the distinct odours of Chinese street food, and the bustle that accompanies a street market. We weaved through motorcycles, mopeds, men hauling carts and eventually wandered into a nondescript dumpling house. I was the only foreigner in the restaurant and as all eyes gazed at me I swaggered towards our chosen table. The food was superior and as I showed Grace photos of Australia on my netbook, some of the staff gathered to watch as well - for them the land of Australia is very far removed from everything they would know.
After leaving the dumpling house, Grace and I moved through the market area for some much needed souvenir
shopping. Interestingly, Grace had a knowledge of both English and German, which matched my own language skills, so the day’s conversation was a combination of both languages, with a few smatterings of Chinese thrown in for authenticity. We proceeded to the Shaanxi History Museum, another sprawling testament to the rich history and culture of China. Grace used her influence to bypass the crowds and enter directly into the Museum, which saved a long waiting time as the entrance queues were not moving at all. Once inside, not only was there another opportunity to gaze at more Terracotta warriors, but also a vast array of bronzes, pottery, gold and stonework. Grace was gracious in providing English and German commentary on the most important parts of the museum.
It was fitting to conclude my visit to Xi’an here, for this museum encapsulated the vast influence the Xi’an area has exerted upon the whole of China - Emperor Qin, the Silk Road, and the development of Chinese artistry. If Emperor Qin could return today and witness the modern miracle that is China, I am sure he would be well pleased with the vision he had in unifying a once fractious land.
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