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Published: August 2nd 2010
Recent Goings-on and China Trip Part II - Xi'an
I have been neglecting my writing, according to my mother - meaning that I haven't been blogging as much lately. That is mainly because I returned to Huhehaote (Hushi) after my two week vacation reinvigorated, and refreshed with my fascination for ancient Chinese culture, in particular classical Chinese music. I have had the itch to get started learning an instrument for a while (even literally dreaming about it), but seeing so much culture in the space of two weeks made it seem unbearable to wait any longer. The very day after my parents left for the States, I went out in search of a Chinese instrument and a teacher. I had been thinking of learning erhu
, the two-stringed violin, because I figured two strings would be a little easier to begin with than the more than ten strings on the guzheng
, my favorite Chinese instrument. (I know it's really not a matter of number of strings but still - less intimidating). I first went to the "culture market" near the major universities, but only succeeded in finding a creaky old erhu in the back of a guitar store, selling for 1,200
RMB with not the best sound quality I ever heard. I moved on, recommended by a friend to go to the music stores near the performing arts school not far from my home.
The first store I entered was in a basement space, very cool for the summer weather, and vast, filled with pianos, guitars, violins, all glittering and new. The elderly clerk showed me to the erhu section, with a wide range of prices for different models, and called over a man to tune them. The Mongolian salesman, tuning the different grades of erhu for me to hear and try out, finally suggested I try my hand at matouqin
, horse-head violin, also two-stringed but uniquely Mongolian. His logic was, "You can learn erhu anywhere in China, but where else in China can you learn matouqin
He was a good salesman; I was sold after hearing the instrument he tuned for me, which though more expensive than the erhu model I was considering at first, has a beautiful sound, a bit like a cello, and is an expressive instrument in the hands of someone who knows what they're doing. The saleman threw in free lessons to be given
The only warrior they found completely intact
by himself, on the condition that I teach him some basic English. So this past week, I have worked, gone out with friends...and practiced the basic bowing technique for matouqin, in addition to wrapping my head around how to tutor someone with no English. He has proved a most diligent student and a great teacher, and I am having fun. The thing I am facing now is how to better manage my time, including my blogging time; and I feel a sense of pressure to blog my trip before I get too caught up in all these new things. I'm going to try to start Tae Kwon Do soon; better blog the trip first. Beijing to Xi'an
My parents and I flew into a fog in Beijing that only let up to give way to smog. We would not see the sun until Shanghai, but that didn't depress our spirits. Here we were, together in China. Our first day was simply spent being together. Later in the trip we would begin to feel the pressure to get in the sight-seeing ("It's Tuesday, it must be Shanghai!"), but in Bejing we took our time. It is such a rich
city, with so many things see and do, and we had friends there to meet us and to treat my parents to Chinese hospitality: so different from the American style of welcoming foreigners, yet very similar in some respects to the Southern treatment of strangers I grew up with, especially the prerequisite of being fed lots and lots of delicious food.
We set out from Beijing early on the morning of the 14th for Xi'an. We had spent three days and four nights in Beijing. Perhaps the nicest aspect of sight-seeing in Beijing is that Standard Mandarin (putonghua
) is based on the Beijing dialect; it's what I studied in college courses, and aside from the rapidity with which Beijing natives speak, it sounded bell-like and clear; a good way to start when one is acting as a "translator." I was a little worried about how I would fare in Xi'an. The first time I came to Xi'an, I spoke very little Chinese, so I was in no place to note the accent there. Accordingly, I felt a little unsure about what kind of accent I would be faced with, and I was afraid I would have trouble understanding. But
everyone I met in Xi'an spoke crisp Mandarin, only with less emphasis on adding "er" to everything like you find in the north. Remaining in my linguistic comfort zone lended me confidence, and I was able to negotiate tours, meals, shopping and the like without many problems.
Our first visit was to the Bell Tower, which was small but charming. There was an impressive musical performance in one of tower halls, given by student musicians playing classical instruments and dressed in Tang Dynasty costume. Later, Dad and I had to have a go at the bell out on one of the balconies; I made a wimpy attempt before Dad busted a few guts with three solid rings on the huge bell. It was so loud you could feel it when it was rung properly. Walking the streets below near the city wall, the bell could still be heard in the distance as others rang it for good luck or for kicks.
The next day, we were to see the one thing, above any other, that my parents had come to China to see: the Terracotta Warriors Museum.
Our drive to the Museum was...interesting. The driver was nominally hired
by the hotel we were staying at, but he kept asking me if we wanted to buy imitation statuary or go to dinner at a Tang Dynasty-themed restaurant with performances. Obviously, he had some contracts with small stores that would pay him a commission on any sales they made to his passengers. I explained that we were working on a time-frame and had our goals all sketched out; that didn't stop him from pulling into a little crafts emporium near the highway, just in case we had changed our minds. Things were looking awkward. I was forced to apologetically tell him that, although I guessed that he made money by going to these places, we really and truly were not interested and I was sorry for the inconvenience, and to please just take us to the Museum. He was nice enough about it and made no more unexpected pit-stops, but he also ceased making conversation with me for the rest of the day. Oops.
On the highway, heavy mist was moving over the fields of corn, and the mountains were hidden completely from view. We arrived at the Terracotta Warriors Museum parking area, and I found that this part
of the museum was completely changed in the last four years. KFC, coffee shops, souvenir stores etc. in modern, well-looking brick buildings line what was once a stone path through trees and shrubs. Probably part of the changes that occured with the Olympics, although it still surprised me since it is a little removed from Beijing.
We walked towards the main entrance and were approached by a woman in a white blouse, navy skirt and badge - she wanted to know if we needed an English-speaking guide. The fee was 100 RMB, so we decided to go with it - and it was worth the money. She spoke excellent English and had memorized a formidable number of dates and facts, including the sculpting and firing processes and pigments used to make the warriors, the significance of the different types of hair styles and clothes, etc.
Words and pictures can't really do the Museum justice, and I don't really like spinning off a whole bunch of facts in a blog like I'm some sort of expert, when I would have to look them up, anyway. But this is how I think of the legacy that constitutes this archeaological treasure
- take of the Pyramids at Giza: feats of architecture made to house the necessities and comforts the Pharoahs would need in the afterlife. But the tombs in Egypt were largely plundered long, long ago. Here, in Xi'an, the feat was in making the warriors and horses who would protect the Emperor in death, and the animal keepers, acrobats, wine vessels that would keep him suitably comfortable and entertained. They were housed modestly, vandalized once, and forgotten. Imagine the amount of labor and skill that went into crafting each piece, especially the faces (modeled after real soldiers), and the years spent and the sheer power needed to draft so many people to this cause that made it possible in the first place.
We spent three hours at the three pits, then returned to the city to relax for the rest of the day. We had hoped to take in the Shaanxi History Museum on the way back, but it is a free museum and the line was about an hour wait. Instead we had a nice dinner and turned in early. The next day we were to fly out to Shanghai in the afternoon, so we got up and
commited to a walk near the South Gate of the ancient city wall.
First on the agenda was the Forest of Stone Stelae, where in ancient times tablets engraved with classical Chinese works were collected together for scholars to come and make copies for study. Ink was spread on the tablet to be copied, then paper was pressed to the stone to absorb the ink and get the copy. The stones are still black with the ink.
The Forest of Stelae (Bei Lin
in Chinese) is interesting in itself, but the reason I like it, and the reason I wanted my parents to see it, is that it is peaceful, with beautiful walks through lush landscaping and old trees, and many architectural elements of interest and subtle beauty. We enjoyed our walk (although I was attacked by monster mosquitoes), and made some bargains for fans out in the street next to the city wall, gift shopping for friends back home.
Not far away was the South Gate of the Old City Wall; we paid the entrance fee and sat under some umbrellas at a small cafe, taking in the city and relaxing. I got a kick out
of the guards dressed in Tang Dynasty armor; they reminded me of the Beefeaters at the Tower of London, for some reason. We finally had to rush back to the hotel and check out in time for the hour-long ride to the airport.
We didn't really get to take in as much I would have liked, but all things considered, the Warriors alone were plenty. Shanghai would prove yet another change in pace and a new flavor of China. More on that later. For now, signing off-
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