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Published: January 12th 2008
Mianyang was just a stopover; an 8-hour stopover enroute to Xian
. The 10-hour bumpy bus ride from Jiuzhaigou ended at Mianyang's train station where we got 11:15 pm tickets to Xian. The uneventful overnighter reached the destination at 11 am. Xian, a walled city (mostly renovated 14th century Ming walls), is said to be China's cultural capital. Its predecessor Chang'an
flourished with music, poetry, religion and commerce long before the 8th century. But despite its rich heritage the only things we remember about Xian are the two hours we spent in queue for onward tickets and luggage storage. You see, the fame of Xian's trump card was also the undoing of the city (for us, at least). We were on our way to see The Terracotta Warriors
Qin Shi Huang was China's first Emperor at age 13. He is credited with unifying the currency, script and the existing city walls. He commenced building his mausoleum which took 11 years to complete. The jury is still out on whether Emperor Qin commissioned the legendary Terracotta Army to fight his demons in the afterlife or as part of his plan to rule after death. What is certain is that there has never been
Pit 1 - 6000 strong
Battle ready formation
anything remotely close to this (ever) in history. After the last piece was carved and positioned the entire army was buried in a subterranean bunker. Some swear that the emperor killed all the artisans and everyone else involved in the 'cover up'
(no pun intended). That way, the location would remain a secret. And it did for more than 2,000 years until peasant farmers stumbled upon one of the world's most astounding finds while drilling a well in 1974.
Research had advised us to tackle the pits counter-clockwise ending with pit 1 - the grandest and that's precisely what we did. Pit 3 was fair-sized. The platform afforded us bird's-eye views. This was likely the command center determined by the number of higher-echelon ranks present in the pit. But even before we got around to analyzing that, we were struck by the detail carved into each piece. First off, no two soldiers had the same face. We'd later confirm that no two of the thousands of terracotta warriors looked alike
. The slight arch of an eyebrow; alert eyes, perfect hair bun and hundreds on notches and bumps on the body armour made these life-sized pieces come alive. 72
soldiers occupied this pit and horses. We saw 4 horses, each with remarkable attention given to the perfection of its mane, face and tail.
The pit 2 battalion was 1300
strong. The huge pit showed signs of ongoing excavations. Here we'd appreciate the time-consuming, labour-intensive job of archaeologists. Layer after layer of mud and soil were stripped and brushed away over the decades to raise these pieces again. The 'cooler' thing about pit 2 was that it had glass-enclosed, up close exhibits of a general, standing archer, kneeling archer, cavalry man and his horse and a mid-ranking officer. Circling each piece gave a totally different perspective on the intricate detailing and perfect craftsmanship. One could almost
gain, from staring into the eyes of these figures, some insight into the genius or dementia of Emperor Qin.
Scratch everything we said about the size of pit 2 for pit 1 was the mother of all pits. The pit to end all pits. The A380 of all pits. The ... You get the point. The 14,260 square meters (3.52 acres) hole-in-the-ground, contains more than 6000 warriors
, including archers, infantrymen and a few decayed chariots. They all face East, battle-ready. It was
chilling sight, looking at the main-thrust of a chilling war machine. And yet, here too showed signs of ongoing excavations indicating that all may not yet have been uncovered. Some pieces were perfectly intact while others were missing various body parts. And yet others lay in a tangled heap of broken bodies and decaying chariot wheels. Were we enemies of Qin, we'd be afraid, very afraid, of the might and resolve of his army.
In a separate museum were two bronze chariots and horses. These replicas were half the size of real chariots but no less detailed. The eyes see. The mind records. But processing is slow. The scale of the project, find and exhibition was simply mind-boggling. The world-famous Terracotta Army was no longer on our TV set but merely a few feet in front of us. We'd say, after the visiting the three pits and the awesome twin bronze chariots and horses, that we were a tad bit (just a tad bit
We'd sleep restlessly in a train bound for Pingyao that very night; exhausted, shell-shocked, awestruck. The train slowed, its whistle piercing the silence of the early morning. Seven hours had passed. It was
now 6 a.m. With a handful of travellers we exited and looking around we instantly thought "what did we do?". Pingyao's platform looked like a ghost station; lifeless, bland, foggy. Self-preservation instincts drove us to the ticket counter. "May we have two tickets to Beijing on the next train please". There were no trains for two days the lady managed to tell us in spotty English and sign language. Our spirits plummeted. We didn't relish the idea of staying in the grungy, uninviting town surrounding the small station. "Maybe I could help?", another voice said. She spoke perfect English. Her plan was to have us stay at her hostel, Harmony Guesthouse, while she tried to arrange a bus or black-market train tickets. We acquiesced and after a 10-minute auto rickshaw ride we drove thru ancient city walls and into the most authentic walled city we had ever seen. Aged, original houses Ming houses lined the dusty streets, some with red lanterns hanging from the roofs. Old bicycles lay against older structures threatening to push them down and eerie doors opened on to large courtyards. Off the main tourist drag, life continued as it had for centuries. Labourers hand-chipped solid bricks
and shovelled coal, children ran thru the streets, clothes dried on outside lines. It was almost as if they were oblivious to the thousands of tourists who had discovered Pingyao's uniqueness and who now clogged up Nan Dajie. Pingyao was the kind of place you'd expect a movie crew to roll thru at anytime.
Apart from tourism, Pingyao didn't have an identifiable industry. But looking around at the impressive architecture, expansive courtyards and awesome city walls, one could tell that it was once a boom town. Its history reveals that Pingyao was once the axis for China-Mongolia trade during the Ming dynasty. China's first banks and checks were created here
by Qing businessmen as the solution to the problem of trading huge amounts of silver. But things went bust in the 20th century and the town was frozen in time. We purposefully delayed our departure by two days. Walking along the 1370 Ming walls with its 72 watchtowers (each containing a chapter of Sun Tzu's The Art of War
), disappearing between narrow, ancient, dusty lanes and interacting with the locals was one big experience not to be rushed.
Our train tickets appeared on demand and we bid 'goodbye'
to our hosts and the lovely little town. Somehow, this time, the train station didn't appear foreboding and as distance minimized the buildings we muttered apologies to Pingyao and its people for so harshly pre-judging their marvellous town. It is our sincere hope that Pingyao retains its-laid back, original, movie-set charm and not fall prey to over-commercialization. And that they maintain their quaint, wooden buildings and not trade them in for those ugly, tiled skyscrapers. Pingyao reminded us that good things do come in small packages. But knowing that only heightened our trepidation of entering China's ultimate big city, Beijing. 😊
😊 The kind folks of Harmony Guesthouse
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