Warriors over the Wall

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Asia » China
September 9th 2019
Published: September 9th 2019
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Day 41 to 44 of 80

Just a quick fake money update - it turned out that our fellow traveller's fake Chinese 100 yuan notes were ones she got from a Chiswick, London, currency exchange place near to where she lives. So nothing like the impact that was first feared, and as the problem originates back in the UK potentially easier to sort out. Her lawyer sister is due to visit the currency office to pursue a 'conversation'.

Thursday was our first significant move out of Beijing city, firstly on an out and back visit to the Great Wall, and then overnight train to Xi'an, home of the Terracotta Warriors.

The Great Wall - one of the 7 'modern' man-made Wonders of the World. You have to check so much nowadays. Look up '7 Wonders of the World' on Wiki for example and you will find several lists. The original 'Ancient Wonders', a current 'Natural Wonders' eg Great Barrier Reef, a US organisation's 'Engineering Wonders' eg Empire State Building,...

The Great Wall features on the current 'Modern Built Wonders of the World'. Firstly, we hope everyone realises by now that you cannot see the Great Wall from space, not by the naked eye in earth orbit at least. But that is not to deny its impressiveness. It is, after all, around 5000 km long, and doesn't follow an easy route. The part we visited, and lots of photos we have seen of other sections, show it following the ridge tops of hill and mountain ranges.

Begun 2000 years ago by the first emperor, it snakes from the east coast to the Gobi Desert, forming a formidable barrier, with watchtowers at regular intervals. However, with age comes a lot of change and it's a bit like the road sweeper's broom 'Still using the original, 4 new heads and 3 new handles.'.

The section we were at was built under the supervision of General Xu Da in early Ming Dynasty. In 1987 it was acknowledged as one of the best preserved, and probably most important areas of the wall. Photos of Chairman Mao 'at the wall' were staged here.

Here the new part of the wall was built on the 1000m high mountain ridge. The 'arrow rock' and 'lying eagles' sections were built on precipitous cliffs and are said to resemble a flying dragon.

The section we visited was at Mutianyu, about 70km north of Beijing. There are 2 tourist heavy sections of the wall. Our visit place and Badaling, slightly closer to Beijing and supposedly the main location for Chinese visitors. Photos we had seen of both led us to expect typical large crowds at either location. Which was why we had contemplated in our Beijing week the possibility of visiting a more remote location. But didn't, because of the relentless heat.

Imagine how pleased we were, therefore, to find Mutianyu relatively unbusy. Sure, we weren't alone. And at the top of the cable car lift up to the wall, used by most visitors to this section, it was busyish at the wall entrance and to the leftwards, uphill direction. The logic would appear to be that people preferred to do an uphill section and then have downhill for the return, many of them not passing beyond the cable station on the way back, but going back down that way too.

We, however, as did everyone else in our group, went left, uphill but then on the return overshot the cable car exit to continue on to the next descent exit, several watchtowers, many downs and UPS and 2 to 3 km further on. And there were, therefore, many times when we had sections of the wall essentially to ourselves.

The soldiers working up here must have been very fit. From a cardio point of view the amount of work they must have put in patrolling must have been punishing. We were well knackered by the time we reached the descent point, and were really grateful that we had started with around 3 litres of drink, plus a refreshment stop (with ice lolly & wifi!) on the way across. Pip descended by the 'skilift', Paul by the toboggan run.

A mid-afternoon meal next to the wall - not great, they only served 'chicken' dishes but we can't say we discerned anything that we would describe as chicken in any dish - set us all up for the overnight train trip to Xi'an.

We were travelling by 'hard sleeper'. So whereas before we had had a private compartment, with door, to ourselves, this time we were in the middle pair of bunks in a 3 tier arrangement - two old biddies below us, two young ladies above us - open entrance, no door. Carriage was like a sauna when we first got in but the air con did kick in. We had an ok-enough night, though the occasional extended waft of cigarette smoke drifting from the smoking area at the end of the carriage and being circulated through the air con system was a right pain. Apparently one of the other pairs shared their cabin with some really foul smelling feet. 😨

We arrived ahead of time in Xi'an, and were all grateful that we could book into our rooms on arrival for a shower and a couple of hours r and r. This is Frank's home town so he knows his way around. When the group went out late morning he first took us, via public bus, to have a Xi'an burger, which is a thing apparently - and in fact we have seen many other examples in town during the rest of the day.

A Xi'an burger is a shredded pork filling, inside a freshly baked - rolled fresh and then griddled top and bottom - pasta-dough type of bread bun. Perfectly pleasant for 15 Y (£1.80) but would have benefitted from some more seasoning, but not the wicked looking chilli paste that was in a big bowl on the table to add to the only other dish they did, broad flat noodles. Interestingly they also had on each table 2 large bowls of unpeeled garlic cloves, 1 bowl fresh, 1 smoked. No one was brave enough to help themselves.

Likewise, only one person braved the restaurant's toilets, and she ranked them way down the scale, not helped by the, apparently, piles of poo around the edge of the squat bowl and the slipperyness of the floor. Leading to someone remarking about 'fortunate not to fall between two stools'. 😟

On to the Xi'an City Walls, the most extant such in China. Hundreds of cities had walls like these, but they were destroyed in the Cultural Revolution. Xi'an's was saved because a China president decreed it so, and because its building incorporated a run off for rain water, which then didn't seep into and weaken the rammed earth interior behind the brick facade.

The walls extend, in a perfect rectangle, for 13.5 km, and you can hire a bicycle to ride the full perimeter, but again no takers in the heat, not even from the 2 cyclists in the party. They have an annual 3 lap Xi'an City Walls Marathon in May each year when temperatures are supposedly more clement.

From atop the wall we spied a shop with a big sign "Beauty Exchange". Pip nearly ran down the stairs to see if she could get an exchange for a longer pair of legs 😊

Across the city to the Muslim Quarter. Xi'an is regarded as the Chinese end of the Great Silk Road, and consequently many middle eastern Muslims migrated here centuries ago. There is now a tight knit, business minded community of them in one quarter of the old town inside the city walls. Until around the late 70s as an ethnic group they were quite poor. Then, for some reason, they discovered business, possibly coinciding with the Terracotta Warriors discovery and influx of tourists, and now the residents are very rich. The Quarter is now a warren of businesses, mostly food related, at least we have to assume it was food. Most of it we didn't recognise at all, though it appears that the small, cooked trotters that we saw in their hundreds were from sheep not small pigs. Muslims - pork - we should have known of course.

We have eaten very well of 'Chinese', under Frank's guidance, since joining the group, but there comes a time on a long trip when familiarity is hankered after - the group all went solo for dinner, we went parma ham pizza, a really delicious salad (3 lettuce types, tomatoes, white strawberries, peach, radish, avocado, corn, with a quinoa sweet dressing), and garlic bread. And it was an 'Italian' restaurant allbeit run by locals.

Saturday was one of the highlights of anyone's trip - the Terracotta Warriors. Only discovered, by chance, by a farmer digging a well in 1974, this is one of the most important and impressive archaeological sites on earth.

The excavated pits, there are three of them in this museum area, date from just over 200 BC, and are filled with various warrior figures. The first emperor Qin Shi Huang had a complex of tombs built all around his mausoleum, which is nearly 2km distant from this site. There are several dozen more discovered 'tombs' dotted around the mausoleum, some identified to different groups of the emperor's entourage eg a chefs' tomb and a concubines' tomb.

Either the emperor was terrified of the spirits awaiting him in the afterlife or, as archaeologists believe, he expected to continue his rule after his death.

The site of the central mausoleum hill is known but no digging has been done. When they unearthed the terracotta warriors, many of them were highly coloured, but the colouring oxidised away within a day. It was decided some time ago that they daren't excavate the main tomb in case any finds disintegrate on being uncovered.

'Records', or at least stories about the central tomb talk of rivers of mercury, and ceilings studded with jewels to resemble stars. And in fact surveys have shown incredibly high levels of mercury in that area. But who knows, and no-one will in our lifetimes.

The reason the finds found still exist, here and in the other tombs, is because the supposed 800,000 workers were all killed when the work was completed. So no one, family or descendants, knew where this tomb complex was. Unlike many other Emperor tombs, 80% of which have been totally robbed out.

As we said, there are 3 pits in this museum. Pit 1, which extends beyond the original well discovery - 250 metres back, around 60 metres wide - is the one most famous from photos. And so incredibly lucky to have been found. The well hole is marked inside Pit 1 and it is right on the edge of this group of figures. 5 feet away elsewhere and the figures would not have been discovered.

There are estimated to be around 6000 figures in here, around 1000 of which have been reassembled. When originally buried, the figures had a wood and bamboo roof above them. But this collapsed, thereby squashing the figures into bits. It can take 6 months to reassemble a figure. Pit 1 contains an outer surround of archers, facing the 4 compass points, surrounding infantrymen in armour. There are also several horses, in 4s, which would have been pulling chariots, spaces for 35 of which are in the pit, empty, the wood having rotted away.

Whilst there is some commonality amongst the body parts, rather like modern manufacturing techniques, the heads/faces are all unique. No pair of identical faces has been found. The figures range from just under 1.8m to 2.0m, larger than the Warriors were in real life.

Pit 3, the smallest, is not in itself displaying much. It has around 72 Warriors and given the statue and armour is thought to be the HQ, with higher ranking officials.

Regrettably all the wooden objects - chariots, bows and arrows, pikeshafts etc - have rotted away, leaving just their metal parts. Also many of the techniques used were lost from that time. The emperor, for some reason, had all library books and records destroyed and the technical knowledge went with them. Eg - they unearthed a bronze sword, its razor sharp edge as crisp as when it was buried 2000+ years ago. It can - can, not could - cut through 18 sheets of paper at a time. Scientific analysis shows it, and many other arrowheads, spears etc, have a very fine, 10 to 15 micron layer of chrome-saline oxide / chromium plating, a hardening technique which wasn't rediscovered until by the Germans and Americans in 1934 and 1950.

Pit 2, sized between 1 and 3, contains around 1300 warriors and some horses. They also display there 5 figures, behind glass, that you can examine in more detail - if you can get to the glass that is. The level of detail is astounding, even down to the tread on the soles of their boots.

There is a museum in a 4th building, but it mostly holds replicas of metal finds. In another pit, much closer to the central tomb, they did find 2 bronze vehicles which are in this museum. Half real size, one is a carriage with a sort of parasol above, the other a security vehicle, totally enclosed body with sliding windows. It took 6 years to reassemble these. We found out later though that the security vehicle shown is a copy, the original being in the museum in Xi'an.

The shops contained the usual tacky souvenirs plus warrior models ranging from a couple of inches up to full size. These are supposedly made from the same clay bed as the original. Full size - special price if you order today, 22,000Y, packing and shipping included ~£2500. One of the group spotted that marble copies were 111,000Y.

Afterwards, in a nearby restaurant / tea shop - as in it sells loose tea in many varieties - we had a tea tasting led by a Chinese lady with impeccable English, as well as a great knowledge of tea. And yes, we did succumb to buying some tea - concubine lychee tea, which is naturally sweet - and a colour changing mug with pandas. Pip couldn't resist.

SoF - When Bill and Hillary Clinton visited the Warriors 20 years ago he asked to meet the farmer who discovered them. The farmer, who was basically illiterate (even today all he can write is the three symbols that make his name) was concerned, firstly because he had no idea who Clinton was, and secondly because he spoke no American. He was taught, therefore, to say 2 things "How are you?" and then when Clinton replied to reply himself "Me too." On the day the farmer got flustered and said "WHO are you?", to which Clinton, ever the wag, pointed to Hillary and said "I'm her husband.", to which the farmer replied "Me too!". A true story - Frank was there as official translator for the military officers accompanying Clinton.

Sunday was another long travelling day. Train from Xi'an to Yichang for around 13 hours, then 1.5 hour transfer to a boat on the Yangtze, arriving at boat around 11.30pm. Who said this travelling lark is relaxing?

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