After Shanghai and Beijing, our curiosity towards Chinese culture, so different from all we had experienced so far in this trip, was spiking. At the same time it was becoming painfully obvious how little we knew about the country that is home to one seventh of the world’s population. What better than a trip down memory lane, to some of the old capitals of the Chinese Empire?
Off we went on a train at 300 km/h (190 mph) towards Xi’an, our first stop in this historical tour. The first thing that comes to mind (and to Wikipedia) when thinking of Xi’an is the Terracotta Army, a mausoleum to the first Emperor of the Qin dynasty. It was created to be buried with the Emperor upon his death (210-209 BC) with the purpose of protecting him in the afterlife. It is an impressive collection, with an amazing attention to detail: all Army ranks are represented, with the statues varying in height and garments, the horses and carriages were created in full attire and the rivers were simulated using mercury. Must have been an unforgettable sight at the time! There are still ongoing excavation works in the site, and the tomb of the emperor remains untouched. Although several scholars have defended its excavation, the main argument against it is that the currently available technology is insufficient to guarantee its correct preservation. As an example, the Warriors unearthed so far lost all the coloring as no preservation techniques had been developed at the time. Another reason for leaving the tomb alone is that the mercury used for simulating those rivers is highly toxic. This was not known at the time, and some believe that the emperor died from taking mercury pills (ironically as an attempt to live forever).
So, all the elements for an Indiana Jones sequel are there. However, we felt a bit frustrated at the end of our visit. Not so much with the Terracotta artifacts, that are indeed amazing, but with the lack of information along the visit. It would have been great to have some timelines and information boards explaining what we were seeing and the meaning/purpose of it all.
Fortunately Xi’an, with nearly six million inhabitants, has a lot more to offer than ‘just’ the Terracota Warriors! A great example is the Muslim quarter (roughly 2% of the Chinese population is Muslim). I don’t remember seeing such a profusion of colors and flavors elsewhere. It was like being all over the world, in only one street. From exotic foods to haircuts, you can find anything here, including black eggs. Commonly known as ‘century eggs’, these are not for the weak of stomach: after maturing from several weeks to several months, they acquire a pretty intense flavor! Another must do if you are in town is a visit to the city wall. It is one of the oldest (dates back to 194 BC) and best preserved city walls in China. It was built during the Ming dynasty and has a total length of 13 km. Following some tips we decided to cycle it, so we could have a view of the whole city wall. As soon as we got there our eyes bumped into a tandem bicycle, something that we had never tried before… And it was super cool, with a bonus of great views of the city from all the corners of the city wall.
Xi’an offered a spectacular window to Chinese history and left us hungry for more, so we hurried to the train station to set our next destination. Most foreigners resort to an agent to buy the tickets, but it’s an unforgettable experience to do it by yourself: armed with a notepad with our first jotted Chinese characters, we spent half an hour gesturing with a patient teller before managing to buy the correct tickets. The train we chose was painfully slow though, and it took us 7 hours to get to Luoyang. Nevertheless, a trip in a regional Chinese train is probably something that anyone looking to understand more of the Chinese culture outside the big cities should do. The seats were hard, the space minimal and the air conditioned just a faint reminder of its existence. But everyone was extremely nice and accommodating. There’s always space for one more and a smile to spare.
Luoyang was one of the Four Great Ancient Capitals of China (together with Xi’an, Beijing and Nanjing). In 25 AD it was declared capital and its influence as focal point in China lasted for several centuries. Nowadays it has lost some of the old times grandeur and it is a very cosmopolitan city, home to some six million inhabitants. The main reservoir of history here are the Longmen Grottoes, an impressive collection of more than 100,000 Buddhas carved in limestone along the margins of river Yi. Its construction lasted from 493 AD until 1127 AD, and in 2000 it was declared an UNESCO World Heritage Site. The site has been vandalized several times, either during wars (e.g. the Second Sino-Japanese war) or periods of political unrest (1940s) with many statues gone or missing parts. Nevertheless it is still an amazing collection, featuring an impressive 17 meter tall image of the Vairocana Buddha.
After Luoyang we went east, to Suzhou, a beautiful city sometimes called the ‘Venice of the East’. Full of interlacing canals, beautiful arched bridges and meticulous gardens, it left us with a feeling of time traveling. One of the highlights of this trip, no doubt!
Alas, it was unfortunately time to say goodbye to China. After a mere couple of weeks in a country this big, much was left undiscovered. While boarding our plane to Bangkok, we vowed to come back and continue to discover this amazing country and its people (assuming we can get our visas renewed after this). And the best part is that China is like a freight train doing 200 miles per hour: much will surely change before our next visit!