Friday, April 1, 2011

Xi'an Day 2 and a Lama Temple sans llamas

This day was the real reason for coming to Xi'an: the Terracotta Warriors. We got on the bus at 9 am to go the 40km to the burial site. We met our travel companions: a giant from Montreal, a garrulous type from Oklahoma, and some Brits and Kiwis for good measure. On the way, the tour stopped in a museum replica factory (read "tourist trap") where we learned how the ceramic warriors were hand-made, and how the replicas are mass-produced. If you'd like, you can get a life-sized warrior of your very own for only $2,000 + S&H. There are five main styles of warrior: 1) common soldier with a top-knot on the right side, 2) archer with a top-knot on the left side, 3) cavalry man with a flat hat, 4) officer with an inclined board hat, and 5) general with a funny bow hat. Collect them all! There were also horses. The heads are made separate from the body and placed after both have been fired.

After escaping the labyrinth of furniture and other goods on sale for "best price", our tour visited the next stop: lunch to fortify ourselves for the long walk ahead. We had some of the worst Chinese food we've had in China, identical to cheap Chinese take-out. Tea was served in melting plastic cups...

Finally, we arrived at the entrance to the site and commenced the kilometer-long walk through souvenir stalls and KFCs until we arrived at the actual entrance. I've never seen a site so commercialized as this one. All of us noted that China has taken capitalism to a new level. On sale were billions of clay warriors, in addition to your typical tourist kitch. Most shocking were the pelts of the "Chinese Wolf" otherwise known as German Shepherd.

Finally finally, we arrived at the real entrance. Let's start with a little history. In 1974, a man named Yang Zhifa and his buddies were digging a well. They found some interesting clay pieces which they gave to the government. After a little excavation, the archaeologists realized they had stumbled upon something incredible. Around the year 245 B.C., a man named Qin unified many different kingdoms in China and called himself Emperor. He proceeded to do many incredible things, like build the Great Wall. He became a bit obsessed with death, so he decided to have a palace made for his afterlife. The palace was built underground (because that's where dead people live... duh) and was filled with gold and jewels and rare birds and flowing rivers of mercury. A 400 ft. mountain was then piled on top of it, requiring the work of some 700,000 conscripts. There was a secret entrance, and, in order to keep it secret, Qin had those responsible for the design and construction buried alive.

Of course, all this would be for naught if the dead didn't respect his authority, so he also needed an army to protect his stash. Thankfully, he settled for clay figures instead of requiring the real thing. So far, three pits have been discovered full of thousands of clay soldiers, each one different. One pit is the command post with generals and guards. Another pit is full of cavalry and chariots. The largest pit is full of foot soldiers, archers, and officers. Only a small portion of the soldiers have been unearthed, but it's estimated that there are more than 8,000. Originally, all of the soldiers had colorfully painted clothing, armor, and faces. They were also armed with real swords, spears, and crossbows. Each one had a different face, different build, and different clothing (like different belt buckles). They were arranged into formations inside paved underground tunnels braced by logs and reed mats.

Unfortunately, Qin was quite the tyrant and there was a coup soon after his death. The leaders of the coup raided the soldier pits, stole the weapons, and razed the tunnels, causing their collapse and destroy ALL of the clay figures.

So, we learned all of this as we wandered through pits 3, 2, and 1. Each pit is housed in a huge hanger that protects them from the elements. They were buried about 7 meters below ground level, so we didn't have an up-close-and-personal view that I was hoping for. The vast majority of the soldiers are still buried, presumably all crushed as well. The soldiers that you do see have been painstakingly re-constructed, each one taking about 9 months to complete. Imagine that for a jigsaw puzzle! It's a little hard to believe that the soldiers are the real thing and not replicas bought down the street, as there don't appear to be any seams or cracks, but China is known for it's adherence to the truth, so these must be real, right?

Warriors being pieced back together

Overall, it was pretty impressive to see the warriors. It left a lot to the imagination, but my imagination is up to the task of imagining rank upon rank of life-size, colorful warriors and horses to protect the Emperor in the the next life.

After visiting the pits, we went to the museum, which housed the open chariot and covered chariot made of bronze.

After the museum, we saw the panavision video that details the history I've just recounted, plus bonus footage of the craftsmen actually making the warriors and intense 360 degree battle scenes. We then visited the gift shop, where we bought a book signed by the guy who discovered it all: Yang Zhifa. We also splurged for a couple sets of replica warriors and the ever-elusive postcards.
Yang Zhifa autographing books

The next stop after the warrior pits was Qin's tomb, the big hill. Qin's tomb is a real-life example of Schrodinger's Cat. Archaeologists know where the tomb is (I think), but are afraid to open it because either a) it'll collapse, or b) it's already collapsed and everything will be ruined. They're waiting for some future technology that will allow them to excavate it properly. They're also worried about the "flowing rivers of mercury" that would probably kill the excavators. Soil samples have proven that there really is a lot of mercury. Lastly, they haven't determined how much sand to leave in the bag so that when they take the gold statue, it doesn't set off the self-destruct booby trap and release the giant rolling stone ball.

The garrulous type from Oklahoma generously paid for our group to take the ride around the hill where we saw them constructing, I mean excavating the 6th pit behind closed doors.

After our trip around the hill, we headed back to Xi'an, ate some dinner, and hopped on our overnight train back to Beijing.

The next morning in Beijing, we dropped off our bag at the South Railway Station (more like an airport than a train station), then took the metro to the Lama Temple. It's a big, old, famous Buddhist temple that once housed many monks and is therefore deemed a Lamasary! Despite the name, we saw not a single llama in the whole place. How do you like that?...

There were many Buddhists praying with tons of incense. It was really cool, and now I know what it must be like for heathens to appreciate the splendor inside the cathedrals, as I had no idea who the many-limbed, blue and red monsters were, nor did I understand the difference between the many different types of Buddhas and Bhodisatvas.

The absolute coolest part of the Lama Temple was a towering Buddha statue, apparently made entirely from one sandalwood tree. If true, the tree would have been similar to a giant sequoia. No joke, the thing was huge. There's a sign out front from the Guinness Book of World Records verifying that it was made entirely from one tree. Impressive. Most impressive.

After our visit to the Lama Temple, we grabbed some lunch and headed back to the train station, had a nice trip on the bullet train to Qinhuangdao, and were surprised to find Nicole's old student, Nancy, pick us up.

All in all, a successful weekend vacation.

And for your viewing pleasure, another amusing sign:

I love the smell of burning celluloid in the morning...

1 comment:

  1. Wow, I'm so jealous you guys got to see the warriors! I really wanted to see them when they were in London, but tickets sold out too quickly. Very cool stuff...even if it is all reconstructed ;).