Monday, April 26, 2010

Far Eastern Promises... Xian

Far Eastern Promises… Xian…

After the short flight, we landed in Xian, a large city of twelve million located in central China. Xian is considered the breadbasket of China since they produce most of the country’s wheat. Our new guide, Lucy, was a cute girl with a very round face. She told us that her round face is called “noodle face” since they eat a lot of wheat noodles… as opposed to their southern cousins who are mostly rice eaters. During the hour drive to the city, Lucy gave us the history of Xian… which you can read in books.
The city itself feels very small. The central part of the city is surrounded by a massive wall and moat that was once used to protect itself from invaders. We stayed at a very nice hotel right in the middle… which unfortunately had purchased their beds from the same supplier as Beijing. As soon as we checked in, [NAME REMOVED] and the Dork got antsy… they both wanted massages. Our guide took us on a short walked outside of the city walls and into a hotel spa. They gave us some nice tea while trying to waft their cigarette smoke out of the room… not exactly Swedish style. We got some very nice massages that finished up with a very strange final technique of cupping our feet.

What is cupping, you ask? Our people washed and massaged our feet, then cleaned and dried small glass fishbowls. After spraying a small amount of alcohol into the bowl, the used a lighter to light the alcohol fumes, then place the still flaming bowl onto the sole of our feet. Quickly, the flames were extinguished, and then the warm air started to condense, causing the bowl to suction onto the bottom of my foot. It was an oddly pleasing sensation. The reason for this is to pull the bad stuff (spirits, toxins, odors?) out of your body. After giggling the first few minutes, I got used to it and finished the massage. On the way back to the hotel, we stopped at a place that was serving large bowls of homemade noodles in miso pork broth… so good.

The next morning we were picked up and ferried off to the main reason we were all in Xian… the famed terracotta warriors. Discovered in the mid-1970s by some local farmers digging a well, the soldiers are a massive complex of hollow, life-sized men in full military dress that were created to protect the tomb of the emperor. We pulled into the site, a beautifully groomed campus of white buildings and walked into the IMAX theater to watch the presentation. After which, we entered the first dig building.

It is huge. It is larger than two airplane hangars. And just below us, in long rows stretching away, were the soldiers… thousands of them. Each solider is unique, with different faces and bodies. Horses and chariots were beside them carrying generals, archers kneeling pulling on their missing wooden bows that had long rotted away. In the rear of the pit were archeologists that were gluing the broken soldiers back together. Whole halves of horses and heads were poking out of the ground where they still haven’t finished excavating. According to their literature, China won’t complete the excavation until 2070. Multiple pits held different classes of soldiers, with the generals and leaders in another building. Entire bronze chariots, weapons, and tools were cleaned and put on display to show off the craftsmanship from a long dead culture from 2000 years ago. We spent more than half the day just looking at the blank faces staring back at us… still protecting their master’s tomb. The tomb itself is a massive hill a few kilometers away. China will never excavate into the tomb, for two reasons. One, they don’t want to disturb their former emperor. And second, an entire lake of mercury was supposed to be built inside the tomb, and mercury levels around the area are off the charts… so no touching that grave.

After buying our little soldiers and having some tea, we went to have lunch at a well known noodle house where the waiters twisted and stretched the noodles right in front of the table. It was a really nice lunch, but the view was strange. Right next to the restaurant was an enormous pyramid and sphinx… turns out it is a restaurant that was built to lure in the tourists. From there we toured a terracotta factory where we saw how the statues were made, and could even buy exact size replicas that could be shipped around the world. If it wasn’t for the price, I was going to buy my parents one… I could just imagine my mother opening the crate and figuring out where to put it in the house.

That night we walked around central Xian and checked out the sights, included the water fountain display at Little Goose Pagoda, and the Temple of the Bells and Drums. The drum tower was a large pagoda brightly lit in the night sky. Around it was a market square that we walked around searching for decent dumplings. Looking up into the sky, I could see five bright strands of green laser light focusing on one single point in the sky. The sources of the laser were huge homemade telescopes that were mounted on homemade tricycles behind the drum tower. Old men were manning these telescopes, each at least 8 inches in diameter and twelve feet long. They were moving their tricycles and turning knobs and levers to focus their lasers on a single spot… Jupiter. I paid a few Yuan to look through one of them, and saw the gas giant like never before. Very clear but in black and white… you could clearly make out the storm bands and the Great Red Spot! How very cool…

After some pork and vegetable dumplings and a sour fish soup, we headed back through the courtyard to find a taxi when, after looking up at the sky one last time, we saw about a hundred of the multipiece Chinese kites being released into the winds. The air was a swirl of color against the black backdrop… kites of ten to twenty individual mini-kites literally filled up the air overhead. It was an amazing site to behold… and this wasn’t a festival or holiday… it was just a normal Wednesday night in Xian.

The next morning we arose early and headed out to another official factory, this one making ceramics, on the way to the airport. It was old and dusty, but we got to see how they mixed the clay, fired the pieces, and did the finishing work. I almost bought my mom another life-sized Xian warrior (since they delivered anywhere in the world). But I wasn’t sure how well she would tie it into her living room décor. We said goodbye to Lucy and boarded another flight on China Air, this one to our last stop… Shanghai.


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