This is likely to be the penultimate e-mail of my time in China , so everybody should have an extra hour free every week. To make up for this disappointment I’ve ensured that it’s a bit of an epic, all I can say is that it was an exciting week.
I can’t believe how quickly time has gone. While it’s still nearly a month until I fly home, work finishes next week and time spent backpacking will disappear in the blink of an eye. Life is getting more hectic as I run out of time. This week I’m giving English lessons, meeting with the British Consul and giving a lecture on student life in the UK to students at the local university. Somewhere in the middle I’m hoping to visit Hongyan from where the Chinese government ruled during World War II, see the revolutionary martyrs graveyard and visit the opticians. It seems a bit like exam time. I swore to myself that I wouldn’t leave everything to the end, and I really thought I hadn’t, but there are still many plans that will not come to fruition.
Last week I took Carry out for a meal. Her friend came along as well, and together we had an entertaining evening. The level of photo taking was at a level previously unknown outside of Frenzy with Kerry, Donna and Julie. The poses were ridiculous, why on earth we had to lean on some car that was parked at the side of the road I will never know. Managed to end up in KTV before the night was out, having to listen to the normal selection of horrendous Chinese/Taiwanese/Korean ballads. Unfortunately we ran out of time before Yellow Submarine came on. Maybe next time.
After saying bye to Carry and friend outside KTV I set off through the streets of Chongqing . It wasn’t late and I hadn’t drunk much, so I didn’t think anything of it, but then someone started following me. It’s really strange the way that you can tell the difference between being followed and somebody walking the same direction as you. It’s probably a leftover from when people still had to hunt for food, but it’s quite handy. To double check I stopped and bought an ice cream. The bloke was quite strange, kind of skinny and about 18 or 19, he stood 10 foot from me and openly watched me. I carried on home, which wasn’t much further and on fairly well lit streets. As I came to one of the few bits of deserted pavement, in the shadow of a tree, the guy came and started talking to me. He seemed nervous, and although he was only doing normal chit chat, what country are you from, what’s your name, my name’s… etc etc. I was waiting to get a knife pulled on me, not too happy. Then he asked if I was gay. Now hopefully this wasn’t a result of the haircut I’d had the day before, as it’s never happened to me before in China , but once he’d said this everything made much more sense. Homosexuality is illegal in China , and I can’t imagine that coming out at his age is much fun anywhere in the world. Obviously by this stage conversation was a little awkward, so I decided to chat by asking if it was difficult being gay in China . In hindsight this may not have been the most helpful thing to do, but at the time I just wanted to make it clear that he hadn’t offended me. I don’t think that anything I could have said in that situation would have been much good, so it’s just going to be put down to experience. I felt a little less distressed about it after a conversation with an Aussie guy I met at the weekend. He’d been on the train from Urumqi (about as far from anywhere as you can get), in a soft sleeper cabin. This is the highest level of luxury on the trains, and meant that he was only sharing with two other people. Sometime in the night they left, and he woke up to see a man in People’s Liberation Army (not a terrorist group despite the way it sounds) staring at him. The soldier asked if he was gay, and Aussie guy said no. Then the soldier asked if he could touch him, which you would have thought was a question already answered. So the soldier reaches out to touch him anyway. At this point Aussie guy has to forcefully but gently eject the soldier from his cabin. Remember that if he wanted to, the soldier could make up any story he wanted and get the Aussie bunged in jail for the rest of his days. This is the kind of cautionary tale that makes you realise the nature of the danger in China . It’s not the overt kind that you face in other countries, but is more a risk of ending up in a lot of trouble due to an unfortunate set of coincidences. A story I heard early in the summer about a German businessman (we’ll call him Hans) is even more worrying. Hans was staying in a Shanghai hotel, and had one of the receptionists visiting him in his room after she finished work. The next day she disappeared, and was not seen again until her body was pulled from the river. Hans was taken in for questioning and held for several days. Fortunately a member of the girl’s family knew that a guy had been following her over the preceding weeks, and when they tracked the guy down he confessed to her murder. If this hadn’t happened Hans would probably now be dead, and they make you pay for the bullet they shoot you with (allegedly).
On lighter subjects, the highlight of last week, by some distance, was a trip to Xi’an . I’d been putting it off ever since I got here, as although I’d heard only praise for the sights there, time restraints meant that the only way practical way of going was on expensive flights. A discussion with one of our sales managers, who described his visit as one of the highlights of his life, and the availability of some cheap flights, combined with the knowledge that any money saved here would go to the pub in England saw me getting ready to go to the airport.
Arrival at the airport with about 2 minutes to go until check-in shut meant an exciting start to the weekend. Heading to security I realised that I had a penknife in my rucksack, so after some hasty arrangements with the local police I arranged to pick it up on my return. Once through security I realised that the penknife should have been the least of my concerns, as my first aid kit contained a scalpel and about 10 hypodermic needles. Fortunately nobody picked up on this.
Waiting at the departure gate was a slightly surreal experience. A tour group of British holidaymakers would be joining the flight with us, and as is the wont of British tourists sat round complaining about the weather and celebrating buying 200 cigarettes for 6 quid (they will realise that the price is justified after they smoke one and can’t speak anymore). Sat there with 50 people from a country I know well, who’s language I could understand and who nominally shared the same culture as me, was without doubt the most isolated I have felt in China. Hopefully this won’t be a problem when I return to England , although the Aussie guy (I can’t remember his name, although it may have been Stuart) said that when he returned to Oz after a year in China he didn’t speak much for the first two weeks. While I can’t see this happening, as there are far too many tales to relate, I do see where he is coming from.
Back to Xi’an , and departure from the airport was a warning of what was to come. Brandishing a bus ticket as a shield against frequent attacks from taxi drivers, I managed to escape to the relative safety of public transport. Arrival in Xi’an set me on edge a bit, as I was warned that walking to my chosen hotel was quite dangerous. It seemed a shame that foreign tourism had increased crime to such an extent, although watching from the taxi I realised that the danger wasn’t from muggers but from the traffic. If you’ve never seen people trying to cross a busy 8-lane road, try and imagine playing dodgeball but with cars and you should have a fair idea.
The hotel was a fairly typical backpackers place, and it was good to catch up with some likeminded people. Westerners out here tend to split into two categories, those who complain about the Chinese, and those who complain about Westerners who complain about the Chinese. After some good food I met a couple of guys who fitted firmly into the second category, and we chatted about our experiences and the people we had met.
Saturday was always going to be busy, so an early start saw me at the bus station about 9:30 . After getting east confused with west and south I eventually found the hallowed 306 bus, luxury transport of choice for the trip to the Terracotta Warriors (or Pottery Soldiers, the rather less imposing translation used by most people). The Chinese guy sat next to me explained that the ticket was kind of a travelcard, allowing me to hop on and off the bus at various sights along the way.
I only used this once, to visit the Lintong museum (see photos). The museum was quite interesting although the captions on the artefacts left a little to be desired. The ‘Square Brick’ was amazing, although the ‘Rectangular Brick’ was a little more impressive due to the advanced geometry of the shape. However neither of them could hope to reach the heights of the ‘Pentagonal Brick’. Truly a mark of how advanced Chinese culture was even thousands of years ago. The ‘Buddhist Monks Spaff’ was also quite interesting, although the relic did look more like a staff.
The wait for the next bus provided some amusement as taxi drivers tried to convince us that their buses were ‘free’. The trick was aimed at both Chinese and westerners, but was so blatantly a scam that I can’t believe it ever works (especially as the bus conductor had already issued a warning about them).
The approach to the site of the terracotta army is interesting as an illustration of what happens when tourism is allowed to grow unchecked. Buses line the roads, while the path to the top of the tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huang is clearly marked by a row of parasols, each one sheltering the vendor who sits underneath. I skipped the tomb, as it’s not yet been excavated and so a visit basically involves walking to the top of a rounded and not very tall hill, admiring the view and then spending the next 20 minutes trying to shed the souvenir sellers who have attached themselves to you (sometimes literally, I’ve had kids hanging on round my ankles because they want me to buy something from them).
Tourist trap does not do justice to the site of the army itself. The street leading from the bus stop to the entrance gate is lined with shops and souvenir stalls, selling everything from wolfskins to T-shirts to full size model soldiers. Vendors constantly call out, urging you to buy their tacky wares or sample the suspect looking food. Our request for directions to the Army had us directed to a privately run museum nearby, and this was just the scam they were trying on the natives. I hate to think what I would have done without someone to follow around. Add to this 30degree temperatures and you have an experience that will not be forgotten in a hurry.
The entrance gates to the compound mark the passing into a haven of relative calm and tranquillity. A large paved square punctuated with lawns and seats sheltered under trees gives the chance to regain bearings as you try to work out which building to visit first. I think some history will allow you to appreciate better the significance of Qin Shi Huang and his tomb.
The Emperor ascendedthe throne of his western state at the age of 13 in 246BC, and within 25 years had managed to conquer the eastern states of China , allowing him to become the first ruler of a unified China . History records him as a ruthless tyrant, ordering the destruction of all books other than those on Qin history, or practical subjects such as agriculture. However these accounts were written by Han historians, part of the ethnic group that Qin had conquered, and therefore unlikely to speak kindly of him. He also started work on the Great Wall, although this apparently turned the people against him more than any of his other actions, as they were forced to work on it under his terms. His tomb is colossal, but more on that in a minute.
Back inside the compound and I decided to head straight for Vault 1, the largest and most full excavated area of the tomb. Walking in is a memorable occasion, as you stand on a platform in front of and above 1000 Terracotta Warriors, their hands grasped around wooden weapons that disintegrated long ago, or holding the reins of the horses that originally drew chariots. The The soldiers stand in battle formation, with infantry on the flanks facing outward and a rearguard protecting the back. It’s quite hard to explain as my knowledge of battlefield arrangements isn’t up to much, but if you have a look at the photos I’ve put on the net you should get a better idea. On the subject of photos, the soldiers are fantastically photogenic, so I’m not sure why the Chinese people couldn’t resist the urge to pose in front of them. A piece of art over 2000 years old is not enhanced by a six year old child stood in front of it seeing how ugly a face they can pull, yet that is what people seemed to want to show. Each to their own I suppose, but having sat through myriad photos of fantastic views blocked by some Chinese person grinning inanely or pointing into the distance, I can’t help feeling that this is one of the few areas where Chinese culture could do with a change.
Vault 2 is much less excavated than the No.1, but shows evidence of tunnels dug by grave robbers, as well as the remains of a later grave. Work is ongoing, but the scale of the site makes it very hard for archaeologists to make visible progress, and they seemed to be having the day off when I went.
Vault 3 is battle headquarters, with a chariot protecting the main entrance as generals make plans in the back rooms. The floor is tiled, but many of the soldiers have been badly damaged over time and now lie in pieces on the floor.
After viewing all three vaults I headed to the 360degree cinema for a remarkably informative documentary about the site, and it was in English which was a bonus. The acting wasn’t up to much, although it looked like a fun film to make with numerous battles and a few scenes of destruction. On completion the tomb covered 56 sq km, about the same size as Cambridge , with the geography of China represented in the central compound. Whale fat candles were used to cover the ceiling in stars, while rivers of mercury flowed to the sea, machines allowing them to continually flow. The complex was guarded with booby traps, mainly crossbows set to shoot anybody who entered. Metallic weapons found in the tomb are still sharp, their edges protected for 2000 years by a process that was discovered in European laboratories only 70 years ago. Unfortunately the tomb didn’t survive intact for long after the death of Qin Shi Huang, as his unpopular policies (apparently he castrated a million people, presumably male, for various crimes) and a weak successor led to a peasant uprising, in which the tomb was plundered for weapons. After viewing this film I headed back to Vault 1, and it was only then that I realised the full significance of what I was seeing. The vaults containing the soldiers cover an area of about 0.2 sq km, and are situated about 2km from the tomb itself. The soldiers are stunning in themselves, but the thought of what remains to be seen is unbelievable. The stories of mercury rivers are from 2000 years ago, with unusually high levels of mercury in the soil today the only clue we have as to their veracity.
I suppose that imagination will always build more fantastic images than reality, but the thought of being able to come back in the future, and walk for 2 or 3 days without ever seeing the same part of the tomb twice is simply incredible. Would I say that it’s one of the highlights of my life? Probably not, as when all is said and done it’s still a load of 2000 year old mud and there are more important things in life. But it is without doubt the most impressive manmade sight I have ever seen, and visiting it is an incredibly powerful experience, a trip I hope all of you will have the chance to make at some stage. Plus the wonderful collection of lovely paintings of the Terracotta Warriors taking part in exciting Olympic sports, including the typical Qin dynasty game of baseball, is something that nobody should miss
Having negotiated all the stalls for a second time without too many problems (I did have to kick up a bit of a fuss when I was charged 3 times the going rate for an ice cream, doubly cheeky when the price was printed on the wrapper), the next stop on this action packed day was the city centre of Xi’an.
Xi’an has one of the longest histories of any city in the world. There have been notable settlements here since the Bronze Age, and for significant periods of time the area has been the capital of all China . The city is dotted with historic buildings, most of which I didn’t have time to visit.
The city’s main crossroad is marked by a three storey Bell Tower, built in the 1500s and restored in 1736, originally used to mark sunrise for Xi’an’s unusually large blind population, the result of a local rite of passage involving balancing upside down with ones forehead resting on upright chopsticks. The practice was outlawed over 200 years ago, but the Bell Tower remains as a memorial to this risky practice . It was quite pretty, and they have a demonstration of traditional instruments every half hour which was OK. I think the day had already shown me enough tradition, and my most lasting memories of it will be two pretty German girls, and a slightly embarrassing situation where I thought my camera had gone missing, frantically explained to the attendants using my best charades what had happened and then found it in the front pocket of my rucksack.
From the Bell Tower I headed into the Muslim quarter, the home of many of Xi’an ‘s Hui minority. These people are said to have descended from Arabs who visited in the seventh century, and the area has China ‘s largest mosque, built in 792. In spite of spending 3 hours looking for China ‘s largest mosque, I failed to find it, instead getting invited into an art exhibition, eating mutton from a barbecue, finding a very small mosque, getting extremely lost and trying to navigate by the sun (which I couldn’t see) and visiting a market street. The market street provided me with my best find in China yet, a Chairman Mao watch complete with waving arm that appears to have an elbow about 5 cm from the shoulder. Magic.
Sunday gave me a chance to lie in, before a breakfast of pancakes in preparation for my traverse of the city walls. The walls are quite spectacular, forming a significant barrier between the city centre and the suburbs. Heavily restored in recent years, they were originally built in 1370. A few sections remain unreconstructed, but a 3km walk from the west to the south gate was more than enough for me. Most tourists don’t stray far from the gate towers, meaning that at the corner you have the place to yourself. I think the restoration has removed some of the sense of history, as they don’t have the atmosphere that can be found at other similar sights, but there is no doubt that they must have been an imposing sight for anyone planning on attacking the city. The start if the Silk Road is visible from the West Gate tower, although I gave up on trying to see after being harassed by far too many of the tourist assistants now working there.
By now I was out of time in Xi’an , a shame as there was still a lot left to see (and I’d been told I could see everything in a day). A carefully planned schedule for getting to the airport on time backfired leaving me with only a few miutes until check in shut (again). An upgrade to first class calmed my nerves, although I didn’t realise that this had happened until I got on the plane. It was fun, and I got a free pen, which works better than any other I’ve had over here. Apart from that the main advantage of first class seems to be that you gat your face towel handed to you on a china plate rather than in a plastic bag, and slightly roomier seats. This was good, but in the way a double bed is fun on your own. It’s wicked demonstrating to yourself how you can stretch out as far as possible without anything hanging over the edge, but you still wake up squashed up in the morning. Having said all that, I certainly won’t complain if I’m upgraded to first class in future.
One problem with the upgrade is that it must have made me look even more pikey than I am when I tried to get a free lift into town on one of the tour buses that was leaving the airport. I had to ask the rep who had been sitting in the row behind me for the whole flight. Needles to say my blag was unsuccessful, I think I’ll have to work out a pitch for next time, maybe a talk on ‘A Chinese Summer’. Foolproof.
Back in work and everything is winding up. It’s always a bit sad when you leave a placement, much as leaving anywhere, saying goodbye to people who you know you may never see again, and handing over work that you’ve spent three months perfecting, knowing that the next person isn’t going to follow your vision. I’m sure I’ll have forgotten all this in two weeks, but at the moment it seems important.
This weekend I’m off to the University to talk to the students about studying in the UK , my placement and views of China . Should be quite fun, will tell all next week