Mah Jong in Xi'an

Trip Start May 28, 2008
Trip End Aug 26, 2008

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Flag of China  , Shaanxi,
Sunday, July 6, 2008

Xian was a nice change of pace. The train ride was comfortable, and we were able to arrange pickup at the train station. The "hostel" we stayed at was actually opened in the past two years and has a number of nice private rooms including the two level suite they secured for our family arrival. Add free internet, train station pickup, and a nice cafe all situated right up against Xi'an's ancient city wall and I'd have to say we felt welcome immediately in Xi'an. Cool city, with a 30km preserved/reconstructed city wall surrounding a core of tree lined avenues.

The drum tower and bell tower are very well preserved, and great examples of such structures traditional in China's history. I was rather surprised to see that visitors were welcome to ring a large Tang dynasty bell for a small fee, and Stirling was quite happy about this. Although the hanging wooden beam used to strike the bell was much bigger than her, she was able to give the bell three solid hits to produce a great tone. I filmed this, and was surprised that the deep, strong tone of the bell was not recorded - it was actually outside the wave range of the camera microphone. Sounded great in person!

Traders from the Middle East long ago founded an old Muslim Mosque in Xi'an, and although we didn't get to visit we really enjoyed the surrounding "Muslim Street" neighborhood. This street is a walking street at night, crammed with food vendors, restaurants, shops, and people. It was a great district to do some people watching, feel the excitement of a city in China after dark, and do some late night shopping for family back home. I also picked up a lovely traditional Mah Jong set to bring home, not an antique one but still a nice example of the antique style. My cousin and her friends have taught us how to play Mah Jong (at least one way - there are many variations). I also picked up a small set to take on trains and try to teach what we know to Stirling. It takes 4 people to play, and Stirling has traditionally been left out while we've been teaching Gailen. Mah Jong school is now in session on trains in China, Mongolia, and beyond.

Our day trip to the Terra Cotta Army was illuminating to say the least. We hired a nice guide, well versed in the history of the area, and well educated at university in history and tourism. Her English was difficult for us to understand as her pace was so rapid, but her vocabulary was rather remarkable. She gave us a great introduction to a 6,000-year-old inhabited site, with well preserved archaeological excavations of homes, burial sites, kiln, and a large village. How great to see human history in Asia up close and personal! I often visit ancient sites when traveling abroad, and this site outside Xi'an was even older than some of the human settlements I've been to in England and Ireland.

I was really interested in the markings on village pottery from this village. Although writing systems in the area are numerous, I found it striking that this East Asian village had used many characters in their pottery which would also turn up in our Roman alphabet. At least ten such fragments were on display.

The Terra Cotta army is hard to describe. The first emperor to unify China's warring states (by extreme force in many cases) laid the foundation for centuries of power structure in China and the ascendency of the Han people (China's primary ethnicity is Han, and then there are over 50 other minority groups). We were told that the much-discussed one child per family policy applied only to Han people, and not minorities. The Qin dynasty's first emperor arranged a burial site with thousands of warriors made of terra cotta to protect him, and over 3,000 of these have been excavated so far of a presumed 8,000 total on the site. This was also the site of the largest known live burial, as many concubines which had not given birth were sealed in the tomb. Others, including the artisans who built some of the tomb and army were also interred here. His successor added another burial pit to the site, this one for the high ranking officers and officials he wanted removed in case they posed a threat to his rule.

A later emperor stole the Terra Cotta army's real weapons to arm his own soldiers, which left the deceased emperor unarmed and undefended in the afterlife. The whole area today is a big archaeological park, with ongoing excavations and restoration in at least 4 opened pits with buildings built over them to protect the site and facilitate public viewing. I can only imagine how much more lays below the areas that are paved over with walkways and plazas for visitors for now.

Xi'an is also remembered as an important site in the last century of China's history. It was here that Chiang Kai-shek was persuaded by the turning of his own generals against his men that to stop fighting against Mao in civil conflict, and unite to fight the invading forces of the Japanese. The way the story was told to us, Chiang Kai-shek refused to set aside the internal conflict until finally his personal guards were all killed and he was spared. The two generals who turned on him on behalf of uniting China to evict the Japanese are well respected in Xi'an.

Our last stop was a brief visit to the old city wall, which we learned was actually the "smaller" interior wall of two that once surrounded Xi'an! The gate system included outer gates leading into large interior courtyard blocked by a rear gate - in this way invaders who breached the first gate would be trapped in while archers on the wall above could attack them from all sides. Bicycles are available for rent on the wall, and for those visiting Xi'an I'd have to say an early morning ride all around the 30 km wall would be an excellent idea.

- Demian
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