Taming The Dragon

Trip Start Feb 25, 2010
Trip End Feb 01, 2011

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Flag of China  , Shaanxi,
Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The first Chinese city I ever saw was Shanghai, a symbol of modernity and a glimpse into the future of China. It therefore felt appropriate to finish my humble stay here with a trip to Xi’an, which as the first capital city of a unified China more than 2000 years ago, represents the very roots of the China we know today. To me this reverse chronology seems to reinforce the cyclical nature of history (by finishing in the place where it all began), but it also neatly mirrors my changing perspective over the last two years. When I arrived I wanted to experience all of the modern wonders China had to offer because these were the things that were making the headlines back at home. High-speed trains, towering skyscrapers, luxury hotels – these were what initially caught my interest. However, gradually over time I’ve become increasingly fascinated with China’s ancient past, perhaps because there’s practically no trace of it in everyday life. I wanted to understand what made China China, and not the imperfect imitation of foreign countries we see today. Basically, I wanted to see some old shit.

What better place to go, then, than Xi’an, whose name means “Western Peace”, and that boasts an impressive array of cultural relics that is rivalled only by Beijing. The most famous of these is the collection of statues depicting the army of Emperor Qin Shi Huang, known as the Terracotta Warriors. Emperor Qin ordered the construction of this army immediately after he took to the throne at the age of 13, with the intention of having them buried in his tomb to protect him in the afterlife. What he was afraid of and how he thought a bunch of inanimate statues would help are questions I’ve yet to find satisfactory answers to. Anyway, it’s interesting to note that this superstition survives even today, albeit on a much smaller scale, as it is still common practice to burn money as an offering to your deceased relatives.

It will come as no surprise that Emperor Qin was something of a perfectionist, and he insisted that the quality of craftsmanship met the highest standards. He therefore demanded that each worker should carve his name into the backs of the statues they made so that if the emperor was not satisfied with their work, he’d know who to introduce to the business end of his sword. This system seems to have paid off because each and every statue is stunning and, amazingly, different from the others.

The tomb was only discovered in 1974 when some local farmers were digging a well, and since then fewer than 2000 statues have been recovered, but it is estimated that more than 5000 remain buried underground. Currently, technology is not sufficiently advanced to carry out further excavation without the risk of damage being done to the remaining statues, but some experts guess that in about 15 years we will be able to uncover the rest. Our tour guide told us that the priority is protection, and that the Chinese authorities would rather keep the remaining statues buried for ever than run the risk of damaging them, a standpoint that shows an integrity rarely seen when it comes to preserving the dignity of historical sites. If only the same could be said for the dozens of hawkers making overly aggressive sales pitches outside. One of the five members of our tour group was an American-born Chinese man, and a woman in one gift shop said she’d let him buy a book for half price because he was half Chinese. I was tempted to point out to her that by that logic the book would be full price for me and free for Chinese people (or maybe the other way round), but thankfully thought better of it.
Visiting the Terracotta Warriors took a whole day out of my two day trip, and for the rest of the time I simply wandered around the city on foot, stopping at a few monuments that a local woman I’d met on the bus had recommended. My favourite was a 1000 year-old Buddhist temple with an impressive pagoda inexplicably called the “Great Wild Goose Pagoda”. I was fortunate in that a fountain show started in front of the pagoda just as I was leaving, accompanied by music and lights. I later found out that this happens every day when it gets dark, and that it’s the largest fountain show in Asia. It was a little bit like what you’d imagine a Buddhist temple to be if it was built inside a Disneyland, which was in turn built in Las Vegas, but in the best way possible.

Xi’an started off as a thing to tick off my “China To Do List”, but I now consider it to be much more than that. For one thing, it allowed me to get a little closer to China’s elusive history, as reading about the Terracotta Warriors and actually seeing them for myself were two totally different things. The trip also revealed to me just how far I’ve come in the last two years. Things went shockingly smoothly but it could so easily have been otherwise. For example, after leaving the pagoda on the first night I decided to take a taxi for the 5km journey back to my hostel, but after 10 minutes of waiting in vain I opted for the bus instead. Obviously I had no clue about the bus routes in Xi’an, so I had to read the characters on the board by the bus stop to figure out which bus would take me closest to my hostel. I found one, asked another passenger for the appropriate stop just to make sure, got off, and then asked a pedi-cab driver for directions. After another five minutes of walking I arrived at my hostel with my nerves still intact, which is more than can be said for some similar experiences I’ve had in the past. This may sound like nothing, but two years ago I could never have imagined myself successfully navigating a huge, unfamiliar city alone and conducting all of my conversations in Chinese.

Obviously I still have a long way to go in terms of language and local knowledge, and I have in no way “tamed the dragon”, but at least I can now tentatively pat the dragon’s head without having my hand consumed by flames, and I think that’s all anyone can hope for after two years.
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