A train, three museums, a pagoda, and a temple

Trip Start Sep 04, 2007
Trip End Nov 20, 2007

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Sunday, October 14, 2007

Sunday evening through Tuesday, September 23rd through the 25th

After a hotpot dinner Sunday evening in Beijing (think fondue with more varied and more exotic foods, and a spicy oil and a less-spicy bouillon to cook in), we hopped the night train to Xi'an, home of the world-famous terra cotta soldiers that I'd never heard of until I started planning this trip.

For the uninitiated, in the mid-1970s, some guys digging a well outside of Xi'an thunked into something with a shovel and unearthed some pieces of old pottery. They called in the archeologists, who eventually discovered an army totalling over 7,000 life-sized terra cotta soldiers plus horses, chariots, and weapons. The soldiers had a small number of different body shapes but each (so far) has a unique face. Apparently Emperor Qin Shi Huang had some enemies because the army was intended as his protection in the afterlife, but it turned out to be his own people who were none too fond of him. During a peasant uprising a few years after he died, some of his people broke into the underground vault that contained his artificial army and set fire to the wood supports that held up the ceiling. The roof caved in and the army was crushed.

Our first stop in Xi'an (after the hotel) was the complex of three museums at the site of the terra cotta soldiers, each museum more grandiose than the previous one and for less reason. Easily the most interesting findings were in the first museum, which covered an area the size of a football field and looked a lot like an airplane hanger. This is where we saw the several hundred soldiers and horses that have been reconstructed, as well as the few dozen that are being reconstructed now (mostly standing but missing hunks out of the shells of their hollow bodies) and a row of little plastic baskets that contain parts that have not yet been matched with their owners. (Most of the soldiers are still buried. How anyone knows that there are 7,000 of them was not explained.) The second museum, long on granite and soft lighting but short on exhibit (fewer than 100 soldiers were found here), seemed to be an effort to make up for the spare appearance of the main building. The third museum was all flash and no substance. A small mountain of granite died for this place and yet all it contains is two half-size replicas of the chariots found elsewhere in the area and a self-congratulatory exhibit on the making of the museum, mostly consisting of photos of people shaking hands.

Unlike most cities that were once protected by a wall, Xi'an kept its wall and now uses it as a tastefully managed tourist attraction. At least at the south gate, where we got onto the top of the wall, we had to pass through a gift shop, but thereafter we were unaccosted by sales people. Instead, we got to enjoy a view of Xi'an from almost 40 feet up, including a view of an arts district that wasn't on the tour itinerary. After some clamoring from his crew, Gary agreed to an 8 pm dinner so we could spend some time looking at art galleries. I didn't find anything I needed badly enough to try to negotiate a price in my price range or haul it around China for a while. That intricate wood sculpture at 78,000 yuan (about $10,000) was never going to come down to a price I was willing to pay.

Tuesday was another day of this 'n' that. We started with a visit to the Forest of Stone Steles Museum, a museum of stone tablets that were engraved with Chinese text and were gathered in 1100 AD. They were created, some of them, a thousand years or more before that. I could appreciate seeing texts that dated that far back, but I can't even read current Chinese, so ancient Chinese was well beyond my ken. Next.

We made a quick stop at the Big Wild Goose pagoda and the adjacent Buddhist temple but, because we were on a schedule, the pagoda got only a smile and a wave; no time for climbing the steps to the top for the view. Then we grabbed a quick bite and made a pass through the Xi'an Museum before dashing off to the Xi'an airport for a flight to Dunhuang. The Xi'an Museum is a history museum, like all of the museums we visited on the tour. It wasn't the worst museum we saw (the Kashgar Museum wins by 20 lengths), but much of the collection was uninspiring and all of it was poorly explained in English. Many of the same objects also appear in the Shanghai Museum, I now know, and they make a lot more sense to me since I've seen descriptions written by native speakers of English. (I started a photographic collection of badly translated signs, but I've stopped bothering with any but the most egregious examples, in part because there were too many and in part because I started to feel guilty for poking fun. The captions from the Xi'an Museum are well represented in my collection.)
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