Terracotta Warriors

4th Sept. 2017

Carriage for the concubinesWhy? It’s not the first time we’ve visited an ancient site and been left with a question (and I suspect that it won’t be the last). Today we visited the museum of Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s mausoleum, better known as the Terracotta Warriors. Whilst we were impressed with what we saw – how could you not be when presented with rank upon rank of the lifesize figures, each clearly a distinct individual. But equally, why on earth would anyone create this? How can this possibly the best use of money, time and resources?

Rank upon rank of warriorsQin Shi Huang united a set of warring tribes and became the first emperor of China back in 221BC and he was the first of two emperors in the Qin dynasty (not to be confused with the Qing dynasty who were the last emperors up to 1911AD). Work started on his mausoleum when he was 13 years old and went on for a year after his death at the age of 50 and even then it wasn’t complete. Four pits for figures have been discovered, placed in the shape of an inverted T – the advance guard, two flanks and the generals & concubines. However the pit for one of the flanks is empty as the figures weren’t completed.

Horses as well as men (and one woman)The Terracotta Warriors (supposedly) aren’t even the most impressive piece. A mile or so away from the site of the warriors is a pyramid-shaped hill. Under this hill is the actual mausoleum in the form of a life-size recreation of Qin’s palace – although nobody has actually excavated it or even seen it. According to Jackie (our local guide) because the hill is (or was) 100m high, the palace is buried 100m below ground. It is protected not only by Indiana Jones style booby traps, but it is encased in bronze.

Pit 2 stretching back into the distanceIf you were to get inside (apparently) you’d find Qin’s solid gold coffin floating in a river of mercury (there is a pump & recirculation system so the river – modelled on Yangtze and Yellow Rivers – continuously flows). Other highlights include the heavens painted on the ceiling and a solid gold war chariot. Sceptical? Moi? [Subsequent research corroborates much of what we were told. Wikipedia here, for example, cites historical records and there seems to have been radar / seismic surveys and soil analysis, so most likely, there is something there.]

Other pits laid out differentlyWe visited the three pits with figures (each now encased in its own building) and were able to see not only the familiar standing figures but also the restoration work in progress and scattered fragments of figures like a 3 dimensional jigsaw puzzle. It must be painstaking work as only 20 figures or so are restored each year. Whilst there is no doubt that the terracotta warriors are impressive, there wasn’t really anything on display that we hadn’t already seen from TV and photographs. Neither was I moved by the grandeur or spirituality of the place (for example, as I had been at Machu Picchu). So, yes, absolutely worth coming, but a wonder of the world? I don’t think so.

Choice of teasFor lunch, we went to a nearby restaurant that also specialised in tea. After eating, we were given the opportunity to try out four of the different types of tea they sold. We’ve quite enjoyed the custom of having (green) tea to accompany meals and so were keen to try different types & flavours of tea. The easy group consensus was that the Lychee Black Tea was the nicest of the teas we tried – the flavour of lychee came out strongly but without the sweetness. As interesting as the tasting was watching the ritual around the brewing and pouring of the tea. Hot (but not boiling) water is used to brew the tea in a cup with a lid, then strained into a teapot before being poured into tiny cups for serving. Think I’ll stick with the way we make it back home.

Janet's calligraphy better than mineWe then head back into town via a stop at an art gallery / studio. They have an exhibition that covers (in very broad sweeps) the history of Chinese art with examples from different eras and styles. A guide explains what we are seeing – though as with the language, there are so many hidden meanings within the pictures that my attention drifts. At least the Cultural Revolution pictures are clear about the message that they want to get across! We are also ‘invited’ to have a go at Chinese calligraphy and this instantly brings back memories of our abject failure in Japan under Tomoko’s tuition. Chinese is definitely not any easier, and the kindest thing our tutor had to say about my efforts this time was that I had a “unique style”!

In the Great MosqueThen it is on to the centre of town and the Muslim quarter in which is known for two key things – the street food market and the Great Mosque. We go to the latter first and get there just in time for the call to prayer. This is strangely low key, for although it is the largest mosque in China it is built in Chinese (rather than Arabic) style and so there are no minarets. As we walk around the various courtyards, we can’t help but draw comparisons with the Lama Temple which is similar in size of compound and buildings but much brighter in colour scheme. Most of all, we enjoyed the mosque as a little oasis of tranquillity from the noise and the crowds we’ve had elsewhere.

Lotus flower and water drops on the leavesFancy a squid?On our first evening of the Wild Frontiers trip, we saw the street-food vendors at the other end of the Muslim quarter by our hotel. This time, we are close to the centre of town (very close to where, the other day, we gave up our search for street food and copped out with a KFC). Everything is bigger and brighter and if not necessarily busier, then more aimed at (Chinese) tourists than locals. As expected, the range of foods on offer is vast and sometimes bizarre. Flattened fried squid for anyone?

Prisoners in Cell Block HThen it is time to get ourselves to the station for the overnight train to Lanzhou. We had been warned that the station would be busy – but this? I don’t think so. With a constant stream of people heading into the station , through the ticket and security checks, it is no wonder that the main concourse is heaving. But when we get upstairs to the waiting area for our train – an hour ahead of the departure time – that too is absolutely bursting with hardly any standing room let alone seats. We (well, Laura) pays to get us into a separate ‘VIP’ area but that too is full. Eventually, one of the staff takes pity on us and leads us to what appears to be a staff locker room. Even better, they break out some plastic seats and we wait for the train to arrive.

Our luxury waiting roomLaura has already broken the bad news that instead of the ‘soft’ four berth compartments on the train, we’re going to be in six berth compartments across two carriages (for the 10 of us). When we board the train, the carriages look like cell blocks as the compartments open directly out into the corridor and the beds are just thin mattresses on a metal frame. With all the Chinese bustling about, it even looks like the prison riot might be in full flow. Its a long climb up to the top bunk with a squeeze into a narrow space. Don’t sit up suddenly in the middle of the night. Still, eye-mask on, ear plugs in and remind yourself it is only for one night.

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