Tuesday, 29 January 2008

This morning we were picked up at 5:30am. It was really early, but it turned out it was a good thing we left so early. The Beijing airport was an absolute nut house. The weather in China this year has been really harsh, especially in central China. This time of year, the Chinese New Year, many people are traveling from the cities into the country to be with their families for the big celebrations, and travel has been all screwed up with the bad weather. Heavy snows have closed down train stations, cancelled planes, stranded tons of travelers, and knocked out electricity in many towns. Enter the Davises and Egglestons.

As we stood in line, waiting to check our bags, we observed the line next to us, reserved for passengers arriving late. It was full of screaming, frantic Chinese people, shoving and pushing to get up front. People were standing on the baggage scale to push their way to be next. Others hoisted half their bodies up on the counter, waving  papers in the air and screaming in fast Mandarin while the frustrated girl behind the counter tried to deal with them all. They weren’t a friendly bunch, and we were glad we arrived with a little time to spare. We said our goodbyes to Marco after successfully getting through our line, we will miss him, and made it to our gate minutes before they began boarding. We all squashed into a bus that took us to our plane. We were dropped off, and then waited on the tarmac as passengers began making their way up the ladder into the plane.

It was cold. Really, really cold. It was windy out on the tarmac, we tried to huddle like penguins. As we climbed the ladder into the plane our bodies were exposed full force into the wind. Our eyes tears up and we screamed like the weenie Texans we are. We all agreed that it is the coldest any of us have ever been. It will be a coldness by which all other coldnesses are measured. “This is cold, but nothing like the day I boarded that plane in Beijing . . .”

It felt so good to get in that plane, out of the wind and cold. Our flight was uneventful, and when we landed in Xian (pronounced “SHE-ahn”) we met our new guide, Joe. We decided to go ahead and do some sightseeing before we went to the hotel, so once we got to the hotel we could just stay there, and not go back out. We visited a giant bell tower and an old pagoda. We saw the decorations being put up for the New Year’s celebration, February 7. I thought about America, how Christmas decorations pop up at least a month before the actual holiday. These people would only get to enjoy their decorations a week or so before they would have to come back down again.

We got to the hotel early in the afternoon, and were delighted to find out our hotel had a gym and a swimming pool. Clay decided to take the kids swimming while I ran on the treadmill, and we found out a swimming cap was mandatory for anyone in the pool. We bought four from the lady behind the desk. I wish I got a picture of Clay in his blue Hawaiian cap, very sexy. We did laundry, ate dinner in the hotel, and took it easy. Tomorrow we go to see the terracotta warriors.


Wednesday, 30 January 2008

We read about the terracotta warriors last summer. We knew they were put in place by a paranoid emperor, Qinshihuang (first emperor of China), to guard his tomb once he died. Each face is different, and there are thousands of them, each life-size. After being forgotten, they were discovered in the 1970’s by a farmer who was digging for a well. As we drove to the sight, Joe explained that they were once covered with color, but just hours after they were unearthed, the color entirely disappeared, leaving them a brown, terracotta color. Many soldiers have not been unearthed, once they realized what happened to the color they halted the excavations until they could find a way to preserve the color once exposing them to oxygen. They still have not figured out how to do this, so many soldier still lie buried.

On the way to the soldiers, we stopped at a pottery sight where they make reproductions of the warriors. The kids each got to get their hands dirty, making their own soldiers, before we hopped back in the car and headed to the actual tomb. The soldiers were actually buried about a mile east of the emperor’s actual tomb, in the direction where his enemies would approach. We visited Pit 1, which had about 2,000 soldiers exposed, and then Pit 3, with just 60 or so exposed.

Pit 1 was a huge structure, we walked inside a building that reminded me of a covered stadium, although it was twice the size of an American football field. Unheated, it was chilly. We looked down into the pits, where lines of restored soldiers stood guard. Amazing, I loved to look at each of their faces. To think, they’ve been waiting silently underground for so many years.

When they were first discovered, the soldiers were in pieces, anywhere from twenty to a hundred little bits. After Emperor Qinshihuang died, there was an uprising and peasants stormed the area, burning the roof of the buried pits, which collapsed on the soldiers, knocking them over and breaking them. The soldiers are hollow with removable heads, but solid from the knees down, stabilizing them so they will stand. The damage mainly occurred above the knees. Archaeologists have painstakingly put them back together. At the back of the building were soldiers that were still being restored, their bodies riddled with craggy holes, missing pieces.

The surrounding areas are dotted with mounds, these are all tombs, but this emperor’s tomb is the biggest. It has not been excavated yet, who knows what hidden treasure lies all around Xian. It reminded me of Egypt, and all the unexplored tombs. When science figures out how to protect what it digs up, when money can be found to support the digging projects, mankind will discover all sorts of interesting things about our past.

We ate some lunch at the museum, then got back in the van. Our itinerary read that we would visit a farmer in a local village. This isn’t something that we had requested on the itinerary and it seemed suspect to me, a chance to pull in the tourists and sell them handicrafts. I asked a few questions to Joe, but he wasn’t talking. Suspicion mounted. Our bus pulled over on an icy road and Joe told us this is where we’d get out. We grabbed all appropriate gear, it takes us forever to find all the gloves and hats and things that have scattered everywhere, and hustled off the bus to find our farmer.

Two women were waiting for us, they ushered us across the street, through a courtyard, and into their living room, where we found a couch, a bed, and a table. This is so strange to me, going into a stranger’s home and sitting on their furniture. I sat with Benji and Nate on the bed, which was hard. Like a board. I wondered if anyone really slept on it. It was really cold in this room, no heat. I couldn’t imagine what it must feel like at night, I hoped they had some thick blankets.

They passed around a bowl of raisins, then a bowl with some candy in it. We each chose a piece, and it wasn’t until Benji popped his into his mouth that he realized it was coffee flavored. Not his favorite. He was a real trooper, he kept that candy in his cheek over fifteen minutes while we chatted with these women, slobber collecting, before he almost gagged and we slipped it into a Kleenex in my purse as quietly as we could. Joe was our translator, he explained that the families in this village once owned the land the terracotta soldiers had been found on, which had all been turned into a museum. The government gave them each a very small portion of land, this family owned less than an acre, just enough to grow food for their own family. It was free land, but there wasn’t much of it. To make money, the women of the village make handicrafts that they sell outside the museum. Aha. I waited for the handicrafts to appear, but they didn’t.

Joe asked if we had any questions, we asked if the mother had kids, she answered that she had two boys. They were eighteen and twenty, farmers are allowed to have two children. There were a couple of posters taped to the wall, they looked like pop stars. Nate asked the woman if the pictures were of her sons, she got a real kick out of that and we all laughed. She told us her husband worked as a construction contractor, and I noticed that she and her friend were dressed as well as any of us. She rented out the top floor of her home, for 50 Yuan a month. That’s like $7 a month!

After a while she asked if we’d like to see her kitchen, she took us across the courtyard to a small, freezing room that held a place for a fire, pots and pans, and a wooden counter for rolling out dough for noodles and dumplings. We thanked her for letting us see her home, still no handicrafts appeared. It wasn’t a hoax after all, I have become cynical. The tour company we used paid her and her village a small amount to let us visit her and “meet a local”. We’ve discovered that having all these guides in different cities is also a great way to get to know a local, getting their perspective on everything from politics to snake wine.

As we left the house, we decided to take a quick stroll through the small village. Mounted on a wall nearby was a giant sign written in Mandarin. I asked Joe about it, he said it told about family planning, with all the positive and negative consequences of following the government’s policies. So communist. We passed a boy kicking a couple of old CD’s down the road, some villagers chatting beside their gates. We got plenty of stares, we’re an uncommon sight around there. One woman ran after us with some reproductions of the terracotta warriors, “One dollar!” she cajoled. We said no thanks, and turned around when a couple of unfriendly dogs came our way.

We went back to the bus and back to the hotel, deciding to go out again at dinner time to find a dumpling restaurant I’d read about in Mom’s China book. We took separate cabs since we couldn’t fit in one, Clay and I were dropped off in the downtown area and the driver pointed across the wide, busy street to the restaurant we were in search of. We didn’t really see it, we didn’t have our sheet of paper or the book with the name on it, but we set off with the two boys in search of the dumpling place. It was freezing cold outside, we had no idea where we were going, and my parents were nowhere in sight. We kind of remembered the name and, Clay was able to find it on his miracle blackberry with worldwide internet access, we popped into a McDonald’s and showed an employee the name of it off the phone, and finally made our way to it. I prayed mom and dad had better luck, and sure enough as we got closer I saw dad’s gray ear muffs and mom’s well-swathed curly head. They had found it, with Alayna in tow. We all settled in to a dumpling dinner. Luckily, an employee spoke English, we would have been out of luck otherwise. The menu was written entirely with Chinese characters, and there were no pictures.

We found out later we should have gone upstairs. The part of the restaurant we ate in served only “snacks”, just six different kinds of dumplings. Upstairs we would have encountered an 18 course dumpling feast. We also discovered, after a long hike in search of a cab to take us home, where the taxi line was.Oh well, live, learn, and leave, that’s our motto. We’ll leave in the morning for Chengdu.