Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Xi'an - Terracotta Warriors and Huashan Mountain

The fast train from Luoyang pulled in at Xi'an's modern marble and concrete station in the early afternoon, the comfortable journey only taking a couple of hours, and as far as I could tell I was the only foreigner on the train. The lack of tourists and outsiders has been something I have found rather surprising about China. I know we must get rather diluted in over a billion people, but I still would have expected to come across more westerners on my travels here. I had vague directions to get to my hostel, but the limited information I had did not tally with the subway map in the station, so I bought a ticket to the city centre and decided to navigate from there. I tried walking but after ten minutes I realised I was completely lost with no hope of finding my destination, so hailed a tuk-tuk to deliver me to my door.

The train from Luoyang to Xi'an.
The hostel was nicely modern and clean, it didn't have the scruffy hippy vibe that many of them have but more like a smart bar with dark wood and flat screen TVs. My dorm room provided my friends for Xi'an. Two cool German students, Raphael and Elia, and a bubbly Canadian student called Danae, and I barely noticed my six years on them. That night Raphael and I decided to go out to check out Xi'an's nightclubs - it was Saturday afterall. We first ended up in a place called Fantasy, a fifth floor nightclub and rather flashy and modern as appeared to be the trend in China's big cities. Raphael showed me a tactic for getting drunk pretty much for free in nightclubs in China. We ordered a single drink at the bar, we opted for Long Island Iced Teas, and then latched onto some Chinese guys (they all stand around small tables) by engaging them in conversation or games of some kind, and then they provide the alcohol all night as they order bottles of whiskey for their tables. I couldn't really participate in too much conversation due to the language barrier but Raphael had been studying for a year and so was able to chat away. We played dice games and rock, paper, scissors, and the Chinese seem perfectly happy to provide us with booze and cigarettes; many often invite us to their tables without us inviting ourselves - as foreigners we seem to have some social value to the Chinese. I was aware of some degree of guilt of exploiting their desire to be seen fraternising with foreigners for free liquor; but justified it as the Chinese almost constantly try to rip you off in the day time, so we can rip them off at night.

I played a few games of dice which took me five minutes to understand and my glass was constantly topped up, but I left the conversation to Raphael and danced on the periphery of the dancefloor, feeding like a sea anemone on plankton on the passing girls who somewhat bizarrely seem to find me quite attractive. I thought it must be what it's like to be an F-list celebrity back home, like Dane Bowers or Ziggy from Big Brother in a nightclub in Watford, a few people wanting their picture taken with you, not paying for any of your drinks and the prettiest girls shuffling over to dance with you. I'll enjoy it while it lasts because it's a stark contrast to the nightlife back home. I was dancing with some girls way out of my league when Raphael came over and told me we had to leave. The guy who's table we had joined had invited my German friend into the ladies toilet to perform some homosexual act, and although we were grateful for the drinks he was not willing to show his gratitude in this way, and so we hastily made an excuse and left. Our amorous host followed and it took a few minutes to shake him off (that's not a euphemism), before we decided the night was not over and we would try another establishment. We adopted the same tactics and within a few minutes we had infiltrated another group and were being plied with booze and feeling like welcome guests. We spent the remainder of the night in this second club, Muse, playing enjoyable games with the Chinese and feeling rather desired by the local girls on the dance floor - all fine by us.

The following morning myself and the two Germans were up in good time to take a public bus to the site of the Terracotta Army, about an hour out of the city. Entrance was about £15, and the outskirts of the location were filled with tourist tat shops and eateries. The vast majority of tourism in China is taken up by the Chinese themselves; I imagine it's hard for them to obtain visas, or even the finances for overseas travel, and besides there's a lot to see in their vast country. Tickets were unnecessarily checked two or three times on different entrance gates, and bags passed through airport scanners but nobody was watching what was in them. I thought like a lot of things in China, they were probably fake and it was just a conveyor belt running through a box, making it look official and giving the people on the gates employment, but not serving any actual function.

On the way to the bus in Xi'an.
We entered one of the excavation halls; and at first it was somewhat underwhelming. It was a huge open pit with only a few broken figures of what I was expecting to see on the floor. Information was extremely limited, both in English and Chinese - perhaps to encourage you to pay for a tour. It seemed that what we were looking at what mostly the roof beams of the original structure, like rows of rusty ribs strung out across the ground, and I assumed largely that what was underneath is unexcavated. Reading up afterwards I realised the vast majority of the site has not been excavated, due to a variety of reasons, two of which are the enormous scale of the necropolis and the fact that preservation methods are not yet advanced enough to protect the brightly decorated paint surfaces of the pottery warriors.

A few trenches revealed broken body parts of soldiers, the rest were under the beams of the original roof.
The first pits we saw.
The soldiers in situ.
The second hall we went in was not much more exciting, this was smaller but at least it had some standing figures and horses, the first having solely the crumpled and dusty figures, barely recognisable as the world famous wonder. These erect figures were interesting to see but I was beginning to wonder if this was going to be a huge let down - perhaps they'd all been shipped off to various exhibitions in New York and Tokyo. This second hall did have a few of the warriors in glass display cabinets, with some information about their origin, construction and purpose. Before going I knew next-to-nothing about this archaeological treasure trove, and upon leaving I still didn't know many more facts. It's only after reading up online that I know it's from the 3rd century B.C. which makes it all the more impressive, and that the tomb was also a microcosm of the Emperor's imperial compound, buried under a huge mound of earth and possibly involved up to 700,000 workers. None of this information appeared to be on show at the site - if it is it was hidden somewhere.

The second pit with some of the assembled figures.
Restored warrior with horse on display.
A kneeling archer, he would have been buried with a crossbow in his hands. 
By accident we had saved the best until last. Entering the final huge hall, which from outside looked a little like a railway terminal, we gazed upon the site we had been hoping and expecting to see. This pit had been excavated the most, but still the majority is left unearthed, the painstaking process will take generations to uncover, if indeed all of it ever is. Rows and rows of the blue-grey and orange-brown figures stood, silently staring back at the tourists who jostled for position along the platform and elbowed each other out of the way for the primary photographing positions. This truly was a marvel to behold; I wouldn't say it was breathtaking, I'm so spoilt it takes a lot to knock me off my feet these days, but it really was a great sight and as an archaeology enthusiast not something to miss out on whilst in China.

The sight we had been awaiting.
Each soldier has a individual face and identity, and all sport smiles.
Rank is signified by hairstyle and clothing.
They were originally painted but exposure to air caused it all to flake.
The railway station-like shed the excavation is housed in.
Excavations taking place.
Along with the 8000 soldiers there are over 600 horses,  buried within the complex.
They all originally held weapons, the wooden ones have perished but the metal finds have remained.
Reminds me of a scene from I Robot.
I was pleased that by fortune we had not seen the most iconic part of the excavation until the end, had we done it in reverse I would have found the other two pits very boring. I imagine partly due to the resources required not more has been unearthed, but I also think it's more educational, and interesting in some ways, that it is this way. It's good to see what the site looks like as time has left it, crumpled and cracked, slumped and sleeping, without being restored and returned to how it is only really imagined how they were left, in a time before the Roman's really had a grip over Europe.

The following day we were up at first light to take a bus to Huashan Mountain, and were joined by Canadian Danae from our dorm. This was not a place I had heard of before but the German guys had come across it before as one of the world's most dangerous hikes. I looked it up when they invited me along and the pictures I saw filled me with adrenaline and I thought it looked terrifying, but I should go along for the story to tell. I dozed for much of the two and a half hour bus ride and we arrived by about 10am to buy our tickets. Entrance to the mountain was 180 Yuan which is about £18 which I found a little ridiculous, I couldn't imagine anyone being able to charge for climbing a mountain back home. We then had to pay another £4 for a shuttle bus to take us to the £15 cable car. They must be raking it in. They could build another mountain out of their pile of cash.

We took the cable car up, it is possible to hike but this would take most of a day and all of the energy we didn't have, the mountains towering at over 2000 metres, and my ears popped several times on the ascent. The mountain itself is regarded as one of China's Five Great Mountains and has long had religious significance; a pilgrimage for ancient emperors and Buddhist scholars alike.

Taking the cable car.
Although we had taken a cable car it did not mean that we did not have some serious walking ahead. The entire trail was paved and stepped, but steep and exhausting. I have no idea how far it was to walk, how many steps there were or high we climbed ourselves - but it took hours of gruelling and thigh burning endurance that left us soaked with sweat to make it to the summits of the peaks. I imagine it would be like taking the stairs up several Empire States in roasting sunshine. There were still tourist tat stalls along the route, extortionately priced drinks and the odd eatery; and we passed the local sherpas transporting wares along the mountain, looking like leaf-cutter ants with huge loads upon their backs, amongst the trail of ants that were the tourists. Again, these were all Chinese tourists, I barely saw a dozen foreign faces all day.

Thousands of stairs.
And stunning vistas.
The Chinese tie red ribbons and put padlocks along the way - perhaps for good luck or part of prayers and wishes.

Finally we made it to the part we had really come for. A famous death walk, a cliff-side path that could make the bravest of mountain goats tremble at the knees. We got harnessed up (for another £3) and descended the vertical drop on iron rungs embedded in a crevice in the cliff face. This delivered us to some steps, that were no more than 6 inch indents into the rock face, which led us to a wooden plank pavement a foot or so wide and thousands of feet above the straight drop below. Actually, I wasn't frightened at all. I've never really suffered from vertigo, but at the same time most rational logic and instinct makes one frightened of danger. I just didn't feel any danger. We were clipped on and the surfaces felt more than safe to walk on, it could have easily been done without the safety harness, but obviously you need it there just in case. It was fantastic to be so high up and clinging onto a place you could never normally go. It was certainly worth the physical effort of walking up those thousands of stairs and paying the expensive entry prices.

The path leading to the harnessing area.
Taking the ladder down.
Traffic coming the other way.
Danae, Raphael and Elia on the ledge below me. 
Getting cocky.
Beautiful views.
And scary views.
Passing place.

Coming back up.

The descent of the mountain was pretty quick. We were almost racing and weaving through the crowds of slow Chinese. My leg muscles were trembling with exhaustion towards the end like after I've given my all in a football match, and it was the same pleasant exhaustion of accomplishment. Despite the aching legs we made it out again that night to a local nightclub for a repeat of the Saturday night, but this time without the George Michael toilet invitations.

Group photo after completing the walk.

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