We took the overnight express train from Beijing to Xi’an, site of the ancient city of Chang’an (Long Peace) and home to the eighth wonder of the modern world, the famed Terra Cotta Warriors. We had high hopes for the journey since we had forked over the extra dough for soft sleeper class. Unfortunately, we found ourselves in three different cabins and subject to the whims of our Chinese bunkmates. McKane, Kieran, Asher, and I occupied the two top bunks of one cabin while an elderly Chinese couple inhabited the bottom. Tom and Dax each had a top bunk in different cabins further down the car. Normally those sharing cabins hang out on the bottom bunks until bedtime and play cards, eat, talk, or watch movies on the built-in monitors. While this was an option in both Dax and Tom’s cabins, our little couple didn’t seem open to playing Yugioh cards with our three youngest. Instead we hung out in the dining car for a while before the littles got bored.
I took them back to our cabin while Tom, Dax, and Mac remained, but I sprinted back to the car to fetch them when my little couple locked the cabin door and turned off the lights at 10:00 pm. While the rest of the train was set to party into the wee hours of the night, they were serious about sleeping. I tried to keep my offspring quietly occupied, but it was tough. Each time someone had to go to the bathroom, they had to step on a retractable stair just above the head of one of our fellow travelers. They tried hard to whisper and giggle quietly, but it wasn’t always easy. The kung fu movies were funny, and Yugioh games seem to require shouting.
We arrived in Xi’an early the next morning and ended up at Han Tang Hostel in the center of town. After two months of relative luxury, we’re getting into our hostel groove. We hired a driver for the next day to take us to see the sites outside the city, including the warriors, and spent the afternoon wandering the Muslim Quarter, which includes the largest mosque in China.(Surprisingly it looks a lot like a Buddhist temple.) The kids preferred hanging out in the hostel where they could order a steady stream of food from the restaurant, watch as many DVDs as they wanted, and play games with the staff.
Though as I write now the skies of Xi’an are only moderately smoggy, on the day of our tour the air was thick and black. I couldn’t help but ask Tom every 15 minutes or so, “Are you sure this isn’t fog? Can it really be smog?” I’ve seen pictures of the smoke filled air in Indonesia that results from out of control crop fires, but I never expected that coal-burning power plants hundreds of miles away could produce a similar haze. Fortunately, the warriors are housed inside buildings where the smog cannot enter and we were able to see the statues in all their ancient glory. Though we’ve learned about them before, we never realized that in their original state they were painted in bright colors. Today they are all the familiar gray you find in any Pier 1 reproduction. What is most amazing, however, is not the detail of their design, but their sheer number. Row after row were carefully and precisely buried to guard the hidden tomb of the first Qin emperor, Qin Zhao Huang, and with one stroke of the imagination they seem poised to leap to life, like something out of Bedknobs and Broomsticks.
Our other stops for the day included the tomb the warriors were intended to guard a few kilometers away and the site of a Neolithic settlement called Banpo Village. The “tomb” was somewhat of a letdown since it is buried far below the ground and the mound that covers it has been eroded over the years. Beside the goofy dance numbers performed by young Chinese in period dress, there was one pleasant surprise to the trip. In a corner of the obligatory gift shop, which sells replica warriors and souvenir books at 40 times the price you can pay outside, sat the peasant man who discovered the warriors while digging a well in 1974. He was there to sign books, which of course, we were not buying. (We’re trying not to buy anything, since we’re toting everything on our backs.) McKane was so impressed by the man’s accomplishment that he insisted on returning to the shop to shake his hand.
Banpo Village was bizarre but gratifying. We learned that the ancient inhabitants cut off their fingers as offerings to deposit in the graves of their loved ones, that modern Chinese men view public bouts of flatulence as socially acceptable, and that reproduction villages created for tourists can be an excuse to carve nude women from modern materials in historically inaccurate forms.
We were a huge disappointment to our driver, Jack, because we refused to visit any “factories” or “exhibitions” or “warehouses,” the usual tourist traps where drivers and guides receive kickbacks from the purchases made by their unsuspecting patrons. He repaid in spades by blaring Lionel Richie on the van stereo for most of the day. (There was a little Celine Dion and Whitney Houston thrown in, but Lionel seems to take the prize for most played artist in China.) We concluded the day with our visit to a Chinese KFC and a free dumpling party at the hostel.