Thursday, 31 January 2019

Terracotta Army - Xi'an, China - A Wonder of the World

 We were all pretty excited to be heading off this morning to see the extraordinary Terracotta Army, a major highlight of our trip to China. The Terracotta Army is an astonishing example of funerary art created  between  246-209 BC  by order of Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China, who was just 13 at that time.  More than 700,000 workers worked on the army designed to protect the Emperor in the after life.

Ornate Chinese furniture
Of course, there was the obligatory commercial stop before reaching our destination but  the demonstration at the factory, which produces good quality replicas of the army, was interesting none the less.  We spent more time than we wanted to in the adjoining shop and were all itching to get going to view the actual army but I was rather pleased with the model of a general I bought and admit I was fascinated by the extremely ornate furniture for sale in the furniture gallery.

At last we were off, a short bus ride and then about a 15 minute walk from the parking area to the actual pits to view the army. I enjoyed the walk on this clear sunny day, a row of misty mountains forming a romantic backdrop to the site. Being part of a tour group has both advantages and disadvantages.  You are obliged to visit commercial enterprises that don't really interest you but you also have immediate and preferential access to places of interest. We were through the gates in no time accompanied by a local guide who gave us an interesting talk about  the history, origins and discovery of the army, prior to us entering Pit 1

The vast Pit 1. Restored warriors in front, shattered warriors behind.  
It is hard to put into words what an incredible sight Pit 1 is.  To put it into some sort of perspective it is 230 metres (750ft) long by 62 metres (203ft) wide and contains more than 6000 life sized figures in 11 brick paved corridors.  The ceiling, which  would have been beam and post with a woven reed matting over the top, eventually rotted and collapsed  shattering the warriors.  There they lay buried for around 2000 years until some local farmers decided to build a well in 1974 and discovered fragments which led to a massive, and ongoing, archaeological dig.  No one knew how immense the site would be and in fact ground radar and core sampling suggest that there may be as many as 100 more, as yet uncovered, pits in the surrounding 98 square kilometers (38 square miles) of countryside.

Fragments laid out ready for assembly ....
....and completed warriors.  

All the complete warriors have been painstakingly restored. It is estimated that this site contained 8000 warriors, 130 chariots, 520 horses and 150 cavalry horses.  Most would have been carrying weapons although it appears many weapons were  looted at or soon after their creation. Even so around 40,000 bronze items of weaponry, such as swords, daggers, spears and arrow heads have been discovered in and around the pits.
How the pits appeared when uncovered. A jumble of parts caused by the collapsing roof.
The army was originally painted with
vibrant lacquer like this.  It must
have been an amazing sight

(Photo by Mary Harrsch)
The figures were modeled in parts and then assembled.  Hands, arms and heads were made in molds with the final details hand carved later. There are distinctly different faces on the soldiers who wear uniforms and hairstyles particular to their rank with generals being larger in size. Originally painted in bright lacquer it was found that the lacquer dissolved quickly with exposure to air leading archaeologists to believe the pits may have been hermetically sealed.

Pit 1 is  a vast and extraordinary sight but the other much smaller pits, 2 and 3, are no less interesting.  Pit 2 is considered to be the most complete discovered so far as it contains infantries, cavalries, charioteers and archers.  It covers 6000 square metres (7176 sq yards) with only approx one sixth of it excavated so far. The building housing Pit 2 also contains an exhibition hall where you can view  some of the  warriors and two spectacular bronze chariots close up.
Newly restored and partly restored warriors  and horses in Pit 1
Pit 3 is the smallest of the three pits at 17.6 metres long (19.2 yards) and 21.4 metres (23.4 yards) wide.  Because of the positions of the warriors it is believed to be the command centre for the army. Gold and bronze decorations and a distinctive chariot and four horses were also discovered in this pit.

I was absolutely thrilled to view the Terracotta Army. It is, to my mind, one of the wonders of the ancient world.  Although it has UNESCO protection it amazes me that it does not feature on lists of wonders of the world.  I have always believed that we should not try to put our 21st century brain into the head of a person from earlier times to try and second guess their thinking.  Was the creation of the army unbelievable narcissism, or was it something else?  I guess we will never know.  It did get me thinking, though, that if this was discovered as recently as 1974, quite by chance, what else is there as yet undiscovered in the world.  Who knows? 

Thursday, 17 January 2019

Xian, China - an ancient city of lights

I have a confession to make.  Before booking this trip to China I had never heard of  the city of Xi'an, or if I had it hadn't registered. A bit embarrassing really since not only  is it  the capital city of Shaanxi province, but it also has a very long and fascinating history, is the eastern end of the fabled silk road and  the location of the pits containing the famous Terracotta Army, a sight high on my bucket list.  Xi'an is one of the oldest cities in China. Lantian Man, dating from at least 500,000 years ago, was discovered near the city and so were Neolithic settlements from up to to 6700 years ago. Well, you are never too old to learn and one of the things I find most rewarding about travel is discovering and learning abut new places.

Our arrival in the city was greeted by blue skies and a clear sunny day and my first impression was that it was more traditionally Chinese than the cosmopolitan Shanghai we had just left.  There were many more bicycles and motor scooters on the roads, for a start, and plenty of interesting street life. Xian is a city of 9 million people and although it is ancient the many new, towering apartment blocks give it a fresh look.

View of apartment blocks from my hotel room.  You would need to be sure of your address, wouldn't you?

No words needed - the message is clear!
Before checking into our hotel we stopped  to take a stroll on the city wall.  Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang, the first emperor of the Ming dynasty, started construction of the wall in 1370. Today, after much restoration, it is the only complete city wall in China. At 8.7miles long (14ks) and 39 - 46 feet (12 -14 metres) wide it stretches around the old heart of the city and, like all city walls built as protection, includes watch towers at regular intervals. In Xi'an they are 120 yards apart, this is because the most an arrow could travel was 60 yards so that all attacks on the wall could be covered by the archers in adjoining towers. I loved strolling the wide wall in the late afternoon sun, taking in the fine views over the moat, city and surrounding parkland and smiling at the explicit public notices. Not surprisingly it is a very popular walking and exercising spot for the locals.

On the Xi'an city wall

In the evening we set out to view the lights of Xi'an and some of the city's feature landmarks and, my goodness, Xi'an dazzles at night.  There are lights everywhere and it is sparkly and beautiful.  Every lamp post in the city centre is adorned with red lanterns and the city wall and many buildings are outlined in lights.  But nothing can compare with the iconic bell tower at the very heart of the city, it's illuminations turn it into a veritable jewel. Built in 1384 during the Ming Dynasty, for the purpose of broadcasting news, it is reputed to be the largest and best preserved bell tower in China and has become the symbol of the city.  Standing at  130ft (40metres) tall at the convergence of 4 major streets it is a spectacular focal point.

The ancient, beautifully lit  Xi'an bell tower

A highlight for me was stopping to watch the locals dance on a wide pavement outside a shopping area.  Since the Chinese live in tiny apartments they like to get together in any suitable space to exercise. I was transfixed by the group performing an umbrella and scarf dance.  Many were still dressed in their work clothes so had clearly just stopped off on their way home.  Led by a large self-important looking man with a whistle they performed their routines totally unselfconsciously.  This was their normal, it was not put on for tourists.  Beside this group was another group performing a more prosaic exercise class.  I joined in with them briefly and loved it.  I could have spent the evening there, just having fun with the locals in such a happy atmosphere.

(you can see the video of the locals exercising here)

Our final destination that evening was to visit  Hancheng Lake and Park to view a colossal statue of Wu Di, the emperor who reigned for 54
years during the Han dynasty (206BC - 24AD) and a great hero for the Chinese. The evening was crisp and frosty, nevertheless it was very pleasant to walk through the almost deserted park in the darkness with lights shimmering on the water.  Despite the fact that the statue is 70ft (21.5metres) tall, and is accompanied by a full sized chariot and attending warriors, I felt a little underwhelmed.  Yes, it is massive, yes, I should have been astonished but this is a new statue built as part of a Han Dynasty theme park and to me it felt that way. I was much more interested in the locals ballroom dancing in a square off to the side of the park.

Unusual tap suspended from the
ceiling in my hotel room

So that was our first day in Xi'an.  I liked the city and I liked the Buffo Hotel where we were staying.  It is incredibly chic with all sorts of extra details such as electric curtains and windows which can turn from clear to opaque at the touch of a button, however everyone reported a design flaw in the showers which despite all best efforts flooded our bathroom floors. I was a little disconcerted to get out of the lift on the wrong floor  one time and find myself in a fully equipped hospital with nurses in uniform scurrying about.  Handy if you get sick on holiday I guess. 

My next post will be about the phenomenal Terracotta Army.