Our second day in Xi’an was the structured sightseeing day. Although there are many sights worth seeing near our hotel (as we are staying in a fairly historic district within the city walls), many attractions are as much as an hour away by car. Today was our day for attempting these less local spots.
We decided to book a guided tour of three historical sites: the Banpo Museum, the Terracotta Warriors, and the Qin Mausoleum. The tour started at 8:30, so we popped in to our hotel’s Chinese buffet breakfast (although, for some reason, they just call it a “buffet breakfast” here). It featured a variety of forms of rice, dumplings, soups, and veggie salads. It also had a bunch of desserts that I did not try, although the eggs did look interesting. Most importantly, it had an amazing fruit juice that was called “Ice fruit is treasure”. I assure you that this is not Engrish, but simply a statement of fact.
While we were having breakfast, a pair of guys sitting nearby lit up cigarettes over their breakfasts. Now, China has very different cultural norms regarding smoking. For instance, this is the first place that I’ve ever been to where the “No Smoking” lights on airplanes get turned off mid-flight. However, most buildings have “No Smoking” signs posted inside. As it happens, most people do not seem to care. The hotels know this, too, which is presumably why they have a habit of positioning ash trays underneath those signs.
We soon loaded up for our tour. The tour van came by our hotel to pick us up, and then headed over to a nearby youth hostel to pick up our co-adventurers. Soon our van was chock-full with Westerners; up until this point we had only seen three or four such folk in Xi’an, and now we were surrounded. It was very nice to hear English again.
Our first stop was the Banpo museum. This is a neolithic archeological site not far from downtown Xi’an. It showcases the partially-excavated remains of a 3000-to-4000-year-old village. This included the excavated remains of some villagers. I am about to post a photo of one of these skeletons. I am warning you now and putting a picture of some adorable Engrish between this warning and the photo itself, lest your delicate eyes be offended by such a sight.
The fellow above was buried face-up with his head pointing west. He also got stored with several pieces of pottery. This means that he was a member of his community in good standing who died a natural death. There were also burial pits featuring disgraced tribe-members (face-down, no pottery) and enemy tribe members (haphazardly thrown into group burial pits).
They also showed the excavated village itself, which showcased pottery kilns and housing foundations. That was cool and all, but I’ve always been a sucker for ritual burial practices. If you want to learn about the village square, you can go there yourself.
After the Banpo museum, we went to a lacquer factory. This is not a part of the tour that was advertised, but it is apparently a standard part of most tour packages in Xi’an and elsewhere in China. The idea is that, between exhibits, the tour will stop in what are essentially glorified gift shops where you can see the goods being made through traditional methods. The factory we went to specialized in terracotta warrior replicas and lacquer wares.
We actually enjoyed the factory. We were only there for about half an hour, we got to see how some traditional Chinese goods get made, and we got to take photos of some very attractive jade and terracotta goods. There was also a guided portion of the “tour” that explained the significance of certain features of the terracotta figurines. For instance, the style of hair (or hat) worn by a figurine indicates their social or military rank.
Not everyone was as fond of the factory as we were. The tour bus that we were in was carrying two groups: Group A, who had signed on for a full day at the Terracotta Warriors Museum, and Group B, who had signed on for the Banpo museum as well as the Terracotta Warriors. It turns out that, while we were at the Banpo museum, Group A was at the factory waiting for us (and having things sold to them). They ended up spending over an hour and a half at the factory, and did not get to the terracotta warriors until just after noon.
To top it off, just as we were getting ready to leave the factory, the lights went out. As luck would have it, the room where all the gifts were sold had an abundant supply of natural lighting, so the factory manager demanded that we remain in that room. For our own safety, of course. Eventually our tour guide took us out, so this episode only extended our stay by about ten minutes or so. Still, Kat and I have, in our less charitable moments, wondered whether the power outage was truly attributable to misfortune.
I suppose we’ll never know.
We eventually got shuttled off to the Terracotta Warriors Museum. Now, in an ideal world, this is where I would show you some photos of terracotta warriors. Alas, I have to get an anecdote out of the way before we get to that.
You see, upon arriving at the museum complex, I spied a China Mobile shop. My Hong Kong phone number didn’t have data and had burned through about CAD$30 of my balance (i.e. all of it) in the previous day, so I was desperate for a new card with which to call my wife and use GPS. As our tour passed by this shop, I motioned to Kat that I needed to pop in and would catch up momentarily.
This was a mistake.
Although it only took me about 30 seconds to get a new card in the shop, upon leaving the store my tour group was nowhere to be seen. I figured that this was no big deal, since there were prominent signs indicating the route towards the entrance of the museum, and I am not so out of shape that I can’t close a 30 second lead obtained by a shuffling tour group. So I ran towards the entrance of the museum.
This was also a mistake.
The following twenty minutes consisted of me running around the pre-musem commercial area (which is quite large) hunting for my touring compatriots. Katharina, on the other hand, spent this time explaining to our group that her idiot companion had disappeared in order to buy a SIM card, and that it would be preferable for them to wait for him to return. They bought this line for the first ten minutes or so, but (having already wasted their morning in the factory) ultimately abandoned me to wander the plains of Chinese tourist shops for the rest of my days.
Kat, kind soul that she is, did not leave me to a life of ox tail soup and broken English.
We ultimately reunited. It turned out that the tour guide had first gone to meet one of the farmers who had discovered the warriors, and as such was not on the beaten path (although, to be fair, the path to the farmer is well-beaten. He’s a pretty big deal in Xi’an). Instead of following my first instinct, which was to explain how that was silly of the tour and that clearly I was in the right, I realized that I had been an idiot and apologized very poorly. Which was OK, because I got many more chances to improve on that first apology over the course of the rest of the day. Many of my innovations in the field of apology sciences involved paying for drinks and photo ops, whereas others involved not saying things at all.
I am sure that The Missus will eventually benefit from these breakthroughs.
Anyways, we still needed to find the tour guide. Kat had gotten his business card, so I pulled out my local-Chinese-number-equipped phone and gave him a call. Actually, according to my phone’s history log, I gave him eight calls over the course of half an hour. The grounds were large and the language barrier was not kind to us.
OK, so it’s been an hour and we have not yet seen the terracotta warriors. You can imagine how pleased Kat is about this. As a result, we resolve to use our second and final hour to activate our special skill of Ultimate Tourism. Our cameras came out, Kat’s telephoto lens got swapped on, and we proceeded to tag-team the museum’s exhibits in record time. I am pleased to inform you that we saw everything except for the exhibit about how the museum was made (instead, we took photos of flowers. Like a boss).
The warriors were built to provide a sort of snapshot of the Emperor’s military power, and appear to guard his tomb (which is a fair distance away). They are in military formation, complete with vanguard, flanks, archers and charioteers. This was supposed to be representative of the Emperor’s actual army, although I’m not clear as to whether there was a one-to-one correspondence between the terracotta warriors and their actual counterparts. At any rate, the collection is not completely intact; the Emperor fell out of favour shortly after he died, and the figures were ultimately smashed. The government of China is painstakingly piecing the figures back together for the sake of
crazy tourist dollars historical preservation.
We took 307 photos in the museum. These three give a pretty good impression of what we saw.
After seeing the terracotta warriors we went to lunch. It was part of the tour, and it seems like they went for pretty safe, foreigner-friendly foods.
After lunch we went to the tomb of Emperor Qin, as in the Emperor Qin for whom the terracotta warriors were built. According to one of our tour companions (who is pursuing a PhD at Beijing University), Emperor Qin died from ingesting mercury, which a monk had told him would grant him immortality.
Pro tip: Drinking mercury will kill you.
Emperor Qin, not being one to go half-way in these things, didn’t just drink the mercury. He also had his tomb designed with a map of his empire inscribed with flowing mercury. I’m not sure why he decided to outfit his tomb with the same stuff that he thought would result in it staying empty forever. Anyways, as a result, the place is absolutely full of mercury, and is liable to kill anyone who wanders in and breathes the air.
It may not surprise you, then, to learn that the tomb of Emperor Qin has not been excavated, and there are no plans to do so. This is mostly because the technology does not exist to do so safely. As a result, the tomb of Emperor Qin is really just a large park. Well, the tomb itself is just a hill in the park (though our guide kept calling it a mountain, which is hilarious to someone raised in the shadow of the Rockies).
The tomb is 46 metres tall, and would have originally stood at 100 metres above ground. It was (and mostly still is) shaped more-or-less like a flat-topped pyramid. Unlike the Egyptians, however, it appears to be built out of dirt. Thus, unlike a pyramid, it is very easy to look at the tomb without realizing what it is.
On the way out of the park, we passed by some vendor’s stands. Kat began surveying the wares and was immediately latched-on-to by a vendor, who began following her around trying to sell her the trinket that she had picked up momentarily. This is when a switch flicked in Kat’s head. You see, up until this point we (by which I mean Kat) had only haggled once, and poorly at that. During lunch, however, our PhD friend gave us some advice: Be ridiculous. Whatever price a vendor offers you, counter with 10% of that. Or, better yet, 5%. After all, the worst a vendor can do is refuse to sell it if you’re offering less than it’s worth.
Armed with this knowledge, Kat was merciless. She bought that trinket for 10% of the original asking price. And, despite the intensity of the negotiations and protestations that there were children to feed and so on, when the money changed hands the vendor smiled and thanked Kat for her business. True story.
After all of this was done, we headed back to the hotel for a brief respite before marching off to the Bell Tower. You may recall our visit to the Drum Tower – this is the sister tower. Whereas the Drum Tower sounded off in the evening to order the closing of the gates, the Bell Tower chimed in the morning to signal their opening.
I should note that, as we left the hotel, a child walked right up in front of me and started vomiting onto the manhole cover that I was standing next to. This was very strange, but his mother seemed unperturbed. I did not take a photograph.
Anyways. Bell Tower. It was pretty similar to the Drum Tower, except that it had bells.
This tower also had a station where you could dress up in a fancy Chinese dress and get photos taken of you. Kat leapt at the opportunity.
It bears noting here that our PhD friend from the tour had advised us that Caucasians are a pretty rare commodity in China, so it was not uncommon for people to come up to you and ask for a photo. So far, this had not been our experience. That was about to change. Well, except for the whole “asking” thing.
The place was pretty dead when we got there, but as Kat got into a costume a crowd began to gather. It turns out that being blonde and white is a recipe for making a lady quite popular in China. People began climbing up on to the set to get photos with the foreign beauty.
Kat found this very flattering, although in light of the difficulties we have been having with getting people to agree to be photo subjects it was a little strange that people would walk up to take photos of (and with) the foreign girl without asking. Regardless, we had a lot of fun.
After we’d had our fill of the Bell Tower, we headed off to the Muslim Quarter with the aim of seeing the Great Mosque. Getting there involves travelling down a series of side-streets, but these aren’t your grandma’s side-streets (assuming that your grandma lived in an area with boring side-streets. Not that your grandma is boring, of course. I’m sure that the uninteresting condition of nearby side-streets was not her fault). The streets in the Muslim Quarter were like a constant festival. They were packed with people and shops and scooters and trees and lights and all manner of things to see and do. Photos can hardly do it justice, so I took a video. I won’t be able to upload it until I’m back in Hong Kong, though, so in the meantime you’ll need to be satisfied with the following:
On this street Kat got to haggling again. I should note that this makes me very uncomfortable, as it is a form of confrontation fairly far removed from the comparatively sterile form of debate that I make my living in. This particular event made me doubly uncomfortable, as I became a pawn – when Kat began to walk away from the store, the vendor blocked me from leaving so as to keep Kat at the negotiating table. Kat ended up buying two items for 1/4 the original stated cost of just one. That’s an 87.5% savings. Beat that, Wal*Mart.
Shortly thereafter Kat bought some tea for sticker price. It was about a tenth the cost of its equivalent in Canada, so she felt no need to haggle. The vendor started laughing as soon as she agreed, before the money had even changed hands. Still, she felt pretty good about it.
Following her victory, Kat and I celebrated with some street food. We decided on beef buns. As you may have gathered, I love food photography, and I think that some of the photos of vendors preparing their food on the sides of the street are just wonderful. I’ll spare you from the bulk of them, though, and just show you what we ate and a few of the more notable sights.
Finally, we found the path to the Great Mosque. It was a surprisingly nondescript alleyway, though local muslims had evidently put some work into sprucing it up a bit.
It was at this point that we realized three things. First, that it was Saturday night. Second, that we could suddenly hear the sounds of chanted prayers reverberating down the alleyway. And third, that there was a stern gentleman now standing before us waving us off. Fair enough – I wouldn’t want tourists busting in to my holy night either.
At this point we headed back to the hotel. Along the way Kat stopped to buy some socks off of a street cart. They were so cheap that I don’t think Kat bothered haggling.
And that was the end of our night. At the close of our very long day, we went to sleep.
Tomorrow we see the City Walls and the Big Goose Pagoda. That will be a long day too, but I have resolved to make that post shorter so that I still have time to see China instead of writing blog entries all night. Also so that your corneas remain unburnt.
See you tomorrow.