Big Goose Pagoda

Travel Update: Xi’an, Day 3

Oh man, oh man, did we do some stuff today. Sit down, let me tell you all about it.

We kicked off the morning with a quick breakfast at our hotel’s buffet. We felt a little guilty eating at the same place twice, but we had places to be and no time to be original.

We ran off to the Xi’an City Walls and arrived just time for the reenactment of ancient military drills. Or, rather, we would have been just time time for them if they had occurred today. It was raining fairly lightly, but apparently sufficiently to call off the morning’s show.

We decided to make the best of the situation and spend our morning stamping about the walls. This was a pretty good idea.

Picturesque Xi'an City Walls
It’s hard to be snarky about something that’s so picturesque.

Xi’an has been around for a long time (over 3100 years). It was an imperial capital for some of China’s most successful dynasties, and it reached a population of one million people long before it was cool. So it should some as no surprise that this ancient mega-city has some fairly impressive defences just kickin’ around.

Unreasonably Large Walls
“How big should we make it, my lord?” – “Twice as large as seems reasonable”

The current City Walls are 650 years old, although they took a drubbing during the Cultural Revolution so they’re mostly modern restoration now. The Walls are nearly 14km long, 12m high and around 15m thick. They come fully stocked with archery towers every few meters, watch posts, alarm bells and the occasional toilet. And tourists, of course. I should note that those last two items may not be historically accurate.

Just in case the City Walls did not seem sufficiently secure, they also decided to build miniature walls (in the sense that they are not as long as the main wall – they’re just as tall) in front of the City Walls’ four major gates. Now, you might think to yourself “Well yeah, that’s just a courtyard. Everyone does that.” Apparently someone told this to the architects of the City Walls as well, ’cause those imperial hipsters took one look at those courtyards and said “These could have more walls.” So they built more walls around the inner courtyards, creating a fairly sizeable area that they called Yuecheng, or “Moon-Shaped City”.

This was also called “The City of Horses and Sheep” because, at night, it would hold merchants and travelling farmers (and their livestock) who had arrived after the main gates had closed in the evenings. Clearly, the inhabitants of Xi’an took the same approach to naming as they did to wall-building: One just isn’t enough.

Yuecheng Gardens
The view from within Yuecheng. Pretty sweet digs, for livestock.

Oh, and then they built a moat around those walls, complete with drawbridge. Because three walls and a billion archery towers simply weren’t enough to keep those horses and sheep safe.

Eventually we grew weary of wandering around the colossal fortifications of a bygone age, so we hired a driver to take us out to Emperor Jingdi’s tomb (called the Han Yangling Mausoleum). This was a lot like Emperor Qin’s tomb from the previous day, except that it wasn’t built by a mercury-obsessed maniac. One of the convenient side-effects of this is that the tomb has been partially excavated, and had been opened to the public about a year ago.

The first thing that we had to do was put plastic covers on our shoes so as to avoid tracking muck on the glass floors of the museum, beneath which various artifacts can be seen. This proved to be a problem for me.

Bigfoot in China
At size 15 (US), my feet are larger than most of the local children.

Eventually I got the covers on and we proceeded into the museum secure in the knowledge that we’d given the security guards a few laughs.

The museum itself was pretty interesting. Emperor Jingdi was the fourth emperor of the Western Han dynasty, widely regarded (by me) as the most awesome dynasty. He and his wife were buried in separate tombs within the same mausoleum complex, which covers 20 square kilometres and includes 81 burial pits. 10 of those pits have been excavated.

Emperor Jingdi had a pretty different philosophy than Emperor Qin. He was pretty heavily inspired by Taoist philosophy, and practiced a governmental style described as “non-interference”. This involved cutting taxes, reducing criminal penalties, and arranging strategic diplomatic marriages with neighbouring states. He also apparently had a real soft spot for the civil service.

Like Emperor Qin, Emperor Jingdi was buried with thousands of terracotta figures. Unlike Qin, however, Jingdi was buried with a terracotta representation of his government, not his military. Each member of his government is apparently represented by a terracotta figure, from top ministers all the way down to the bottom civil servants. Some of them are even labelled; the exhibit pointed out the minister responsible for crop inspection. The emperor was also buried with an awful lot of terracotta animals and farm equipment and so on. Presumably these were not members of his government.

Terracotta Eunuchs
This is a bunch of eunuchs. They are anatomically correct, except for the no-arms thing.

After wandering through the exhibit, we got to see a movie-slash-presentation-slash-techgasm. You see, Han Yangling is a state-of-the-art museum, with lots of glass and digital temperature and humidity readouts and projection screens and touch panels. Which is cool, but it was also dark and in Chinese, which generally reduced our ability to take photos of and use those features. The movie (or whatever you might call it) was an exception, as it came with English audio headsets and enough light for a decent photo.

It was also holographic, and set in a rotating set of period dioramas.

Wang Zhi Movie
Those glowing people aren’t actually there, but everything else is.

In the video we learned about Emperor Jingdi’s second wife, Wang Zhi. She was the daughter of a high-born family, and was formerly married to a merchant. When her mother was told by a fortuneteller that Wang Zhi was destined for great things, she engineered a divorce so that her daughter could work her way into the court and become a concubine to the emperor. Once in the court, Wang Zhi managed to get the emperor’s wife deposed and became the new empress. When she had a son, she got the emperor’s first son’s right of succession removed and put her son in his place.

She sounded like a real piece of work.

This capped off our visit to Han Yangling, so we got our driver to drop us off near the Big Goose Pagoda. Once we arrived, Kat got stopped for some photos, after which we went to have lunch. Lured in by the low prices, we each ordered something. This was unnecessary, as one order would probably have fed three people. Even if one of them was me.

I ordered ox tail soup, and Kat got fried shrimp with cashews. We also ordered some juices – apparently Kat’s orange juice was not proper orange juice (I loathe the stuff, so this may be an improvement), but my strawberry juice was delicious.

Xi'an Day 3 Lunch
We actually really enjoyed the ox tail soup.

After lunch we found another costume photo-op stand. Kat was powerless to resist. Once again she drew a crowd, although since this one package came with a staff photographer no one busted in to get impromptu photos with the foreign girl. It didn’t stop them from looking, though. Or from snapping photos from the sidelines.

Dress-Up in the Park
She’s going to cause an accident if she keeps this up.

We allowed ourselves to get distracted one more time on the way to the Big Goose Pagoda. There was a fountain show that was just beginning as Kat’s photo shoot ended, so we stopped by there and watched water get sprayed in time to music.

Fountain Show
Strangely, it was set to a fair amount of Western classical music.

OK, I lied. We got distracted again when we saw an adorable child.

Adorable Child in the Park
You are permitted to “awwwww”

Anyways, we eventually made it past the various distractions to the Big Goose Pagoda. It’s a pretty impressive structure. It was housed to hold Indian Buddhist sutras that were brought to China by the monk Xuanzang. His journey to obtain the texts was fictionalized in the story Journey to the West, which is perhaps better-known in the West as the basis for the TV show Monkey.

Little Elephant Pagoda
No, it is not also known as the Little Elephant Pagoda.

The grounds around the pagoda include several prayer sites, many of which are still functioning and open to the public. When we passed through there was a Buddhist ceremony taking place in one of the side buildings. It was completely surrounded by tourists, so there was a  monk out front clearing a path so that actual practitioners could make their way into the small structure.

Buddhist Ceremony
It was a lovely ceremony.

On the steps leading up to the pagoda there is an area for lighting prayer candles and burning incense. Kat bought some candles and incense and performed her own little prayer ceremony.

Kat's Incense Ceremony
This is one ceremony that I don’t feel guilty photographing.

Right next to the incense area is a large and ornate Buddhist shrine. This one was open to tourists, every single one of whom flouted the “No Photos” sign at the entrance. I feel uncomfortable photographing places and events that are intended to be sacred, so I encouraged Kat to do it instead. I like to think of it as creative principle-keeping.

Intense Shrine
The shrine was super-intense.

Having seen the surrounding buildings, we climbed the pagoda. The view from the top was pretty impressive.

Good Morning Xi'an.
Good morning Xi’an.

We spent most of our day strolling through the grounds surrounding the pagoda, which featured many lovely parks. Most importantly, though, they featured numerous stones inscribed with short Buddhist pieces of wisdom with an environmental message. Or, in some cases, just “keep off the grass”.

Buddhist Rock
And yet for some reason people keep asking me to stop it with the flower photography.

By the time we got back to the hotel, it was evening. Kat was starting to yearn for home, so we went to Pizza Hut for a taste of the familiar. I was starting to feel a little unwell, so I had a salad (which, in my case, is decidedly not familiar).

Xi'an Day 3 Dinner
Not pictured: All the complaining I was doing.

Along the way home we saw something that lifted my spirits considerably: A fake Apple store! I had heard about these on the Internet, but didn’t think that I would ever see one in person, let alone so serendipitously.

I could tell it was fake because (1) The facade was just a white canvas with Apple products printed on, (2) the staff wore shirts with the text “Smart Phone” and “S-Future” on the front and back, respectively, and (3) they sold accessories that I have not seen in Apple’s official catalogue (which I have reviewed quite extensively). Kat was dubious, but for me the case was open-and-shut.

Fake Apple Store
This seems legit.

We headed back to the hotel, me still giddy from my discovery and Kat just happy to be indoors and away from mosquitoes. Her reaction to the local critters’ bites is pretty pronounced. For Kat’s parents’ sakes, I will note that she is properly vaccinated, and that there is no reason to be concerned – her body is just over-producing histamine to combat the bites.

Bitten Kat
There are more on the other side of this leg. Also on her hands and neck.

I, on the other hand, have suffered no bites. Like the local people, the local mosquitoes make a bee-line for Kat and leave me generally unmolested. This is one of the many reasons that I keep her around.

And that is that! Another day in China successfully blogged, if somewhat late. Tomorrow will be our trip from Xi’an to Shanghai, so I hope you like airport stories.