Sacrilegious caterpillars and the secret of immortality

One out of tens of thousands.

One out of tens of thousands.

Xi’an is the home of the terracotta army. The city served as capital for 11 dynasties from 1000BC to 1000 AD, and became capital of all of China in 221BC when Qin Shi Huang became the first emperor to unite the country, presumably so that he would have enough people to build him the tens of thousands of life-size terracotta figures he’d always wanted. He also started the Great Wall project. His other hobbies included eating lots of mercury in various forms in order to prolong his life, a practice that eventually killed him while he was on an expedition to the east coast looking for the legendary “Island of Immortality”. The terracotta army is very impressive, housed in several airport-sized hangars and while only a fraction of the figures have been excavated so far (they were only discovered in 1974) there seems to be tens of thousands of them, each one different. Qin Shi Huang’s tomb is nearby as well, but apart from finding that it contains an incredible amount of mercury it hasn’t been excavated at all yet… Records has it he had 700,000 people work 36 years to create him a scale model of his whole empire underground in the grave, with rivers of mercury made to flow mechanically – and that many of the workers and hundreds of concubines were locked inside when the grave was sealed.

The Big Goose Pagoda.

The Big Goose Pagoda.

Wile mercury has now gone out of fashion in the local cuisine we did find lots of other excellent food in Xi’an. The place we stayed in was close to a hotpot restaurant – less spicy than the Sichuan version and a bit less oily – we cooked muchrooms, corn, tofu, beef and various strange squid-like sea-foods which we’re still not quite sure what they were (flat sheets with a spiky texture on one side, grey or white, and squid-like in consistency and taste). Next-door was another good restaurant that featured “Lettuces with Bacteria” on the picture-menu, here we had great steamed dumpling-rolls and gong-bao chicken, plus half a roasted duck which probably was more work than it was worth to pick meat from, at least calorie-wise. It arrived with neck, head, beak and everything at the table and was pretty spicy..nice and crispy though.

Temple of Heaven in Beijing.

Temple of Heaven in Beijing.

Apart from visiting the terracotta army and the Big Goose Pagoda (and lots of good food) in Xi’an we went to the traditional Muslim quarter in the center of the city – it’s the only part of town where the old buildings has survived..everywhere else Xi’an feels like it was built yesterday with wide boulevards, big squares and shopping malls – like Chengdu and Beijing as well once we got there a day later. Sometimes it’s hard to feel you’re really travelling and seeing any of the actual China..everything’s new and there’s the enormous crowds of domestic tourists and tour groups surrounding all the sights..it starts to feel more like an extended trip to a themepark at times. Beijing was no exception – we visited the Temple of Heaven and the Forbidden City but I found it difficult to really make them come alive. The monuments certainly are very impressive, but even knowing the emperor would have stood at the same spot you’re standing now the big tour groups and signs pointing out bathrooms and no-smoking make it all feel very Disneyland, and the ancient buildings look way too new. Actually some of them are. The Temple of Heaven was entirely rebuilt by the last emperor after being destroyed by lightning just 100 years ago – this horrible omen and apparent punishment from the gods was explained as having happened because a sacrilegious caterpillar had climbed too close to the sacred golden roof of the building and this the gods just had to stop…the heads of 32 members of the court had to roll for allowing this to happen!

Socialism and surveillance at Tiananmen Square.

Socialism and surveillance at Tian'anmen Square.

Speaking of sensible mild-mannered rulers, you don’t see Mao’s face around that much in China any more, but there is one very big portrait hanging right above the entrance to the Forbidden City. And then of course, across the road in Tian’anmen Square you can go to the Chairman Memorial Hall and see the stiff frozen corpse of the old communist mass-murderer, if you’re into that sort of thing – it’s hauled out of the freezer every morning and hauled back in a couple hours later before he starts to thaw… (We got there too late in the day to enter and missed the spectacle..) Mao himself actually wanted to be cremated, but perhaps by this stage people around him had finally noticed that whenever he got his will millions of innocent starved. Like the Memorial the rest of Tian’anmen Square looks pretty unassuming, with some Soviet-style statues celebrating the revolution that gave everyone freedom, and piles of security-cameras, soldiers and civil-clothed policemen keeping an eye on everyone…

Barbarians to the right, civilized people to the left!

Barbarians to the right, civilized people to the left!

Our other item to check of the list in Beijing was the Great Wall – we picked a section between Jinshanling and Simatai which makes a few hours walk along the wall in a section that is slightly quieter than Badaling (where most of the domestic tourists who don’t want to do much walking go). Some parts along the way were still ruined while others had been reconstructed; quite a nice walk though it was crazy hot this day and the wall never fails to pick the most difficult route from hilltop to hilltop. This section is about 110km from Beijing, a distance that probably would have taken 3-4 hours by bus back in India on the terrible roads we saw there, but in modern Beijing with 6-lane highways and hundreds of flyovers it took…3-4 hours due to the typical terrible traffic. Development can be funny.

Next we hopped on a 23 hour train to Hong Kong before the first part of our dual-30 day visa would run out. On the train we had dinner with a Hong-Kong student who shared our compartment, and we tried frog in the restaurant half by mistake. Not sure still if we ordered this dish without knowing, or if our new friend did..there were some very funny moment anyway when he was trying to explain which animal the meat came from – we were sure he was saying “fox” instead of “frog“. “It is like fox, about this size, and green…“! Frog tastes a bit like chicken, though with extremely little meat on the bones and slightly slimy, unless my mind might have added on this extra detail. Will double-check next time, if I ever get the urge to try again.

the Memorial

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