Saturday, February 20, 2010

Day 2: Ancient Romanticism and the Whimsy of Tourism

I awoke in the morning with a slight hangover, and I assumed the headache would worsen throughout the day, which it did. We had to be downstairs for our tour pickup around 9am, and we each slowly rolled out of bed. I think I was first to shower, and then I headed downstairs in search of a light breakfast.

The hostel had a western kitchen with a menu that really wasn't too bad or overpriced, just fried eggs, ham, and toast for breakfast, and burgers and stuff in the evening. But, being the anti-touristy, necessarily explorative foodie that I am, I refused to acquiesce to such familiar restaurant cuisine. So I shot out the door in search of some fruit stand, knowing I only had a few minutes to spare before our van would arrive for the tour. I turned left, but found only a convenient store with no fruit, so I settled on a cup of instant noodles, which was way too acidic and chuck full of sodium for my hungover stomach to enjoy. And when our tour guide arrived tp pick us up, I wasn't finished, but she allowed me to bring the cup on board, making me the comic relief for all the travelers already on board. Had I turned right when I exited the hostel, I would have found two fruit stands easily which we observed as the bus drove away. Naturally I made careful note to patronize these later.

The bus was nearly full when Trevor and I got in. Let me start off by saying that if you haven't been on a budget, English guided tour in the East before, these things are as goofy, informal, and conducive to making friends as, well, hardly anything I've experienced before. The tour guide introduced herself: a cute, twentysomething Chinese girl whose English was pretty good, though naturally not impeccable (Chinese ESL speakers are very rarely impeccable). Her name was Jia Jia, and her and I quickly started off on a semi-flirtatious exchange where she said she was single, and I factitiously offered to buy her a drink. Jia Jia invited us all to introduce ourselves, and the van was full of the usual mixture of Australians, Canadians, families and friends. Come to think of it, I believe Trevor and I were the only two actually there from the US. I was sitting next to a man from Quebec, who though at first was quite quiet, turned out to be a real joker, taking jabs at me as the trip wore on. And we also immediately hit it off with, as he introduced himself, "the former executive chef at the Canadian embassy in Beijing." His name was a Nolan, a Canadian East Asian ex-pat for years, who currently resides in Shanghai with his Hong Konger wife.

Our first stop was nothing but a little, touristy shop where we would allegedly "get to see how they made the warriors," but also be able to wade through room after room of over-priced goods and life-size replicas of the statues. And they didn't just have Warrior statues, they had everything from jade coffee tables, Afghan rugs, and hand carved furniture. Were I a wealthy American businessmen, which I'll most likely never be, I'd maybe buy something small there, made of jade (at one point I blatted out "I love Jade!" to the Quebecqois, who couldn't stop laughing at my exclamation). Basically, bringing us budget tourists there didn't seem to make much sense to me, we just didn't have the money to spend on frivolous crap. I think the tour producers obviously get a cut from that place by making it a stop on the tour.

And then we were off to see the Terracotta Warriors, famous, bold and true. On our way there, having the advent of some practice with each other, conversation livened up in the van, and when we arrived, we were all one big, happy family. Like I said, such is the way with these small, budget tours for westerners in Asia. Try one, they're a blast.

Now, to finally see the Warriors, you must walk a few hundred meters up a hill and quite literally through a fuck storm of tourist culture and people hawking things to you forcefully. These are the cheap souvenir stands, much cheaper than the "official" ones you'd buy inside the Warrior complex. I made the mistake of acknowledging a boy who wanted me to exchange the Euros he had in his hands for yuan. Upon doing this he followed me quite persistently then latched on to someone else in the group. But I noticed that the buildings and stands looked quite nice and new, and Nolan confirmed that they were. He said he'd been there only 5 years prior, and then there was nothing between the parking lot and the Warriors except an empty dirt road. Dynamic China.

Jia Jia led the tour group as best she could, but many of us strayed out on our own. I went back and forth, amused that Jia Jia's symbol of authority to get our attention was a big flower she would hold up when she was going to inform of us something about the Warriors.

The first thing to see is the cast iron chariots found near the Warriors. They are utterly remarkable for their complexity considering their age. The ancient Chinese truly did live in an advanced society, technologically at least, and in great comfort compared to most of civilization at that time. Then, after the chariots is Pit 3, an expansive space the size of an aircraft hanger. But here, the dirt roof above the Warriors has collapsed, and one can merely observe their bits and pieces, though there are a lot of them.

One funny thing I recall about visiting Pit 3 is that as you walk through the lobby, you get to see the man who once owned the plot of land the Warriors were discovered on. The story goes that, upon their discovery, he promptly sold the land to the government for only 10 Yuan, which is less than $1.50. But the guy, who doesn't speak English, or Mandarin that well I assume (he probably knows only a regional dialect without much of an education) is there, just sitting there. I suppose I don't blame him for trying to live an easier life on the fame granted him with such a find, but it's really strange when you consider his purpose there. You also can't photograph him. Honestly, it feels like a human exhibit in a museum. Jia Jia pointed him out to us, and none of us knew what to do, so I awkwardly ventured out first to shake his hand, then everyone else did. Anyway, this is just my sentiment, but I got the distinct feeling something like that wouldn't fly in the US. Then again, perhaps it might.

Next is Pit 2, where you can see plenty of the real, life-sized Warriors who appear to be the important generals and what not, though there are only a few of them. Maybe around 100. And then, there is the real deal: Pit 1. Jia Jia led us in this order, 3-2-1, saying she was saving best for last. Pit 1 is what you've seen all the pictures of, the 1000s of life-size Warriors, facing east, each different than the next. Utterly amazing.

I stared at these Warriors for an extra long time, repeatedly going back to look after Jia Jia said she'd wait. Afterward, I told the other people in the tour group that I had had a "moment" looking at them. They all laughed, but I'm trying to articulate what was really going through my head. So I'm not sure really what to call it, whether I was truly captivated with a romantic idea of what the Warriors seemed to represent, or I was just tired, hungover, and in the mood to just space out and day-dream. I'd like to believe that I was thinking something deep, something along the lines of considering humankind's greatest accomplishments, and that maybe we weren't, or aren't, such vicious beasts and warmongers, but instead at heart we are capable of amazing works, deeds, and beauty. OK, so the Terracotta Warriors are just that: WARRIORS meant to fight and defend. But you could easily say there is virtue in this; they are loyal, defending their master emperor. But I prefer to focus on the achievement that is their construction. What dedication and craftsmanship. All for the afterlife. Maybe it's a testament to the great mystery that we all must face alone: death. Even this emperor was plagued by what he thought was up there in the sky, and he was damn well determined to be prepared, bringing a whole army with him.

After the tour we had lunch and then exchanged numbers with Nolan and a few others to meet up later. At lunch, I was advised by my compatriots to drink more beer to rid me of my hangover and that this was called "hair of the dog," something I'd never heard before. And naturally, I bid Jia Jia goodbye hoping to see her again.

In the hostel room I realized that "hair of the dog" was not working and that I should slam a bunch of water and then take a nap, which we did. In the evening, Trevor and I met up with our Aussie friends for dinner, which consisted of a Xi'an specialty: a bowl of the thick, Xi'an bread patties, torn up by your own hands, and soaked in mutton stock. It was pretty darn good, and so was the conversation. Then we walked around and found a nice, quiet Chinese bar where I could get a drink of whiskey, something I had been craving, and watch a Korean movie on the wall's flat screen TV.

Though at one point, in chatting with the Aussies, I briefly may have offended their religious convictions. I was blabbing about the amazing workmanship of the Warriors, wondering how the Chinese could have done that so long ago. The Aussie, Mike, said, "Well, it depends on how old you think the earth is." To which I quickly replied with, "Don't tell me you're a Creationist." Mike said, "Is there a problem with that?" To which I just chuckled, said no, and quaintly apologized if I had offended him. Funny. The only reflection I can make on that story is that there are limitless cultural misunderstanding that can happen when you're abroad, but that was probably the last one I thought I'd run into. I guess you never can tell.

Anyway, Trevor and I headed back, discussed what was on the agenda for the next day, and then chatted the night away till it was sleep time. I suppose I may have left Trevor out of this day's details, but I was really glad to have him there, and we were getting along great, which can be difficult when traveling.

And I feel it goes without saying that the day had also been another blast. That will go without saying a lot on this trip.

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