Sunday, 18 September 2011

Pingyao to Xian and then Kunming

In which muddy warriors are tirelessly resisted.
Starring an expert in Chinese Medicine who taught me how to say ‘I don’t understand’

The train from Pingyao to Xian was decidedly more hellish than the last and the experience from the top bunk (up against the ceiling) was almost certainly similar to lying down in one of those smoking rooms you see in airports where the clear glass looks opaque thanks to the billowing clouds of exhaled fumes within.  I suppose because it was a shortish journey (10 hours) most people seemed to stay awake for the whole night and around 1am the pretence of ‘going’ to the smoking part of the carriage (the gap between the carriages) was wilfully abandoned and the card playing men took to puffing away right at the foot of our beds.   The two fresh faced Florida newly-weds on the bottom two bunks were not coping in any sense of the word.

Xian is a huge sprawling city choked with hooting traffic and hordes of people festering beneath the yellow/grey fug that we are gradually beginning to give up hope will ever lift. So probably not my favourite place on earth.

Seeing the Terracotta Warriors is an interesting lesson in how to commercialise an entire area from a single attraction and completely sap visitors of any lingering interest or enthusiasm they might have for the thing that bought them there in the first place.  
To get out to see them you have to get on a ‘Warrior Tour’.  First stop Ban Po Neolithic village – which was actually very interesting – the remains of a 6000yr female dominated settlement in the area with some fabulous pottery including a jar that when put into a well or a pool would right itself when it was full.  Worth pausing to consider I think where we might be today if women had remained in charge.   
Next stop ‘Warrior Making Factory’ which sadly and rather naïvely I had imagined was the place where the terracotta warriors had been made. No, modern equivalent though – with plenty of time to buy of course. Watch the woman press clay into a mould to make a mini warrior.  Learn about furniture painting (shipping not included).  I was appeased by the presence of an enormous brick kiln in the courtyard that is fired with real fire. 

Then having survived the warrior gift shop you need to have lunch. This will be charged at 20 times the going rate in town and will be of an inferior quality but there will be nothing else around for miles because you have been delivered there by bus.  While you are trying to slurp the watery noodles ladies will come around and foist their embroidery in your face shouting “cheap price, you tell me how much”.

You may think, at this point, that you are nearly, nearly at the warriors.   You will be wrong.  While your guide is buying tickets and passes you will be shuffled into another building to meet Mr Yang, the farmer who discovered the warriors in 1974 - now the famed author of a book (signed copies available) on his epic find and who is conveniently available for photographs at around Y250 a pop. 

Are you ready to see the warriors yet? Are you?  Well too bad because there is still a 15 minute walk down “Commercial Street” (that is REALLY its name), before you get there for purchasing all manner of warrior memorabilia (do not buy your warriors here – they are muddy warriors not properly fired – this is why you were encouraged to buy your warriors at the warrior factory).

You arrive at the first Pit of warriors (there are 4) and you think, finally, finally, finally. But alas first there is a warrior shop where you can have your own head made as a warrior and mounted on a warrior body (shipping not included).  By which time you think “feck the fecking warriors, I saw them in London anyway and they weren’t that bloody amazing”, and buy an extortionate instant coffee at a strategically placed café.

Ok, but they are that amazing. The sheer scale is breathtaking and being able to see the individuality of the expressions and facial features in row after row make trekking through the commercial maze worth it.  Though there are four pits only one has been extensively excavated and you realise just how much work has gone into reconstructing the figures (extensively damaged by marauding armies and earthquakes over the 2000 years they lay buried).  More extraordinary still is that they are really just one tiny part of an enormous mausoleum complex built for Qin Shi Huang by 700 000 labourers (for which read slaves). The entire areas was full of pits containing all sorts of other terracotta figures (acrobats, stable boys), golden chariots and numerous people (concubines mainly – times had changed in the 4000 years since Banpo)and animals all buried alive. 

The palace, in which his coffin is said to float on a river of mercury, remains completely untouched beneath an enormous hill despite the fact that one third of China’s treasure was buried with him. 

The prospect of two more days in Xian after all this was a dim one but we got through it thanks to the discovery of an excellent Starbucks, the arrival of Abby Stables, a walk on the city walls, street food in the Muslim Quarter and 17 rounds of a Russian card game called ‘The Fool’ over beer.

Train trip to Kunming was a leisurely 36 hours but largely non-smoking – the man on the opposite bunk was a doctor in Chinese Medicine. I gave him rice crackers, he gave me strange little mini-apples that tasted a bit like plums .  We practicsed our English and Chinese pronunciations - especially: I do not understand you. 

Kunming is very similar to Xian. But sans the mysterious can-it-really-be-pollution mist.  Went for a stroll shoving through crowds to see some pagodas (nice) and some fish ponds (heaving with Koi).   Prospect of spending two more days here at the end of our trip round Yunnan utterly unappealing.

More pictures (you don't need to be on Facebook to see them):

1 comment:

  1. Loved the humorous build up to seeing the warriors! Mom x