Sunday, February 21, 2010

China knows Scale

I took the train from Lhasa, high up in the Tibetan plateau, on the Western reaches of China to Xi'an, an ancient capital sort of in the middle of the country. This took 36 hours - it's a big country. 4th biggest in the world, larger than the continental US (but that's why we bought Alaska...). So, the land-based transportation really is on a large scale here. Having arrived in Xi'an, I found the scale hadn't really been reduced very much.

The most famous attraction in Xi'an is, of course, the ancient army of terracotta warriors (and horses, as the Chinese name informs you... but nobody cares about the horses!):

A little over 2,000 yeas ago, emperor Qin Shi Huang wanted to have an army around in the next life, so he had one buried with him. A terracotta general pictured here

The actual statues I had somehow found a bit underwhelming - I'm not sure what exactly I'd been expecting, but the warriors get built up so much that actually finding them to be perfectly regular and life-size was a bit of a letdown. I think I had expected some sort of gigantic dragon warrior things... or something like that. This is also first and foremost an archaeological site, so you generally can't just walk up to a warrior for a photo op. So, the warriors might not be all that intricately designed, what they do certainly have though is scale - China has always known how to build things on an impressive scale!

A group of soldiers

You want more soldiers?

How about a few hundred more? This is Pit 1 (of three), it houses over 6,000 warriors (and, yes, horses), and they are still digging for more. The other two pits are a bit smaller - Pit 3 is the command center with only 72 statues, while Pit 2 is estimated to contain over 1,300, but it remains mostly un-excavated still.

The whole thing is the size of a fairly large airplane hangar

The whole thing, by the way, was, of course, a burial sight, so it was, naturally, buried, and lost... for centuries. Until 1974, when a local farmer stumbled onto a piece of Pit 1 while digging a well.

Other emperors of the time weren't to be outdone, and we also visited the Tomb of Emperor Jigdi. This guy really chose to forgo artistic decoration of his next-life servants, and squarely focused on the numbers:

There are thousands of warriors, similar to these, that had been buried here, along with cattle, servants, carts, decorations, etc.

Back in Xi'an, the scale shone through some of the ancient city's most famous landmarks:

The city walls, built in the 13th century are still intact and stretch for 14km around the heart of the city

The city's most notable attraction (other than the warriors) is the Big Goose Pagoda, which, not so surprisingly, isn't all that interesting in its design, but is quite massive

Nothing to do with scale here - just a nice view of a rack of candles outside the Big Goose Pagoda

The Bell Tower, framed by some early spring blossoms

My favorite bit of the city was actually the giant and frenetic Muslim market (Xi'an was the ancient terminus of the Silk Road, and consequently still has a sizable Muslim population. Along with a large mosque, which looks absolutely nothing like any mosque I had ever seen, but a lot like a Chinese Temple... hmmm...), the best part of which was the amazing street food being prepared on open flames at every street corner

A food stall at the market

And, of course, Chinese New Year was still in full swing. If you haven't been paying attention to the website (and why haven't you, really!? -, this was my comment on my second morning in Xi'an

Chinese New Year officially becoming old @9:03 this morning when I woke up to more firecrackers outside... and ensuing car alarms

But other aspects of the New Year were a little more endearing:

The North Tower all lit up with Christmas, uhmm, Chinese New Year's, lights

Decorations around the city

Some sort of an impromptu dance and comedy recital in the streets

Probably not professional, but well prepared and rehearsed, judging by the costumes and the general sense of choreography

The biggest problem with the New Year, however, wasn't the firecrackers. It was the fact that everybody goes to travel over the two week holiday - be it visit family, or go sight-seeing, everybody goes, and all the transport is full. I had by now decided that I was ready to leave China behind and booked a ticket out of Shanghai to Taiwan, so this left the small matter of getting to Shanghai... The trains were booked out for seven days in advance, I didn't want to try getting involved with black market train tickets, so I ended up on a bus, as China chose to remind me about scale a little more:

It's a nice enough-looking bus, reminds me of the super-comfy Argentinian/Chilean buses... but that was a mirage

Even though I had already traveled 36 hours pretty much directly due East by train from Lhasa, Shanghai, and the Easternmost border of China was another 18 hour bus ride away. And while the bus looked like one of the nice South American buses, inside the economies of Chinese scale dictated that we squeeze in as many passengers as possible, meaning not just seats designed for relatively short Chinese people, but seats to make even relatively short Chinese people uncomfortable... I did get my few hours of sleep on the bus, in spite of the appalling lack of leg room, but I'm not feeling all that anxious to take any further bus rides in this country at the moment!

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