Saturday, December 06, 2008

12.4.08: Xi'an

Xi'an is the ancient capital of China--home to around 12 dynasties during the first thousand years of Chinese dynastic history. The layout of the city and its surroundings is supposed to have good fen shui (Our local guide told us that girls get prettier and boys grow taller within a year of moving here.) and I actually did get a good feeling being here. That could also be due to that fact that we stayed inside the old city walls, near the majority of tourist attractions, an area much more manageable than the vast urban sprawl of Beijing.

We spent most of the first day in Xi'an wandering around its historic Muslim quarter with the two Australian couples on our trip, David and Li and Oliver and Sarah. There was something incredibly romantic and captivating about this area, dotted with strung lights, falling leaves, and little songbird cages hanging from tree branches. Between that and the street vendors selling exotic concoctions like cold sesame noodles, fried stuffed pancakes, and dried persimmons, it looked like something out of a 1920's film about Shanghai.

(A side street in the Muslim Quarter)

Off of the main drag, we wound our ways around stall after stall of bric-a-brac, Chinese "antiques" , knockoff designer handbags and Chairman Mao novelty items (all for "belly good plice!") to enter the Great Mosque, the main place of worship for Xi'an's appx. 400,000 Muslims. This series of courtyards, built only a few years after Mohammed's death, was an incredibly peaceful respite from the hustle and bustle outside. They led up to an enormous prayer hall, large enough for 1,200 worshippers to bow to Allah.

In the evening, we left the confines of the Old City walls to visit the Big Goose Pagoda, named after a legend in which geese sacrificed themselves to save starving monks during a famine. The pagoda itself was impressive, but we were there to see the nightly fountain show in front of it, which claims to be the largest light and water show in Asia, and it didn't disappoint in its absolute cheesiness. On a side note, I used the pagoda's facilities to do my first successful poop in one of the standard, squatty, hole-in-the ground toilets. Gold star for me! Plan to have well-toned thighs by the end of this trip.

The following morning we set out for one of the sights I had most been looking forward to--the Terra Cotta Warriors. This amazing discovery was made only about 30 years ago, when a local farmer dug up a bit of pottery while making his well, and ended up unearthing part of one of the estimated TWO MILLION full-scale, life-sized warriors built around the tomb of China's first emperor, to protect him in the afterlife.

Now, about 2,000 warriors have been found and painstakingly restored by archaeologists and 4,000 more were discovered in the same plot but are not yet put back together. These 6,000 fill up the area of a large airplane hangar, so I can't even imagine the size of the entire underground army. It is supposed to be the largest tomb in the world.

(Some of my new Chinese friends)

The statues are absolutely amazing. Every single one is slightly different, as they are meant to represent each actual individual member of the emperor's army, and they are detailed to the level of facial expressions and different hairstyles. Even more amazing is the amount of work it must have taken to complete such a task. AN army of artisans must have spent their entire lives preparing for the emperor's death. Now, a whole new level of work is being undertaken to piece together the remains of the discovered statues, many of which are smashed in several pieces. One of the most intricate works we saw is a chariot towed by four horses, which we were told took 20 archaeologists EIGHT years to complete. I am thankful for their dedication, as I'm sure are the loads of other tourists who visit this wondrous site.

We chilled in the afternoon after a fun group meal. The large meals are served family-style around a big lazy susan, and our group really is starting the feel like somewhat of a family, all looking out for one another.

Anyway, we had to rest up for the big night ahead, something I was told I HAD to do while in China...KARAOKE! Its reputation is well-deserved, because this was quite an experience. Ten of us walked into PARTY WORLD (already awesome) and were greeted by the grandest modern interior we had yet seen in China--marble floors and crystal chandeliers in an ornate lobby. It could have been the Waldorf-Astoria, but the entire place was dedicated to private karaoke suites, furbished with leather couches and huge, flat-screen TVs. Our room had three microphones, maracas & tambourines, and a digital control panel to adjust song choice, volume, and lights. This was some serious karaoke. I was shy at first, but after some liquid courage and a few group numbers, Seth and I pretty much rocked it with Livin' on a Prayer and then I was unstoppable. It was a really fun night!!

(Seth ROCKS!)

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