Xian The city of Xian itself is fairly nondescript. It is neither particularly old nor particularly modern, the roads are incredibly busy and it is very hard to get a sense of location or overall character while you are there. It did, however offer some incredible gems.
The first was our visit to Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s Mausoleum Site Museum, or better known as the Terracotta Warriors. The first view of them as you step into the main excavation site at Pit 1 is absolutely breathtaking. They are, of course, exactly how you’ve seen them in pictures but more than worth the visit out to Xian if you ever get the chance to visit China.
Given the widespread destruction during the civil war and Cultural Revolution I could not help thinking how fortunate it is that this site wasn’t discovered until the mid seventies. For a country of such immense history, there is a marked absence of historical sites and buildings to be seen. Some sites, such as the Forbidden City were expressly protected; other surviving sites were protected only by the grace of brave individuals who could not stand to see the destruction of beautiful or significant sites.
In Shanghai we viewed an incredible mosaic fresco inside the dome of an old bank building. During the Cultural Revolution, the Red Guards arrived to destroy it as a symbol of old, bourgeois decadence however a quick thinking architect managed to convince them that it would be too difficult to pull down all of the tiles and ornamentation. Instead he suggested that they simply remove the offending artwork by covering it up with plaster. After Mao’s death, the plaster was removed and the beautiful mosaic was restored to its former glory.
The second highlight of Xian was a bicycle ride along the city wall. The city wall (good but not great) is a 13km fortified circuit around the centre of Xian. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time for the entire loop, however the almost bird’s eye view of the city and the chance to do some active exploration as opposed to the museum shuffle was a lot of fun.
The day was topped off by a visit to the Muslim Quarter in the evening. One of our group aptly described it as having the atmosphere of a Chinatown section of a city outside of China; lots of incredible street food vendors, specialty shops and dried fruit sellers. The week before this area had been unsafe for western visitors due to riots and protests against American ‘Big noses’.
The foodie highlight of Xian was a local specialty dumpling banquet. and that they serve delicious chilli sauce with everything!
Beijing Beijing is quite different to Chinese cities. Several years ago a government delegation visited Singapore for inspiration on city planning and since then public spaces have been specifically designed to increase the urban aesthetic with a particular emphasis on parks and street trees.
We visited the big five in Beijing- the Forbidden City, Summer Palace (more picturesque lake than palace), Tiannamen Square, Temple of Heaven and the Great Wall. Other incredible highlights included a Kung Fu show, Peking Duck dinner, the Olympic District and a rickshaw ride through the Hutong District.
Just a small incident I found Tiannamen Square to be particularly disconcerting. There is still a huge portrait of Mao at one end (he can also be found on buttons, books, key rings and other paraphernalia throughout China) and although it doesn’t appear that people are singing his praises, the Communist Party is still very reluctant to acknowledge the full atrocity of his actions and the incredible damage he did to millions and millions of Chinese people.
Our local guide Stanley was only in his early 30’s and made it very clear to us that, 1) he found it disappointing that the West is so focused on Tiannamen Square, 2) he considers it an ‘incident’ not a massacre at which ‘only a few hundred’ people were killed, and 3) that the students were in fact planted there by Western governments to create trouble and make China look bad.
Later that day in Stanley’s absence, our national guide, in a very PC way, made it very clear that this was not a universal view and that Tiannamen was an incident of national shame. She pointed out that the bodies of the students and guards killed were never returned to their families so that an exact body count could never be confirmed and that the Chinese people at the time and since have been kept largely in the dark.
I think this characterises modern China quite well. There is an uneasy contrast between a desire to be open and a desire to keep control, to embrace the West and to be defensive toward it, and to try and move on from the destruction of the Mao era as quickly as possible.
165cm and 60kg The gardens around the Temple of Heaven are perhaps more interesting than the temple itself. With the retirement age at 55 for women and 60 for men, the gardens are filled with retired adults participating in all kinds of community activities. There are small bands, aerobics groups, Chinese hacky sack games, tai chi and ball & racquet aerobics.
The most amazing group of all are in a large paved square. Adults in their 50’s and 60’s sit on small chairs with a piece of paper in front of them detailing the vital statistics of their 20 and 30 something year old children. The details include height, weight, personality traits and career/ study background. Other parents browse along the hundreds of A4 prospectives and will try to arrange a suitable match for their own children from the options on display. Trying to walk through this area is like trying squeeze through any Australian mall at 4:30pm on Christmas Eve.
The Great Staircase Word to the wise, the Great Wall is significantly more ‘steps’ than ‘wall’!! Despite the demand on your quads and hammies this does have the advantage of thinning out the crowds quite quickly. Like the Terracotta Warriors, this really has to be seen first hand. It is mind boggling to stand at the highest point and imagine what an incredible structure the wall is. Cold, hard work, and totally worth it!!
798 Art District This was the most phenomenal discovery in Beijing and perhaps of the trip so far (thanks for the recommendation Megan!). A huge industrial district on the edge of Beijing has been converted into contemporary art studios and galleries. You could spend days and days wandering in and out of these spaces which house work from some of the most incredible contemporary Chinese artists. The area is also full of public space art and sculpture as well as cafes serving delicious Chinese and Western fusion cuisine. Absolute must see!
Next: On the Trans Mongolian…