Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Final Stop: Xi'an-- City of Western Peace

We flew from Dunhuang to Xi'an, a major city. Our hotel room in Xi'an had our first soft mattress. It felt good. We stayed two nights in Xi'an. The first day, we went to the Xi'an wall, a 9-mile long massive wall around the old city. It is reminiscent of the Great Wall of China in many ways.

We went to the Terra Cotta Warriors during it's busiest week, but managed to see everything--so incredible, it's hard to imagine an emperor with that much power. He had nearly a million people working on the project to memorialize himself. His actual tomb is still buried, along with what many consider to be room after room of treasure. They are waiting for technology to find a way to preserve these treasures once opened up to the air. The warriors that were uncovered lost their color within a few days because of the oxygen in the air. All but one of the 8,000 warriors were smashed by a mob of people anciently, and archaeologists have painstakingly put them back together. It's still ongoing, and the massive pits where they're buried show a large number of broken warriors. They're housed in aircraft hanger-like buildings.

Neil Thompson, being very tall, was a huge hit at this site. Families couldn't wait to get their picture taken with him. He was a rock star.

In the evening of the final night, we had front row seats at a cultural dance event. It was absolutely wonderful, extremely colorful.

At a store and workshop outside of the Terra Cotta museum, they have these photo opportunities. Should I get this new suit? I showed this picture to my students and they thought it was hilarious.

The largest, most complicated Chinese character "biang" which is a "noodle."

Laraine trying to get a glimpse of the warriors.

Her first glimpse, now how do I step away and move to another viewpoint?

Warriors who are still in pieces.

Rock Star, Neil Thompson

This is how the Chinese potty train their kids. Usually, there is no diaper. Typically, they teach the child to squat and use the potty through this split in the pants, and they don't deal with diapers. This is unusual. 

This farmer was paid $100 US dollars for finding the warriors. However, because Bill Clinton wanted to meet him, he became a celebrity and it changed his life. 

Up to the Xi'an city wall. 

Jody Boulton and Laraine at the wall

The wall is quite wide. Here Laraine stands on top. You can rent bicycles and ride around it.

Some of the many unusual treats at the Muslim market in Xi'an. We only had about 20 minutes to explore.
From our front-row seat

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This man did things with this instrument and with his voice that I didn't think were humanly possible. 

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A view of the Xi'an wall guard station at night. 

Grottoes in China--We Had No Idea!

Also in Dunhuang were the MoGao Grottoes (or Caves). To call them "caves" is like calling the National Cathedral a village "chapel." We were unprepared for what we saw. Our tour started with two films (with translation headsets) showing the history and importance of these grottoes. There were over 1,000 caves carved into the hills between 1,600 and 800 years ago. Half the caves have elaborate paintings covering every square inch of space. They depict in surprisingly well-preserved paint the various "Sutras" or Buddhist scriptures. The detail is incredible. It's possible that in a single cave you'll see everything in Buddhist heaven (such as flying Buddhas called "Asparas") as well as an ancient family having a mundane, earthly kind of picnic in the park. There are massive maps painted on some of the walls depicting sacred areas. In addition to painted walls, most of the caves have painted statues of Buddhas, Bodhisatvas, and Buddhist disciples formed in elaborate detail from clay. This is an UNESCO International World Heritage site that has only been open to public for a couple of decades. For over 500 years, these caves were simply buried in the sand, which fortunately preserved them, keeping them from light, air and moisture. I kept pinching myself, thinking in my head, "This incredible, unrefurbished painting or sculpture was made a thousand years before Christopher Columbus even thought about coming to America."

It was well worth the trip.

Unfortunately, taking pictures inside the caves was not allowed.

Just a few of the caves from a distance. These caves were not included in those on the tour because they did not have paintings or statues.

This modern wall protects the caves. Behind each numbered door is a cave.

This was a "library" cave made by the ancients.

The caves were on multiple layers.

The main, iconic cave of Mogao caves.
I didn't take this picture. I found it on the internet, but it is typical of the paintings and statues found in the caves. All paint is original. 

The night market after our long day.

Night Market food court. We had several couples join us for skewers. Donkey meat was on the menu, and we should have gotten some but didn't. There's always next time. 


I'd Walk a Mile for a Camel?

Okay, when they told us there would be sand dunes in Dunhuang, I was picturing the dunes I'd seen before--maybe 40-50 feet high. These Gobi desert dunes were MASSIVE at about 600 feet high, at least. Because it was "golden week" holiday in China, we were not the only ones there. There were perhaps 500 camels either resting or carrying passengers up and down the dunes. It was a bonding experience between "master" and animal. I now feel close to "Fred," and empathized with his pain as he lugged all my weight up the steep dunes. At one point, he decided to take a short break without telling me and knelt down using his front knees. We rode for about an hour before I came to a realization . . . Confucius could have said, "He who rides too much on camel becomes Soprano in choir." We wanted to ride an ultra-light aircraft after the camel ride, but did not have enough time.

What a blast, though!

That's not a mountain ahead, that's just a sand dune! The Gobi Desert is amazing

Laraine, all set to start her camel journey. She's already jealous of the camel's long eyelashes.

These are a few of the camels who are resting. I'm sitting on one of them, ready for lift off.

I was the caboose on a 5-camel team. this was my view as we started out.

Doing a selfie is hard because you kind of need both hands to hang on to the camel.

Camel ride done, we're off to the oasis "Crescent Lake." Those are sledders in the distance.

The orange foot coverings are to minimize contact with the sand. Kind of an odd thing to do in the desert.

This is part of the oasis, a pagoda, with a "short" dune (maybe 200-300 feet high) in the distance. The lake is just behind this pagoda. 


Sleeper Train

We've always wanted to experience riding a sleeper train. It was a lot of fun. Traveling overnight from Turpan to LiuYuan station (near Dunhuang), we shared our compartment with Neal and Jolene Thompson from New Mexico who are teaching in Tian Jin. He is about 6'6" and I felt sorry for him, trying to scrunch into a 6' compartment. Surprisingly, no one snored -- at least that I heard. The train made several stops and the bed was hard . . . hard.

Laraine slept well.

I (Chuck) forgot to check the latch on the door to know how to open it in the darkness. As usual, I got up once in the middle of the night to use the bathroom and because I had forgotten to see how the latch works, I stood there jiggling and pushing the latch. After a while, I heard a male voice on the other side of the doorway, in the outer hall say, "Just pull it towards you." It was Tim Pelton, another China teacher who teaches at Beijing University. He was standing out in the hall with several other  men from our group, all waiting for the bathroom. It was kind of surreal.

At 8:30 a.m., when we arrived in LiuYuan, a tiny town in "Black Gobi" where the dirt is black from minerals, we had to wait for another train carrying the rest of our group. But we had no bathroom, and because we had already exited the station, we could not convince both sets of security guards (it was a two-layered system--get through one checkpoint, then walk about 50 feet and do it all over again with a second checkpoint) to allow us back in without a "valid ticket." Showing our just-used ticket didn't work. So a few of us were desperate for a bathroom and we walked across the street to a hotel called the "Grain and Oil Hotel" (I'm not kidding). They informed us they had no bathrooms for non-guests. But just then, a Chinese couple from Beijing walked through the lobby and invited us up to their room to use their toilet. What an amazing couple. The problem was that three people turned into 5, then 7, etc. We thanked them profusely.

About 90 minutes from this little train station was a town called Dunhuang. It was an incredible place . . . huge sand dunes, camel rides, and more. . . 

Roommates--Jolene and Neil Thompson on Sleeper Car between Turpan and LiuYuan, China. They were great roommates. We had no problem with them, as they kept the partying to a minimum. 

An Effort as big as the Great Wall

In the Gobi desert, we learned of a massive, ancient public works project as big as the Great Wall. Because the Gobi desert climate is so dry, relying on snow-fed mountain streams for crops was unthinkable. The ancient Chinese desert dwellers dug over 17,000 vertical shafts and then climbed into those shafts to dig slanted underground canals, some as long as 15-16 miles. These canals allowed water to travel the distances needed to bring life-giving water to the people without worrying about evaporation.

We also learned the legend of the Flaming Mountain, when a priest made a journey to the west, crossing the hot mountain, borrowing a magical fan from a monster woman. From this story came four archetypes, representing four different kinds of personalities--one of which is a monkey king and the other a pig monk. Our visit to Flaming Mountain during China's "golden week" included a visit from these two characters. Chinese flock to this mountain like Americans go to Disneyland to see the mythical creatures there.

We also visited a Muslim minaret in the desert and got up close with the burial rites.

Checkpoint into the Canal System Exhibit. Notice anything different about the police officer?

We've never seen a police officer in high heels.

A vertical shaft dug to lower workers into the canal

The way they lowered workers into the canal system.

Underground water flowing.

I'm getting the better of him, right? Right? 
Flaming Mountain exhibit. Thousands of Chinese tourists here to see this mountain.

Laraine caught herself a pig monk, and the monkey king is right behind her. Flaming mountain background.

Monkey King

Commemorating the mythical story
Arriving at the Minarett

Prayer area.

When you kneel to pray, don't go falling down in any old way, do it carefully.

The different shapes denote whether the person buried was a man or a woman.

A blanket covering either an altar or a coffin, with offerings in the corner.