Part 3 – Xi’An (西安), Another ancient capital in the heart of China

On the way to Xi’an I passed some beautiful mountains seemingly alone on a tundra-like plain. I was immediately drawn to them. But that is another story.

On the metro to downtown I studied some Chinese flashcards. An old lady sitting next to me asked me if I needed any help. So she practiced pronunciation with me on the way in. A very nice first impression.

The city is set on a flat grid surrounded by ancient city wall. My friend had mentioned riding bikes along it. I planned on checking that out. I found the hostel after doing my customary wondering. Ancient City is a very nice hostel right next to the metro station and the Muslim culture street. Immediately I was drawn to the city. It seemed like food was being cooked and consumed everywhere. The weather was clear and blue sky was visible above.

Sitting in the restaurant area of the hostel, I looked for jobs in Xi’an that coming fall. I had only been there three hours but I could tell that it was a place I would want to stay.

That night I made friends with two girls. One was from the Netherlands and was visiting a Chinese friend. I introduced them to the card game hearts and then mercilessly destroyed them. Final score 121:86:26. Even with that brutality they told me about their plans for the morrow.

They would go to see China’s famous terracotta warriors. They had worked out all the details and invited me to join them! Perfect. I wouldn’t have to figure it out for myself.

At 7:30 am we headed to the Xi’an train station and got in line for the bus to museum/gravesite. The location is about an hour outside the city and offers some spectacular views of mountains in the distance.

You approach along a long corridor to the gate and airport style hangers beyond. We entered the first one and were blown away. The interior was a partially excavated clay army. The entire site was about 150 m by 50 m.

The Chinese friend explained to me that the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, had built the army of clay soldiers to fight for him in the spirit world. The immensity of the undertaking really struck a chord. I reflected: if humans would only turn our incredible creative power towards the good, how much further could we have come as a species up to this point? Yet egos and bashfulness constantly purport one’s importance over that of others even against the clear potential for all to benefit in an environment of harmony.

The first Emperor has constantly been reanalyzed throughout Chinese history. Originally he was painted as a blood thirsty tyrant, later as the father of China, and finally as an inspiration to Mao Zedong and his cultural revolution. The first emperor had books burned and knowledge squelched. Some say that it was necessary for the unification of Chinese script and at least partially standardization of the oral language. He also began the construction of the great wall by unifying many frontier city walls into a defense boundary to the nomads of the north (those damn Mongols). He commissioned canals and roads the crisscrossed china. He famously spent the later part of his life searching for the elixir of immortality. However, there is some scholarly debate upon whether his pursuit really consumed him as much as historians say or whether this was created to slander him in years after his death.

If you haven’t picked up on it, there is a common theme throughout Chinese history. Today we see China as an all controlling oligarchy/communist government. The truth is that China has always been that way to one degree or another. China even has a state religion of bureaucracy. They understand, more than western cultures are willing to admit, the ability of history to be manipulated by the victor. Truly, it is a precautionary tale for modern Americans and westerners in general.

For example, if you are as confused as I was about why no bankers were prosecuted in the wake of the 2008 housing collapse, just understand that the news corporations, whom hold the unilateral ability to create outrage in those who do not have all day to seek the truth by digesting issues completely, are controlled by the same people as the banks and government. Checkmate.

After checking out his afterlife army which contained something like 5,000 soldiers of all different ranks and unique faces, and at least 20,000 bronze weapons, some of which contained chrome technology which was thought to have been invented in the 20th century (the warriors were discovered in the 1970s), I headed to his burial mausoleum. It has not been opened yet. His crypt is beneath a decent sized hill. Scientists have not figured out a way to open the tomb without destroy the contents due to exposure to the atmosphere. However, legends claim that the tomb contains rivers of mercury, as that element was believed to be a key ingredient to the elixir of life. In tradition of my brother, I took the first chance to take a side path, making sure to be unobserved slipping off into the trees. I found foot beaten paths of workers, cigarette packs, and random collections of tiny plastic bags. I also noticed that along the paths were 3 inch wide columns drilled out that went deeper than the eye could see. Not knowing I was walking along the hill of the first Emperor’s tomb, I guessed that treasure seekers had drilled the holes in hopes of hitting an empty cavern that might contain treasure.

Turns out, that scientists drilled the holes to map out the underground burial site in preparation for the opening. Part of the process was placing different sensors inside the columns. The instruments consistently returned much higher than normal concentrations of mercury! Pretty exciting stuff.

I found an old stair well, and not knowing how high the mount I was on went, I determined to climb up. At the top of the stairs, I found an abandoned hill top plaza. There was even a placard worn with time. I believe that it was the original memorial to the first Emperor. The rustic solitude nature of it really struck me. Mountains were visible to the south. The valley to the north slowly slopped back to the city proper which was barely distinguishable on the horizon. I sat on the edge of the platform and stared off. The memorial had definitely been worth the pitiful game of hearts.


The next day I biked the city wall which is the oldest intact city wall in China. The views from the wall and the wall itself are beautiful. The air pollution in Xi’An is tolerable and doesn’t paint the city grey. The trek around the wall takes about an hour and half at a leisure pace.

On completion of the city wall, I headed to the nearest park using Baidu maps (I swear they are not sponsoring me). As I approached the park I heard the sound of gunfire. I guessed people were lighting off fireworks but the sound was oddly different and a bit rhythmic. Upon reaching the square I found the source. Da tuo luo is game originating from the Ming dynasty. Using a whip, the person keeps a top spinning by continuously hitting it.

They were not only playing da tuo luo, but there were also whip dancers: a strange mixture between kungfu, dancing, and whipping. They were all quite amazing with the way the lashed around the whip. I and a hundred or so other onlookers drank in the sights and sounds of the whip-dancers.

That night, I stayed up to watch the Brazil – Netherlands game. Watching the World Cup in China has been a depressing experience. Nothing makes you feel like a shittier person that realizing that when you are heading to bed around 6 am, people are starting their day. I did nothing the next day and caught the championship game in the AM.

The afternoon after the championship game, I determined to return to the beautiful mountains I has spotted on my train ride into Xi’an. The next installment: Huashan, an ill formed plan.

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