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The Wonders of China – Ancient and Modern

By: Jena Maddalino

Date Posted: 2000-05-13

When two of my American friends and I decided that we wanted to go to China there was very little hesitation. Although it wasn’t certain what touring a Communist country would be like, we knew without out a doubt that the experience would be the chance of a lifetime.

After making our decision to go, the next step was to figure out an itinerary – a difficult task because we could not speak or read Chinese. With the help of our Chinese friend, originally from Shanghai, we were able to purchase tickets, make visa arrangements and arrange to visit Shanghai and Xi’an, the home of the Terracotta Warriors. And as luck would have it, our kind friend would make the trip with us!

Envisioning a predominately poor country with unknown diseases, we decided to load our bodies up with every vaccination recommended. Among the most unusual were Japanese Encephalitis, Typhoid and Yellow Fever. Tickets and visas in hand, we were now ready to make our exciting journey to the world of China.

Shanghai – The City of Modern China

Our first stop in China was the booming city of Shanghai, a great metropolis that reminded me of Hong Kong. A port side city with towering buildings, modern architecture and modern people, everything that I had imagined of China was instantly shattered. Of course, in contrast to the modern development were the remnants of the city’s not so distant past. Until 1949, Shanghai’s urban area had been divided between foreign (mostly European) powers under imperialistic rule.

After years of being run down by Beijing, Shanghai is on its way to reclaiming its place as one of Asia’s leading commercial centers. Shanghai leads in the country’s goal to modernize and strengthen its economy. And the people now cherish the reminders of imperialism that were once despised and their efforts to protect the classical facades of the city are limitless.

In short, the city is an odd mix of European buildings, modern offices and tiny Chinese streets. To the west of the Huangpu River, which divides the city in half lies the city’s famous riverfront, is the Bund. This area is incredibly fascinating and lively as it is lined with shopping streets, hotels and nightclubs. Across the river in Pudong, stands the Oriental Pearl TV tower. 486 meters high makes this TV tower the highest in Asia and the third highest in the world. The sight can not be missed as one strolls along the riverside.

After visiting the Bund, we decided to visit the infamous Nanjing Lu, a busy shopping street, which runs east from beside the Peace Hotel through the heart of downtown Shanghai. Fortunate enough to have a Chinese speaking traveling companion, I was able to purchase a small silk rug and a beautiful watercolor painted fan for a meager price. My friend told me early on that bargaining was very important in China. Tourists are seen as easy targets to charge twice the going amount for goods. Once should never feel guilty for trying to bargain.

After touring the Bund and the Nanjing Lu, we returned to our hotel to meet our friend’s father for dinner. A stoic man in his early 80’s and a survivor of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, “dad” was a walking history lecture. A wealthy businessman prior to the revolution, he was punished for being a capitalist and two of his children were sent away to working camps. Additionally, his business was taken away, as well as his home and the remaining family was forced to live in a tiny house. He agreed to be our guide around town for a day to visit a famous teahouse, a Buddhist Monastery and a flea market full of antiques.

The first stop on our second day of travel was to the Huxinting Tea House. This traditional teahouse is very famous in Shanghai as it offers tea ceremony demonstrations on its second floor. After lunch and tea, we walked along the grounds of the house and enjoyed the surrounding beauty.

Yufosi, the Temple of the Jade Buddha, was the next stop for the day. An active Buddhist Monastery, the Temple itself is famous for its statues (most notably a Buddha of white Jade) and its collection of paintings. My fellow travelers and I toured the beautiful grounds in awe and admired the gardens of trees, plants and flowers.

Our next stop for the day was an antique flea market on the outskirts of the city. After walking through a maze of intricate streets, we arrived at a popular antique market. We viewed the antiques and the antique replicas with both caution and amazement. Not being a collector myself, I was still captivated by the sheer number of items for sale. Blue and White porcelain, old keys, memorabilia from the old Communist days and even a toilet was for sale! With the help of “dad” I was able to purchase a series of 3 small brass turtles, each lying inside the other to form a hanko, or name stamp for around $3 US dollars.

Our next day was spent touring the shopping areas and feasting on the delicious food of the city. The Shanghainese were incredibly friendly and gracious, and the language barrier was rarely a problem. Each tiny street that we toured offered unique smells and sounds, and the outdoor markets were packed with people as well as every type of meat imaginable. Shanghai, like Hong Kong, was a city where one could find almost anything – from fake Rolex watches to exotic herbs, remedies or teas. After our day of touring, we returned to our hotel to prepare for our next adventure. The next journey would last for 22 hours as we traveled by train to the city of Xi’an to see the Terracotta Warriors.

People to People – Xi’an and the Terracotta Warriors

“Why did we take the train?” After 22 long hours, this was the main question in all of our minds. The answer, of course, was to see the countryside and to travel as the local people do.

The train trip began at the station, as hundreds of people rushed onto the train to get a seat. We had first class seats (remember, these are not western standards), so fighting for a seat was not an issue. Inside our tiny room hung four small beds and in the middle sat a small table and a sink. Even though the first class section seemed more like a third to us, it was quite clean. We each had a bed and a small towel and we agreed that it would be an adventure.

Once the train began its journey, we decided that sleeping was the best idea. Waking up was an entirely different story! At the first stop in the morning, the glowing backside of a farmer, apparently fertilizing his fields with his own feces greeted us. This was the first moment that we realized that we were no longer in modern China.

After our morning wake up “call” we made our way to the bathroom car and were surprised by the absence of a toilet. In its place (okay, there never was one), was a hole that led directly outside. This was to be the first hole-for-a-toilet amongst many that we would encounter in Xi’an.

In contrast to the modern city of Shanghai, Xi’an was very rural with farmers scattered about the countryside. Once inside the main city, the scenery changed and small shops and restaurants lined the streets. After a short taxi ride from the train station, we arrived at our hotel. We showered, rested and ate, then prepared for the next day.

Our Chinese friend, unfamiliar with the city of Xi’an, had arranged a guided tour. When he picked us up the following morning, he immediately announced that we should call him Rocky. In near perfect English, he gave us a brief background of the city and the Terracotta Warriors as we headed for the massive site and museum.

The Terracotta Warriors were constructed under the command of Emperor Qin Shihuang (221-206 BC). Qin, known as a ruthless conqueror, unified China and instituted a central government that lasted until 1911. Along with a unified China, Qin ordered the construction of major roads, he established a common currency, and he started the construction of the Great Wall.

Before Qin, it was a common practice to bury live servants inside the tomb of the emperor. Instead of sacrificing live humans, Qin ordered an entire army to be built to protect his tomb, which lies still unopened at Mount Li in the Shaanxi province. The life-like soldiers, horses and chariots would protect him in the next world.

In 1974, peasants sinking a well to make farmland unearthed the first of thousands of warriors that would be found. The excavation near Qin’s tomb uncovered four main pits, containing nearly 8000 figures that cover an area of 20000 meters squared. Rocky informed us too, that we were on our way to see the “8th wonder of the world”.

Outside the museum gate, we were greeted with both smiles and curious stares. Upon entering the gate, we were greeted by an elderly farmer who grabbed our hands and poignantly repeated over and over in English, “people to people….people to people”. We soon realized that the pleasure he showed in meeting westerners was very common amongst many of the people of Xi’an..

Our first stop was at pit #1, the largest of the four pits. The site contained mostly infantry warriors (bowmen, archers); nearly 1000 of the 6000 total had been unearthed and were on display. Beyond the Grand Canyon, I had never before seen such an amazing site. I imagined the thousands of men it took and the thousands of hours to mold each figure each face and uniform. Each warrior looked as if he was ready to march into battle and they all had different faces. The faces were so expressive and chips of paint could be seen on their bodies. Along with the individual expressions, intricate insignia and armor were carved into the figures, offering us a glimpse of China’s past. Great attention was also paid to the height of the warriors, as they stand a bit taller than the average height of that period in China.

Pit #2 was much smaller in size but much more complex. This site was divided into four units with a total of 1000 soldiers, 400 horses and 80 chariots.

Pit #3 held only 68 figures believed to represent the command unit of officers in the Emperor’s army. Pit #4 was empty.

The hours spent at the site of the Terracotta Warriors were like a voyage back in time. After visiting the sites, we were ushered to a museum that contained two painted bronze chariots that had been discovered in 1980, 20 meters west of the Emperor’s tomb. Inlaid with gold and silver, each was made of 3000 different parts. We were also given the chance to meet one of the peasants who found the warriors in 1972 and for a small price, take a picture with the man.

Once outside the museum, we walked through a series of gift shops offering books and different sized replicas of the warriors. This was most notably the worst part of the tour as “souvenirs” were practically forced on us. Rocky told us that the tourism industry was not yet privatized and that the government would receive the profits made from sales. It was a common tactic to push foreigners into purchasing these items before leaving the grounds (once outside the same items can be purchased for much less) and that it was best to bargain if we wanted to buy anything.

Our next day in Xi’an was spent touring a museum, a silk rug factory and a furniture factory (all part of the arranged tour of the government). After the tour of the Terracotta Warriors, it was difficult to be interested in much else. The museum did offer a detailed history of the Emperors of China and housed ancient artifacts dating back thousands of years. Xi’an also contains its own wall built under Emperor Qin – a wall that surrounds the city.

After three days in Xi’an we returned to Shanghai (by plane) and toured again for a couple of days, making last minute purchases as well as stocking up on Jasmine tea. After 9 interesting days of touring, we were ready to go back to our homes and soak in everything that we had seen and done. Looking back on the trip, I can honestly say that it has had a huge impact on my life and my future goals. I also learned a great deal about the people of China and the country itself seems a bit less mysterious.

Writers note – Even though tourism continues to grow each year in China, certain areas are still difficult to get around in without knowing the language. Shanghai is most likely one of the easiest cities to tour as it has a great deal of western influence. Guides can be arranged through most travel agencies and from Japan, the flight fares are reasonable. A visa must be obtained in advance and is done through either a Chinese Embassy or Consulate. Once again, a travel agency can help with the necessary documents.

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