There was no breakfast included today, so we wandered through a light drizzle back to the Xi’an YHA and ate while watching TV coverage of the preparation for today’s military parade in Beijing to mark seventy years since the end of World War Two. Then it was on the mini-coach with our guide for the day, Ling, to head out to visit the Terracotta Warriors excavation and exhibit.
I think I was struck by two things going around the exhibit. One was the scale of the reconstruction work; in all of the known pits the roof has collapsed and the bulk of them have been burned as well. Putting the pieces together again has surely got to be the biggest jigsaw puzzle in history.
The other thing that struck was the individuality of each soldier. I can only assume they are modelled from the actual soldiers, so that each man in the army was represented by a pottery avatar. They are all there; the young and old, fat and thin, tall and short. I wonder who they were and what they thought of this exercise as their likeness was being captured. Were they proud to be metaphorically accompanying their emperor into the afterlife (perhaps relieved that they were not required to actually follow him into death, as others were!) or were they just bemused by the idea of copying the army?
I wonder also what they’d make of the site today. What would they say to the crowds who jostle to stare at their likenesses? What would they make of the gift shop? Life-size statues are okay, but are fridge magnets a step too far?
I think the individuality is what I will remember most clearly about them; it’s not a crowd of identical mannequins; each one represents an ordinary man who existed, with a history, loves, fears, hopes and dreams.
The exhibition halls over each of the excavation pits necessarily limit the views you get. To do otherwise would disrupt the ongoing archaeology. Consequently, when we got to Pit 2 which has several warriors in glass cases that you can get close to, it was a bit of a scrum. Not quite as bad as trying to get close to the Mona Lisa, but much the same. I discovered the adjustable screen on the back of my new Olympus camera means I can actually lift the thing overhead and shoot down on my subject. Excellent for getting the shot without having to elbow my way to the front – and also lets me get a wider angle than I’d have with my lens pressed up against the glass. Quite the happy result!
There is also an exhibit of bronze chariots which were discovered a little away from the site, closer to the emperor’s tomb itself. Unlike the warriors, they seem to be in miniature, but are no less popular for that. There was also an interesting side exhibit on other artefacts from the Qing period. Sadly, like most of the Chinese exhibitions we’ve seen, not at all well interpreted for the public and I only had time to browse briefly before having to hurry back to meet the group by the allotted time.
We had lunch in the somewhat Disney-fied town outside the exhibition campus and then drove back into town to explore the city walls. The walls date from the Ming period but have been heavily restored since then. They are some seventeen metres wide and the top is paved so you can walk, run, or (in our case) cycle around them. We spent a jolly couple of hours doing the circuit, stopping every now and then to photograph the scenery and entirely ignoring the frequent signs forbidding you to ride up or down the ramps.
Once we’d had our exercise we headed back into town. Most of the group wanted to re-visit the Moslem quarter and I wanted to explore the Great Mosque.
It turned out to be more a case of “once-great.” It was an interesting mix of Chinese and Arabic architecture and decoration – and clearly was once a glorious complex of buildings, but these days it is very much run-down and in need of restoration. Whereas I was expecting a single building, or at least a large complex under one roof, in Xi’an they’ve started from the Chinese base of buildings around decorative courtyards. You progress through a series of courtyards with gateways, fountains, pagodas and tablets of the Koran, towards the main Prayer Hall which occupies the entire Western end of the plot.
It was a sorry sight for what must once have been a colourful and treasured edifice. Nevertheless it did, as advertised, provide an oasis of peace in the midst of the tourist bazaar which surrounds it and the commercialism of the wider Moslem Quarter.