YJ, Old Oak and I found ourselves at another crowded Beijing train station (there are four, I believe), and we were let off by the taxi at a second story drop-off center that reminded me of an airport. We moved with the crowd as a solid mass of humanity, marching slowly through a maze of corridors onto the train platform itself. The situation in terms of train tickets was - we got lucky, as all three of us were able to procure sleepers, little bunkbeds four to a room. This would make the overnight journey that much more comfy, I thought to myself as I prodded my father onward to the very end car, as YJ lightly jogged ahead to make sure we were not left behind. The trains in China waited for no one; although I suspected that the exception may have been our trio, I was not willing to test out my theory.
It turned out as we boarded that all three of us were not in the same room, and all of us would have a top bunk. I eyed it warily, trying to place my large body mentally into the cramped quarters designed for a tall, thin midget. Then, I looked over at Old Oak and began to wonder how he would fit his . . . er, larger girth in there, and I began to have my doubts, as did the two elderly Chinese sitting below us. A conversation began with a young woman who spoke pretty decent English, and she asked us to switch with her so that she could be together with her family. I countered aggressively with the statement that we were a family as well, and we also wished to be together - can one of our group switch over to the room where we have two? It was clear from the beginning that her form of negotiation was a one way street, first using sweet pleading, then turning to surly nastiness (in Chinese to YJ, of course). Old Oak and I stayed in the one room with the old couple on the bottom, and YJ stayed in the cabin beside us, later befriending a young girl in the opposite top bunk.
Somehow, Old Oak lifted his not so nubile body onto the high bed, the hardest part being the twisting of one's body from partial sitting position to sleeping position. There was just not enough head room, especially for taller folk, but in the end we adapted and made do, shaking our heads at the huge space the lower bunks had, and wondering why it wasn't made more equal (for optimum usage of space and maximum comfort for all). Four hours later, as YJ slept and both Old Oak and I were awake again after a short nap, we decided to play cards on the tiny benches and table in the corridor. Twenty minutes later and with no warning, we were in darkness, suddenly realising why the area had become suspiciously empty of people. Chagrined, we returned to our room, and awkwardly climbed up to our beds like disabled orangutans. We pulled the blankets around us closely, as the air-conditioning was blowing fiercely above us, and slept fitfully.
August 16th, way too early in the morning
Our train arrived in Xi'an (mid-northern China) on schedule. We should have been well rested, but none of us were really, the combination of random noise, cramped quarters and strange surroundings conspiring against us. Immediately after deboarding, we walked to the ticket window of the Xi'an train station, and YJ attempted to buy tickets for either that evening or the next morning, the earlier being the better as we had decided together. Half an hour later, three tickets had been procured, but YJ had some bad news - although they were for tonight, there were almost no tickets left at all, and she basically got what she could get with no choices available. One sleeper, two standing seats. We shrugged our shoulders, and figured we could get through it as it was our only choice and we'd been through worse. We went off to store our bags for the day at a safe place, and then looked for a cheap ride out to the Terra Cotta warriors in the crowded and messy parking lot of taxis and buses in front of the train station.
While YJ bargained and the foreigners hid, both Old Oak and I felt the rumblings of internal troubles, and we were forced to use the . . . public toilet. Where brave men fear to tread (MNS excluded - you ol' poops warrior), this utter horror show of humanity and eradicator of privacy stunk like the shithole (pardon the expression) it was, and I was reminded instantly of why I had avoided these places like the plague. I warned Old Oak about the conditions, but he soldiered in alongside me anyways. The details end there - suffice it to say, it was a crappy (groan) experience.
Following that experience in humility and degradation, we found that our (YJ's) bargaining had become useless, as the taxi jerks had found out about our foreignness, and the price had skyrocketted. Eventually, after YJ had to endure once again the usual snipey comments and general nastiness that follows these deals (ignorant and bigotted opinions from the peasantry), we found a cheap bus that would take us where we wanted to go. Sweatily, we waddled onto the bus and relaxed in near comfort, as our vehicle trundled along on no shocks through crowded and pot-holed streets.
We stopped off first at a large park, where we had decided to spend a little time before going on to the main event - there was loads of time, and it was a nice day to boot. Actually, more like a scintillatingly hot day, but we'd be in air-conditioned buildings later anyways, we figured. The park was built around the base of a large hill, and it turned out to be a huge gravesite for the Emporor Qin Shihuang (221 BC - 206 BC, the first emporor in Chinese history) who was buried there. And still later, we found out from our free guide (free! can you believe it?!?) that there was a huge reserve of stone warriors buried underneath us as well, as yet uncovered and still preserved beneath the earth. We also found out for the first time (but not the last) that the stone statues made during the Qin Dynasty are actually colourfully painted, but that upon exposure to air, they totally lose all colour within hours. Another interseting fact was the high amounts of naturally existing poisonous gases housed within the massive chambers serving as the tomb for the emporor. They went to the greatest of lengths to ensure the preservation of their statue army and their own graves, and were ingenious and ruthless in their methods. After construction and completion, every artisan who had ever worked on the statues and every workman who knew of the location was killed, and upon the emporor's burial, every wife, concubine servant, pet, etc. was also buried - often alive.
We caught a break that day, and it turned out that the farmer who had discovered the Terra Cotta warriors (he had been digging a well) was present for some kind of anniversary/celebration. We jumped on this peice of great luck by buying a book about the warriors and meeting the old guy himself, getting him to sign and stamp the book (everyone has a personal stamp in China, dontchya know). He seemed like a simple old man (it took him three months to learn how to write the only thing he knows how to - his name), and grinned at us through a few crooked teeth as we asked him about the moment when he found the statues. He had thought that it was the Earth God, and he had been scared that he had disturbed this deity to bring wrath upon himself and his family. In fact, we found out that many people had discovered these statues previously, but had reburied them or let them be, so as not to disturb the Earth Gods. After all, when you have been presented with clear physical proof that the gods exist below the surface, you don't want to piss them off!
A neat show followed for the day's special celebrations, and the only sadness we felt was that there weren't more people there to view it, an oddity in China. Then we hopped back onto another bus and took the short trip to the Terra Cotta Museum, where the actual excavations were housed beneath massive buildings, built around the pits for protection. With amazing gadgets (YJ overheard that much help was received from the Germans in terms of excavation technology), scientists were able to see what lay beneath the surface of the earth, and to build around the chambers first. After each pit was fully protected, the painstakingly slow process of excavation could take place.
There were three pits, and the first was the jewel of the group, as it was the most fully excavated (it had been a part of the original discovery, and I saw the farmer's well site) of the lot. The stone statues are not copies of each other, each being an individual replication of a real warrior, and I viewed with amazement the different face, body size and armour of each. Lined up as if for a coming battle, each figure seemed to be grasping an invisible weapon, each holding their hands in different ways indicating different types of missing weaponry. At first, we assumed that the thinner weapons had succumbed to decay more quickly, but later learned that they had been stolen. A later emporor, fearing the might of the stone warriors, stole the weapons to ensure his safety. I could go on and on about the long and convoluted history of the king and the subsequent history of the pits, but it would probably take about 5 chapters . . . suffice it to say, it is a complicated and many layered story. Also of note were the horses of the army, carved out from stone alongside their masters. Indeed, it was a huge place to take in all at once, and we circled the pit to see the reconstructed figures and pass by the as yet unexcavated parts.
We spent a long morning and afternoon there, walking between pit 1, 2 and 3, (pits 2 and 3 were far less interesting, being mostly in the pre-excavation stage) and later resting at an empty cafe to sit in front of the standing air-conditioner to drink a cold beer. You see, it turned out that the place wasn't air-conditioned after all, preserving the the stone statues being the reason for our hot and sweaty existence. I thirstily gulped down my beer as Old Oak sat in front of the cold air, looking as if he had just taken a swim. The day had been long, hot and filled with a lot of walking, and we were all pretty exhausted by mid afternoon.
August 17th, morning
It had been a long trip on the train for all of us. Old Oak had been put in the sleeper section of the train, and I had made sure he was settled in there (after the usual seat-switching situation) before boarding a different section myself. YJ and I had spent the evening standing, then sitting on and off, being offered a seat because of YJ's friendliness and my foreigner status. An hour into the trip, YJ was called for the first of many times to go and help Old Oak as translator, where it was later found out that he had been a "victim" of some kind of ticket scam. Amidst the confusion, he had switched his bed three times, somehow had his ticket "stolen", and police had been alerted and were looking for the female perpetrator.
[What actually happened? The nice older couple sharing my dad's room explained to YJ later . . . Old Oak had gotten confused with all the seat switching, lost his ticket, and blamed it on the last person he had contact with. The couple saw the ticket actually (Old Oak is half blind, you see), and later saw him mangle it then lose it, all without noticing its existence. They watched Old Oak as he accused the girl of theivery, and got the cops involved (see: extra long coffee break). And all this, they observed without saying or doing a thing . . . to give him "face" (save his dignity). How very Chinese. They also complained about his terrible body odour, which we both laughed about quite a bit.]
Later in the evening, through guile and luck, YJ and I got seats at a table in the nearby restaurant car, and spent the night there among the other lucky ones not having to stand in the ridiculously crowded quarters of the seating/standing train section (this section was crammed full of bodies, a claustrophobe's nightmare). The last few hours were spent sitting around comfortably in the posh surroundings of Old Oak's sleeping room (the other occupants had all vacated by that time), listening to him retell the colourful ticket story.
Well, we all made it home to Wuxi safely in the end.
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