Thursday, October 22, 2009

Xi'an and other things...

I don't know if it's because I've lived in one place for over 2 years now, or if it's because living in a city of public transportation means you pay more attention to the weather, or if Wuhan just has more predictable weather patterns than what I've known before, but I've become a Wuhanren Farmer's Almanac.

For the third year now, I've seen fall arrive all in one day...or well, week. There is always a slight push and pull for a week or so, and then, one day, it rains. It's a miserable cold rain that is really nice if you can stay inside and drink tea and read, but if you have to go anywhere, it's soggy and drippy and runny-nosey. And then the rain clears and the next days are breezy and nice, cool in mornings and evenings and shade, and fall is here for a little while. The sweet potato vendors pop up here and there, the markets slowly but surely begin to overflow with oranges, and short sleeves completely disappear, not to return until after May 1st next year. It's really lovely--and this year, it was a neat experience KNOWING that this is what would happen. The first year, I experienced it all with new eyes and the second year I wasn't quite sure if it would be the same...and then it was. This year, I knew. Fall came and we greeted it like a friend we'd invited over for dinner. We knew it would arrive. It did.

And now, right on schedule, we all have colds.

So I'm up sniffling and coughing late at night, waiting for the tea I drank to kick in and clear me up enough to lay down. It's always a shame because the weather is so great that you want to be outside enjoying it, but instead your stuck inside a cocoon of sinus pressure and sleepiness. Blah. Oh well, it will pass. I know this too.

Last weekend I got out of town for a quick trip north(ish), to Xi'an. Katera and I took a 13 hour night train there and spent a day and a half exploring the ancient capital before returning on another 13 hour night train. It was a really really great trip. I was itching to get out of town for a little while and Xi'an was the last major city that I absolutely HAD to see before leaving China.

Best known to foreigners as the home to the Terra Cotta Warriors, Xian was the capital of China on and off well before Beijing hit the scene. There is a saying in China that "if you want to see the past 50 years of China, go to Shenzhen. If you want to see the past 500 years of China (or maybe 100? I forget), go to Beijing. If you want to see the past 5000 years of China, go to Xi'an." And it's true. There are several really fascinating elements of the city and we were able to see just about everything in our short time there.

Besides the Terra Cotta Warriors (which are actually located outside of the city), Xian was the final point on the Silk Road and there's a thriving Muslim Quarter in the city today. It's also one of the only Chinese cities that still has a surviving city wall that surrounds the inner section of town (The wall even has a moat! So cool.).

It's a city filled with history. And it's the kind of history that makes you excited to be walking on the dirt of the place. To be stepping where people have been stepping for thousands and thousands of years. Since before Jesus.

For some reason during the weekend, I kept coming back to that point. It's funny growing up in the US, because we don't have much geographic reference to really really old things. Our history is a drop in the bucket, a mere couple hundred years. Although the Native Americans may have trod where our feet now tread, we don't have much remaining from their time. And so it's hard to comprehend how OLLLLLDDDD the old things are here. And thus, my mind goes to the best/easiest reference point that I know. The BC/AD split. Somehow, it helps my mind wrap around things....that what I'm looking at is older than Jesus. That if He had felt like traveling, he could have seen these same things that I am seeing now. Maybe He did (up on the rooftop in the temptations...the kingdoms of the world...). It's random and I'm not trying to make any religious point...I'm just sharing that it's one of the ways my mind works.

Anyway, we saw all the major sites. The Bell Tower (where a bell was rung every sunrise) and the Drum Tower (where drums were beat each sunset), the Muslim Quarter (where we ate the local specialty, yangrou paomo, a soup that has lamb and crumbled up bread in it and was really filling) and the Great Mosque (which was really cool and combined Chinese and Islamic architecture/decor in a really beautiful way), the Wild Goose Pagoda (which looked more Arabic than Chinese and was gorgeous in its unique simplicity), the famous water and light show that is the largest in Asia (and reminded me of Opryland Hotel..sorry culture! Globalism got me!), the City Walls, the Subway restaurant (where we had lunch...again, sorry culture! I miss America!) annnnnnnndddddddd......

The Warriors.

What can I say. They take your breath away. Well....err....mostly they do. All of the travel tips about the warriors mentioned that some people come away disappointed from their experience because the access is so distant. You do have to push and shove a little to get a front row view, and you're at a bit of a distance. It's different than the pictures that you see of them. And Chinese museum etiquette is quite "different" (there are other less-nice things I could say here). So, that said, I was prepared for it to be neat, but not great. Thus, I was pleasantly surprised by the awesome grandness of the first pit, the detail of the soldiers and the shear idea of it all.

The discovery is one of those that all little boys (and girls!!!) should read about, because it sends your imagination flying. In 1974 a farmer was digging a well in his fields and his bucket pulled up a terra cotta head. The PRC gave him about $10 (USD) and took over, uncovering one of the greatest archeological discoveries of the century. (Ok...maybe the kids shouldn't get too hopped up on the story because then everyone would end up with big holes dug in their backyards! I seriously kept wanting to walk out into the nearest field and start digging myself!)

The farmer who found the head was ACTUALLY THERE the days we toured. He is really old and now a multimillionaire, he comes into the museum and signs copies of his book for tourists when he feels like it. So although he was initially jipped, he's doing well now. We didn't buy his book, but we were able to get a few clandestine pics of him signing. I can't post pics here on blogger w/this proxy--but I think I'll be able to put them up on Facebook soon.

Anyway, the details of the Terra Cotta Army are well known: no two faces are the same, they were likely made to guard the first Emperor Qin from enemies in the afterlife...or at least, Qin assumed that he'd continue ruling the afterlife just as he did the living, there were probably over 8000 soldiers, most of which are still buried in the pits, they were made around 210 BC etc. If you don't know, wikipedia it.

Mostly, I think I was most fascinated by the story of the discovery. It's just effing exciting! Nearby the pits, you can see the hill of Emperor Qin's burial mound. It is currently impossible to excavate because there are currently no archeological techniques that could ensure preservation and also there's a possible mercury poisoning issue. (again, wiki/google it for more details). It's exciting that there's still more to be found, it's all just waiting there underground.

Next, Katera and I both noticed that the faces of the warriors do not seem similar to the faces of those who we are constantly surrounded by. I have yet to mention this to my Chinese friends, I'm curious if they see a resemblance. But I suppose I don't see many similarities in the portraits of Rembrandt with today's caucasians either.

Finally, my favorite part was a bit macabre...but I really enjoyed looking into the pits where many of the soldiers hadn't yet been pieced back together. Emerging from the dust/mud would be an arm, or a lone foot, or a face. In one the soldier was still mostly buried, but with his shoulders, neck, and head uncovered, and the rest beneath the dirt. It was weird, but all those little bits here and there, broken and strewn about...those were the pits that I couldn't take my eyes off of.

Overall, when I get to see these amazing sights...the sun rising in the mists of the Great Wall, the trees literally devouring the ancient temples of Angkor, the mysterious stone jars jutting up here and there in the plains of Laos, and the hundreds of warriors standing tall and firm together side by side in the orange mud of their pits...I'm just stunned. Stunned that I am seeing it with my own eyes, stunned that I am here, stunned that these sights are now a part of my story. It's extraordinary.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

I can access blogs again!

Hello again. I had planned to post updates more often last month, but the internet is blocked in many many different places, and the blocks are playing "pop-a-weasel" with the proxies that we use to get around it all. I just downloaded a new one yesterday, we'll see how long this one works!

It's the day after Moon Festival and the streets and market were quiet this morning; people all moving slowly after a night of feasting under the full moon. There are still countless moon cakes filling the shelves, and it is strange to see them without hordes of shoppers sifting through them all so possessively, trying to find the box that will earn them the most guangxi from the recipient.

National Day came and went too. October 1 marked the 60th anniversary of the founding of the Peoples Republic of China. Beijing apparently went all out with pomp and spectacle while simultaneously tightening it's icy grip on internet and security in the rest of the country to assure control of the news cycle. In the days before National Day, a man peddled slowly down the main avenue of Wuchang with a crookety wooden wheelbarrow piled high with Chinese flags and each tiny shop along the way paid their due and proceeded to mount the ol' red and yellow in whatever way they saw fit: some dangling from twine, some placed in old buckets and then balanced precariously on the doorframe, some just punched into drywall. The cities were told to limit their own celebrations to give Beijing its deserved attention, so as far as I know, Wuhan had a fireworks display along the river and that was all. My students slept in and went shopping. I did too.

And now I'm sitting in the sun of my window seat, drinking coffee and trying to ignore the sounds of a neighbor practicing his recorder and the car horns blaring 20 floors below. Red beans and rice are simmering on the stove and cornbread is warming in the oven for lunch. I bought several art books a few days ago and have been practicing pencil sketches, so the coffee table is strewn with crumpled up papers of mediocre attempts at perspective or shading. My Book is open next to them and soon I will spend some time outlining upcoming Studies for the semester.

I always hear married couples use the line that they can't imagine life without each other. Then parents say that they can't remember what they did with their time before they had children. I always imagined that I'd someday say the same things. I've been thinking today though as I look around at my peaceful apartment and think of my future, that I won't be able to accurately say either. I am 25 and single, which isn't a big deal at all...but I can and must imagine my life without someone else being there. Now hopefully, if I get a husband someday I'll be able to say all the lovely cliched things about how much being together changed my life and allll that..but right now, yes, I CAN imagine my life without whoever he is. It's a good life. I have really fun daydreams of my future, and if no husband comes along to change the plans (which...lets face it, I'm still hoping that the plans DO get changed by someone!), they'll still come true and my life will still be really cool.

And similarly, in these quiet moments with my blog and my coffee and cooking things from scratch and my Book and my silly drawings, I KNOW how I am spending my time before children. I'm trying to revel in it, to enjoy it to its fullest while this chapter is here...because someday when I have kids screaming around me and only have time for Zatarans boxed (or microwaveable) red beans and rice and I don't get to sit and drink coffee because it's time for soccer practice or whatever...I will hopefully know then that I've had my time to myself and that I didn't take it for granted.

I don't know who instilled it in me, probably my mom, but I'm really grateful that someone taught me to not take things for granted. When I bounce up the stairs, I sometimes remember to take a moment and be thankful...right then and there...for knees that don't pop or creak yet and muscles that don't ache from stairs. So I feel that someday, when my knees and muscles don't work quite so well, I'll know that I enjoyed them while I had them. Right now, I can tell that allergy season is on its way, so I try to take deep deep breathes of air and to actively enjoy being able to breathe without difficulty, because once the leaves start falling then colds and allergies will likely come, and I'll miss breathing with ease. And maybe someday, my time will no longer be so much my own, and this chapter of life so luxuriously filled with time and peace and reflection will be passed, and I'm hoping to say that I appreciated it to its fullest.

So yeah, to close this post up: take deep gulps of air, climb some stairs, stretch, draw, read, drink coffee in the sun, cook, whatever you do...and enjoy.