Nomological Net

Stray thoughts from here and there. The occasional concern for construct validity. No more logic. Fish.


faults in the clouds of delusion

Friday, July 27, 2007

The Silk Road Chronicles: Day 2 (part 2)

Terracotta Warriors *And Horses* Museum

*And Horses* because Louis cannot mention the museum without stressing the horses in his lilting diction. The drive, according to him, is “less than one hour” eastwards. (I realize that the “less than” is supposed to signify exactitude, rather than signal proximity, which is how I’d have used it. So He actually thinks it’s quite a long drive. A similar difference cropped up in his and some others’ use of the word “several” – they didn’t use it to mean “many”, but rather in the sense of “more than a couple (2) and more than a few (3-4), so approximately five or six”). TPB falls asleep for exactly 25 minutes. I’m amazed at this new ability of hers – she did it in the taxi to the airport back in HK and on the flight as well. L also drops off so I amuse myself by trying to take photographs that blend the outside views with the enormous decals of Sylvester and Tweetie pasted on the side of our van. I end up with a pretty funny one of Louis’s head with a ghostbusted ghost’s fingers flashing a V sign above it. The scenery outside isn’t spectacular – some green fields, some buildings.

Eventually we reach, the driver drops us off at the crowded parking lot. It’s blazing sunny. L goes off and gets our tickets – fancy plastic ones that slip through turnstiles just like on a subway. We have to retain them because they check at four different places inside at entrances to various pits. There’s a choice between a ten minute queue for an electric cart to go to the pits and a ten minute walk. We choose the walk. I swap into my cool new shades. I’m cool. We walk along the obviously and overly manicured path, large concrete squares interspersed with patches of grass at exactly regular intervals, undulating gardens to either side. There’s a lovely mountain range serving as a backdrop at a distance, however, there is some haze in the heat so I don’t attempt a photograph. We will be seeing mountains before this trip is done.

As we walk, Louis tells us that he isn’t married, and a large part of that is due to the fact that he doesn’t own an apartment. An average apartment in Xi’an goes for 800,000 Yuan (also called Renminbi or RMB) – that’s a little more than 100,000 USD, and the cheapest one is 500K, and girls won’t marry you unless you own one. I tried to say that if she won’t marry you for the lack of real estate maybe she isn’t worth it after all, but that didn’t get through. This happened in the middle of a conversation in which he’d asked about Hong Kong – how humid (“moist”) it is. Just like last night, he was very curious to know about HK. At one point in the car he’d assumed that TPB is a housewife and had asked her if she likes cooking. Not having seen his assumption, she happily answered yes, at which he looked at me and said, “You must be a happy man!” TPB glowered at him – it was okay since he was looking at me – and once he looked away I couldn’t stop grinning at her indignant face.

The first building he took us to was a circular hall where they were showing a film about the terracotta warriors. The film was projected on large screens all round the darkened auditorium, in an uninterrupted 360 degree view. Very novel, and a nice effect. We entered from a side, squeezing in amongst scattered crowds of barely-visible bodies, many sitting or squatting on the floor. Next to me two ugly ladies chatted non-stop (in Russian) with their Chinese guide. Funnily, although the view was 360 degrees, most people were only looking in one direction. The 45 minute film, supposedly on a perennial loop, finished just as we were getting oriented, a couple of minutes after we walked in. We waited for an exodus but it didn’t happen. Then we waited for the film to restart. But that didn’t happen either. Instead, the lights brightened. We lost our patience and decided we’d rather see the real thing instead of this. We walked out. Found ourselves in the souvenir shop. Louis had said it was more expensive than the several merchants he’d said were clustered outside the exit gate, but the merchandise was significantly better in quality. The shop contained LOTS of terracotta warriors and although the range of sizes was quite great (from 3 inch puppets to 7 foot giants that our movers had already cautioned us about) but the variety of styles, especially in the smaller sizes, wasn’t that great. I’d wanted a small warrior guy to take along home but none of the three available caught my fancy.

We tracked Louis down in a cafeteria adjoining the souvenir shop. He was just settling down to a bottle of cold water, and was surprised to see us out so soon. We told him we got bored of the film and decided to make the most of our limited time here (the grumpy driver had stipulated that we had to be on the road by 4). So off we went to the next building, aka Pit #1. This is *the* main pit – the one popularized in photographs of the Xi’am Terracotta Warrior Army. (Brief background – this army of clay soldiers was built and buried by Emperor Shi Huangdi, about 2200 years ago, as a way of protecting himself against enemies in future lives. Interesting fact #1: he was going to have live soldiers buried with him, but after his death they decided that the realm needed all live soldiers on deck so let’s just stick with the clay dudes for now. Interesting fact #2: the enemies of his realm were all located to the south and the east, and a mountain range lies to the south, so practically his entire army faces east.) The pit is long and rectangular and sunken – somewhat like a modern aircraft hangar or football field. As you walk in, you come up on the warriors about 5 meters below you, arranged in straight lines four or five abreast, separated by heaps of earth as high as the warriors, running the length of the file (i.e., wayyyy back). It’s a really impressive sight – rows upon rows of warriors, each one a different individual. We elbow our way to the front of the two-deep crowd for a gander, then swing round to the right to look at the profiles. Walking further back towards the far end, a little more than halfway past the center line, we began to pass warriors in a decidedly worse state – not just decapitated but lying on the ground in several pieces, some of which had long since returned to their Mother Earth. The far corner of the barn features a set of almost perfectly done warriors. These are the guys they are still reconstructing from available fragments. There’s a crowd here too, since the display is so neat. Some idiots put a 4-year old girl over the barrier into the pit to take a photo – with alacrity the kid, secure in the knowledge that she is cute, makes off towards the nearest Warrior. It’s all raw earth where she is so she could slide and fall any moment right on top of a 2000 year old sculpture, but luckily she doesn’t and her parents’ terrified cries manage to stop her. The hoist her back over, but not before she’s posed for a cutesy snap.

From Tomb 1 we emerge into the scorching sunlight and walk to Tomb 3. This tomb is supposed to be the GHQ of the terracotta army. This is because unlike in the other tombs, where the soldiers are arrayed facing east, this tomb is much smaller and shaped more like a cross, with four rows of soldiers facing inwards. There are also a few more horses evident here. We then walk to Tomb 2, which is enormous, but unfortunately mostly ruined (more as one would expect for a ruin this old, I’d think). Unlike the other two tombs, this one also has a few statues installed in glass cases around the viewing gallery. The crush around these displays was unbelievable – not to *see* the statues, but to be photographed next to them. There’s a similar situation in the last exhibit we visit – two half life-size bronze chariots reined to four horses each, including a replica working model of the multipurpose umbrella (weather shield plus arrow shield – get yours *today*!) used in the first chariot. Very impressive, all in all, except for the people acting annoyed because you haven’t had the courtesy to move the back of your shoulder out of their photograph.

As we exited this last display, we realized we had some extra time since we’d skipped the movie. We had half an hour free, so I suggested we return to Pit #1 to gawk at the *left* side this time. The only question that got Louis disconcerted all day was: “If these guys really are warriors why are so many of them looking happy?” He protested that they were indeed warriors and no, they didn’t look happy to him. I pointed out one grinning specimen then let the matter drop. Fifteen minutes or so later we made another recce of the gift shop where again we unsuccessfully looked for a soldier we thought we could take home to mom but ended up buying nothing.

On the way back to the car, Louis began to open out. He’d had a couple of phone calls during the last half hour or so, and the volume of the conversation had made me hope it wasn’t anything related to our recalcitrant driver. Turned out it was actually Louis’ girlfriend. She had just flown in from Shenzhen and landed to realize that her bags were on the following flight – due two hours later. Louis, manfully, had been trying to persuade her that this was a Blessing in Disguise, since two hours from now would be when he (and we) would land up at the airport, the Warriors being about an hour due east of Xi’an city, and Xianyang airport roughly the same distance west.

We were in the act of checking in when she showed up. Louis broke off his protracted negotiations with the lady behind the counter to beam lovingly at me. Disconcerted, I looked over my shoulder and saw Her. Louis was already halfway to her, in true Hindi movie style. Thankfully, I remembered to check the boarding passes and saw that he’d gotten the two of us seats 8C and 14F. I’d asked for “aisle and middle”, he’d passed that on as “aisle and window”. I made him get it changed, despite Check-in Lady’s evident displeasure.

We sensed that Louis was in a hurry to get going now, and he seemed like he wanted to make sure we walked through security before he left. But there was still 45 minutes till the last call, and, paoma notwithstanding, we were nibblish. We got him to point us to the restaurant – there were two, a “fast food” buffet on the floor we were on and a regular sit down place on the floor below, and then, after a final assurance that yes, we’d be able to take care of ourselves, we said goodbye to the broadly smiling couple. They tootled off, hand in hand.

We went the opposite way, to the sit-down restaurant, arguing that the airport restaurant in a city as large as Xi’an should be reasonably used to serving foreigners. Made a pit stop at the restrooms just outside the joint; the men’s room featured a big sign in Chinese with presumably the same characters transliterated below in English script. The restaurant was mostly empty, it wasn’t yet 6 pm, but a few people were sitting and eating. However, as we walked in, the hostess at the entrance looked at us panic-stricken and said “No, no food! No food!” Then she retreated deep inside and confabulated with a couple of others, then they led us in – all the way inside to the table closest to the kitchen door, and made us sit facing the door with our backs to the rest of the restaurant. Then the solitary English-speaker on the staff approached us, and told us there is no food available except beef-noodles and vegetable-noodles. We said perfect, that’s exactly what we want. She looked pleasantly surprised. I asked – what’s there to drink? She didn’t get it. I said: tea? Water? She said: “Please wait a moment” and rushed off. And we were left sitting there.

The food came after a few minutes. Two bowls with noodle soup, accompanied by a couple of prehistoric looking black hardboiled eggs in the shell which we didn’t touch. TPB’s noodles were in a red tomato broth which looked very unusual to us, but both our dishes proved to be simple and reasonably tasty. A little later, the English speaking waitress returned with both tea and water. The tea, expensive at 15 RMB, was the worst I’ve tasted in China.

We finished and asked to pay. Miss English said it was a round 100 bucks. I asked her to itemize, and it turned out to be 95. She apologized profusely. I gave a hundred RMB bill. They returned a fiver as change, just as the cleaning lady was wiping up our table. We got up, leaving the bill as tip on the table, and walked out (the custom in Hong Kong is not the whole 15% thing, but to just leave the change). Imagine our surprise when our waitress comes charging out of the restaurant behind us waving the bill and saying “Esscussmee, you forget this!”

We went through security and found Gate 15, as per our boarding passes. There was no one there. I went and checked on a counter, and saw that we were now at Gate 19. We found it – it was downstairs – and it seemed to be shared by half a dozen airlines. None of whom, of course, spoke any English. A handwritten white board nearby informed us that our flight was half an hour late. That half hour went by quickly, we sat by the gate, TPB read while I updated the log, but every time a new airline used the gate we went through a little paroxysm of concern. Eventually, we found our flight and got onto the bus to the aircraft okay. Driving over the tarmac I felt that practically every city in China has an airline named after it.

TPB fell in love with a photograph of a cave painting on the cover of the inflight magazine. It was a picture, probably painted on the top of a cave, of a dozen-odd apsaras arranged in a circle with their feet at the center. Unfortunately, the entire magazine was in Chinese. Now, we had *plenty* of painted caves lined up on our itinerary, so the question was – are these on our agenda? She simply *had* to see them. She asked me to ask the snotty nosed 10 year old sitting to my left by the window to translate the caption. I refused. She analyzed my character and then leaned over and asked the kid herself.
- Can you tell us what this is?
- No.
- Can you read it?
- Yes.
He read it out. No one learned anything. We tucked the magazine away, intending to find out where these grottoes were. The food came. We, full with our noodles, ate very little – but we had our first exposure to Xinjiang’s famed raisins. I also got me a Xinjiang Beer (instead of the brand advertised on the headrest – “Sinkiang Beer. Natural Aftertaste”). As the flight attendant cleared our trays away, she spilled half a carton of leftover chicken-rice on TPB’s lap. Luckily (what can I say?) our excellent Silk Road travel book (Author: Judy Bonavia) was under the tray and so remained unstained. The attendant apologized profusely and tried to mop it up. Luckily we’d been hoarding the wet tissues so that helped clean as well as dearomatize. Our crisis handled, the same attendant then proceeded to spill half her cart’s contents on the aisle a few rows back from us. She was not having a good day, and we decided we got off lucky.

We landed, walked down the steps, and across the practically deserted tarmac to the only lit door on the low-slung barn that was the airport building. Apart from the lights on the plane and the few emanating from the airport, there was darkness all round. There was simply nothing off to the side. Nothing. “TR,” TPB said in a tone of wonder, “We’re in the middle of nowhere!” I took a few pictures but she was right – they *do not* capture the emptiness of it.

“No,” I corrected her. “We just arrived at the edge of nowhere. Tomorrow we’ll be at the middle.”

We picked up our bags from the single carousel and walked the few yards to the reception area (from where waiting people had a clear view right through to the tarmac). Three men were waiting. The sign with my name was wielded by a young lady dressed in a fitted white shirt and white trousers. We met Hai Xia, Jessica.

In the car driving to town she told us about Dunhuang. Population 180,000, 90% Han Chinese, rest Uyghur, Mongol, Kazakh, etc. Situated at the edge of the desert, the temperature varies a lot even on a daily basis, especially during Fall and Spring. “We have a local saying: ‘In the morning we wear fur coats, at noon skirts or shirts, and in the evening we wear fur coats and sit by the stove eating watermelons.” She pronounced it stoove

.She also told us that we’ve hit the peak season for apricots. They call apricots the king of fruits in Dunhuang, and the best ones come out during the first two weeks of July. That’s luck.


Dunhuang July 11, 11:45 PM



I cannot BELIEVE that we’re here.

The plane was late getting in but Jessica was there at the airport. The drive into town was short. We had originally been supposed to spend the night in Xi’an and arrive in Dunhuang the next day but the plane schedules had been changed. Happily, J had already worked our schedule around to optimally manage the extra time we would have here. This also gives us an opportunity to stop at the Western Thousand Buddha Caves, which TPB really wants to see.

The room is nice – more like a standard hotel room than the one in Xi’an although the bed is harder than normal. I had to move the desk away from the wall to get the battery recharger to access the only available plug point. I took a shower first. A sign by the toilet says: “Please put toilet paper into dustbin after use.” I ignored that instruction. TPB’s now gone for a shower and is using the fact that we’re here for two nights to wash a few clothes including the chicken-adorned top she’d been wearing. While she’s showering, I’m updating this log. I first sat around feeling happy and then read the local tourist brochure. I have the poodle on for the first time this trip. A couple of Ellington tunes played first up so it was just like a lovely evening back home. I thought about the incongruence of listening to Ellington in Dunhuang then realized there’s no point thinking about it – the Silk Road was all about travelers from all over anyway. And I’M IN DUNHUANG man – that’s the bottom line of it. Then I sang along with Louis Armstrong and Paul Simon, hummed with Miles, and am listening to Morning Dew right now.

Soon I will put this pen and pad and poodle away, and settle back onto my pillow to wonder at the wonder of it all.

I can’t believe I’m in Dunhuang.


Anonymous xz said...

A book review at NY Times on silk-road travels.

7/27/2007 8:32 AM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

thanks -- i hadn't been aware of this release until a couple of others in previous comments pointed them out. i looked for this in hk but was told to go to a different store. haven't had the time yet.

7/27/2007 11:10 AM  
Anonymous Brown Magic said...

hmmm. if you want, I can offer up the snotty 10 year old to Samson for entrails-devouring. lemme know.

7/28/2007 1:37 AM  
Blogger km said...

What, no songs by Silk Route on the pod?

7/28/2007 3:14 AM  
Blogger Revealed said...

Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhh. This is the Pratchett ref????????? Sheesh. I am *so* uneducated.

7/28/2007 4:27 AM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

that's awful sweet of you, but couldn't you just work some other more long distance type of brownish magic instead?

hah! sure they are, but you thought i'd be *that* puppy? (was hard to resist, though :-); the next post will chronicle a similar instance of puppydom which, alas, i could not but give in to.)


7/28/2007 3:40 PM  
Blogger Szerelem said...

For your reading pleasure.

7/29/2007 1:13 PM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

very nice! thank you.

7/29/2007 4:40 PM  

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