China # 23 – Beijing’s Forbidden City – September 2014

October 12, 2018

Moving on, we passed through the Tiananmen Gate to reach the Forbidden City. There are five massive doors to the gate and seven bridges spanning moats or streams. It was from this Gate on October 1, 1949 that Mao Zedong proclaimed the People’s Republic China. The dominating portrait of Mao is a must photo background opportunity for Chinese selfies.

The Forbidden City

The largest stone carving in the palace, it is 16.75 meters, (60 ft), long, 3.07 meters, (12 ft), wide, and 1,7 meters, (5.5 ft), thick. It has beautiful interlocking lotus patterns, curling waves and nine dragons. It was transported from the quarry 36 km, (22 miles), away by sprinkling water on the road to make an “ice road”. It was then pulled and slid all the way to the palace where it was carved.

The largest stone carving in the palace, it is 16.75 meters, (60 ft), long, 3.07 meters, (12 ft), wide, and 1,7 meters, (5.5 ft), thick. It has beautiful interlocking lotus patterns, curling waves and nine dragons. It was transported from the quarry 36 km, (22 miles), away by sprinkling water on the road to make an “ice road”. It was then pulled and slid all the way to the palace where it was carved.

The Forbidden City is the former Chinese Imperial Palace from the Ming and Qing dynasties (1420-1912). It covers 178 acres. It’s called The Forbidden City because during those dynasties, when it was home to 24 different emperors and their households who ruled all of China for almost 500 years, ordinary people were not allowed in without special permission. The main palace took 20 years and one million workers to finish.

Marco Polo’ Silk Road travels ended in Beijing

On a side note: In 1215, Zhongdu, the capital of the Jurchen Jin dynasty located in todays Beijing, was destroyed by Genghis Khan, the Mongol ruler. In 1271, a year after his grandson, Kublai Khan, established the Yuan Dynasty that ruled over present-day Mongolia, China, Korea and some adjacent areas, he presumed the role of Emperor of China, the first non-Han emperor to conquer all of China. He built his new winter capital in another section of Beijing. Marco Polo and his dad & uncle left Venice (Italy) the same year to travel to China along the Silk Road (much of which we followed). Three and a half years later, Kublai Khan invited them to his palace where they lived for 24 years before returning home. Marco Polo called the capital “Cambulac” but because Kublai Khan encouraged diversity in his vast empire of many different languages and religions, the capital was also called Khanbalik or Dadu. In 1368, Camulac was destroyed by an emperor of the Ming Dynasty though The Forbidden City was not built until 1420.

The Palace Museum

China Blog 23 040The Forbidden City has been transformed into the “Palace Museum”, quite literally a museum of palaces and special halls, and it is open to the public. Some 14 million visit it annually. It is the world’s largest palace complex, consisting of many buildings with a rumored original 9,999 rooms. It is protected by a 20-ft deep and 171-ft wide moat, and a 26-ft high wall. Most of the palace rooms can only be seen from the outside. Without walking with our nose in a guidebook, we were impressed by the excess of beautiful carvings, paintings and gold surrounding thrones having been used by the ruling emperors and their princesses. The numerous cast figures of dragons, lions and monster turtles were intriguing. Their purpose was to guard against fire and evil spirits. The architecture was amazing, with each detail having a symbolic meaning. The best we can do is show you what caught our eye. Captions will give some details.

After spending much of the day wandering from one palace or hall to another, we were ready for a late lunch. Green, our wonderful guide, spotted the perfect greasy spoon. Nearby we found an entry into a neighborhood called a Hutong, a special part of Beijing we wanted to visit. See more on Beijing Part 3 (China # 24).

 

 

China # 22 – Beijing’s Tiananmen Square – September 2014

October 5, 2018

B E I J I N G! Over twenty-one million people, plus or minus a few thousand tourists. We had completed our second goal of driving from the Atlantic to the Pacific, wheels on the ground, and now our first goal to follow the Silk Road and on to its final end in Beijing.

Formerly romanized as Peking, it was strategically located and developed to be the residence of the Emperor and the Imperial Capital. Beijing is renowned for its opulent palaces, temples, parks, gardens, tombs, walls and gates. It has seven UNESCO WORLD Heritage Sites and a history stretching back 3 millennia.

TIANANMEN SQUARE

In “Beijing” do as the visitors do.

In “Beijing” do as the visitors do.

If you had a month you could not see all of this city, any more than you see all of Paris or Moscow in 30 days. We had one day, so we had to be selective. Short list: Tiananmen Square, The Forbidden City, the old Hutong neighborhoods, and of course, to enjoy a famous Peking Hung Duck dinner. Oh yeah, a lunch at one of those questionable hole-in-the-wall cafés for a good bowl of spicy fresh noodles or rice.

We had been lucky to find a guarded parking lot somewhere inside one of the several ring roads, not too far from the city center and close to public transportation, which is surely the only way to get around in the chaotic traffic.

According to Green, it is especially the older peoples' dream to visit Beijing's Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City once in their lifetime.

According to Green, it is especially the older peoples’ dream to visit Beijing’s Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City once in their lifetime.

With an early start in light rain, which thankfully cleared much of the choking smog, we arrived at Tiananmen Square. Preparations were under way for the Chinese National Holiday on October 1, the founding of the People’s Republic of China. Celebrations are from October 1-7 and called “The Golden Week”. Thousands of people had already gathered for photo opps and sightseeing. Tiananmen Square’s massive slab of concrete, the size of 143 soccer fields, is capable of holding a million people.

There was no sign of protests nor were there any tanks, an image we may all be familiar with when on June 4th 1989, a young Chinese man, carrying his shopping bag, stood in front of a column of tanks in protest and was run over. During that demonstration by the People’s Pro-Democracy Liberation Army, Chinese troops and security police stormed through Tiananmen Square, firing indiscriminately into the crowds of protesters, killing an estimated 180 to 10,454 people. (Wikipedia)

We wandered around, people watching, one our favorite pastimes, noting that we’re all being watched by dozens of cameras. We were used to this surveillance. It’s part of traveling in China. All in all impressive, but underwhelming. The walls of the Forbidden City loomed in the background accented by the portrait of Mao Zedong. See Beijing, Part 2 coming up.

China # 21 – The Pacific Ocean! – September 2014

September 23, 2018

We had seen the Great Wall of China twice now, and our China “bucket list” was getting short. We headed east toward the fog-draped Pacific Ocean and its polluted Bay of Bo Hai, where Tanggu, the nearest port to Beijing is located. Green, our trusted guide and constant companion, had no idea of how to get to the water’s edge, and our two Garmin GPS, one in English and Green’s in Chinese, were not a big help. All we knew was that we had to find a way around the mega metropolis of Beijing. Weaving through various ring roads and turning east at every opportunity, we eventually started to see salt flats, ships and loading docks. By luck, we ended up in the Binhai Amusement Park area where we found a run-down jetty sticking out into grey water. It seemed like a tourist spot where Chinese who had maybe never seen the ocean came.

Our Goal to drive from the Atlantic to the Pacific,

wheels on the ground, was finally completed!

 

Our goal to drive from the Atlantic to the Pacific along the legendary Silk Road was finally completed!

Our goal to drive from the Atlantic to the Pacific along the legendary Silk Road was finally completed!

We had made it!! After driving continuously for 12 months across all of Eurasia (Europe and Asia) through 13 countries, Ocean to Ocean, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from Portugal to China, wheels on the ground, following the legendary Silk Road, with stops, however brief, in some of the most exciting and intriguing cities in the world, we had finally accomplished our goal. Along the way, by sheer chance, we met a young girl in the Pamir Mountains of Tajikistan that changed her life, and ours, forever. There will be more about her soon.

Now back to business. Our Chinese visa would expire in just a few days and we dared not be late. A few quick photos and we headed back into the chaotic traffic of one of the largest city in the world, Beijing. Green actually had an address of a hostel where she could stay and we miraculously found a muddy parking lot that reluctantly made a space for us. It was raining; a godsend in this very polluted Chinese Capital. It cleared much of the smoke and smog that can be choking at times.

We celebrated with a glass of “Great Wall” wine and hit the street for dinner, easy to find in a city this big.

 

 

China # 20 – Mutianyu Great Wall – September 2014

September 15, 2018

We had seen the Western Terminus of the Great Wall of China back on our China Blog # 8, but being one of the main tourist attractions in the country, we wanted to see more of it. Hey, we drove all this way, why not? We had seen the photos of the hordes of tourists shuffling along the wall like a pack of sardines, so we were expecting the crowds. In 2017 more than 10 million tourists visited the wall, making it one of the world’s most popular tourist attractions.

The Great Wall of China at Mutianyu

To our amazement, we had the Great Wall all to ourselves!

To our amazement, we had the Great Wall all to ourselves!

It was late afternoon at the Mutianyu Great Wall entrance and the parking lot was nearly empty. All the big tour busses were gone. We found a perfect flat place to park—like anywhere—and a nice soft grassy area right behind us for Green’s tent.

This section of the Great Wall was built in a unique way. There were three watchtowers. Forts were constructed on the steep mountain sides. The northwest part of the wall was precariously constructed along the 3,280-foot, (1,000 m), high mountain ridge. The “Arrow Rock” and “Flying Eagle” sections were built into precipitous cliffs. Legend says that a magic dragon swooped down and marked the route for the wall.

The Great Wall at Mutianyu stretched as far as the eye could see.

The Great Wall at Mutianyu stretched as far as the eye could see.

Walking to the entry, we took the gondola to the top and stepped onto the wall, and no one was around. Really!! We had the whole wall to ourselves. There was a little mist in the air, adding to the mysterious and moody presence of this giant man-made piece of architecture. A light jacket would have taken the chill out. We knew the gondola would close before we were finished looking around, but there was a nice flagstone trail back to the parking lot. We wandered along the wall for a couple of hours until it was almost dark. Amazing! (Sorry, that word keeps coming up.)

The “WALL” is 31,070 miles (50,000 km) long. Just for comparison, the Earth’s circumference is 24,901miles, (40,074 km). The wall is 25 feet high in places and 15 to 30 feet wide. It took over 2,000 years to be constructed by several dynasties. Some historical records estimate that it took 300,000–500,000 soldiers to build and guard it, along with another 400,000–500,000 conscripted laborers, convicts, unemployed intellectuals and disgraced noblemen. One report suggests that there were 1.5 million men working during the peak building time of the Qui Dynasty. The Ming dynasty spent 200 years constructing their section of the wall, building paved turreted walls and towers that served as highways to move troops. Although it may be an insignificant thought, all of these men and women had to eat, sleep and go to the bathroom!

We were tempted to just keep on walking to see what's over the next ridge.

We were tempted to just keep on walking to see what’s over the next ridge.

It has been estimated that up to one million died working on the wall, and many were buried within the wall itself. (Sounds like Siberia’s infamous “Road of Bones” we drove in 1996.) 

During its construction, the Great Wall of China was called “the longest cemetery on earth”. Along the way, the Chinese invented the wheelbarrow. That must have been a big help!

Photographing the wall is challenging. It’s not particularly colorful, and it does not move, but the photos here we hope will give you some impression of its scope as it snakes up and down the ridge tops.

Just for fun, we thought we would look at a comparison of the now infamous Trump’s “big beautiful wall”. It would span only 700 miles of the US-Mexico border’s 2,000 miles. According to sources by Wall Street Journal, it would cost $18 billion to build. Others calculated more like $21 billion. Granted, Trump’s original plan of walls as high as 65 feet have morphed to 18 to 30 feet. Based on the fact that it took six years to build the roughly 700 miles of fence and barriers now in place, engineering experts agree the wall would most likely take years to complete.

The Great Wall of China is 31,070 miles (50,000 km) long.

The Great Wall of China is 31,070 miles (50,000 km) long.

All this is complicated by the fact that there are not enough skilled laborers to do the work. Of the 12 sites proposed for the wall, each might require something like 144 employees to feed people, 96 food trucks, 240 private security guards, a hundred legal positions and 5,000 border patrol. Did we count porta potties? As the numbers add up, all 12 projected sites might create 10,500 jobs. Where can they get that many workers? OH!!! How about all the Central Americans who want to come over and work, and while they’re here, they could help rebuild the East Coast that just got devastated by hurricane Florence, and of course, there is a great need of labor in Southern California that slid into the ocean, and the horrible fires of Santa Rosa, Mendocino and Sonoma that are still smoldering. What a great idea! Cheap foreign labor!

Back to the other Great Wall, despite all the money and human cost of building it, and despite efforts to defend it using all the most sophisticated weapons of the time, including axes, sledge hammers, lances, crossbows, halberds and the latest Chinese invention, gun powder, the Mongol invaders led by Genghis Khan, (“universal ruler”), had no problem going around the wall and subsequently conquering most of northern China between A.D. 1211 and 1223 from where they ruled all of China until 1368. Wall? What wall? At least it did provide some protection to the Silk Road we had been following. From the misty towers of the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall, we could almost smell the salt air of the Yellow Sea, the second goal of The Turtle Expedition’s Trans-Eurasian Odyssey; to drive from the wave-torn rocky cliffs of Cabo da Roca in Portugal, the most western point in continental Europe and in fact, the most western point of the Eurasian landmass, all the way to the Pacific, wheels on the ground through 23 countries.

 

 

China # 19 – Yungang Grottoes – September 2014

September 8, 2018

So, if you were driving into London to see the fabulous Saint Paul’s Cathedral, you might be shocked to realize that it had been completely carved out of a sandstone cliff. Well, welcome to China and Buddhism. As we walked toward the entrance of the Yungang Grottoes, an ancient Chinese Buddhist temple near the city of Datong, we could not help but be amazed (once again). We were staring up at one of the three most famous ancient Buddhist sculptural sites of China and an extraordinary example of rock-cut architecture.

Green is standing in front of the largest outdoor Buddha at the Yungang Grottoes.

Green is standing in front of the largest outdoor Buddha at the Yungang Grottoes.

The site is located in the valley of the Shi Li river at the base of the Wuzhou Shan mountains. They encompass examples of stone carvings from the 5th and 6th centuries AD. There are 53 major caves, along with 51,000 niches housing the same number of Buddha statues. Additionally, there are around 1,100 minor caves. A Ming Dynasty-era fort is still located on top of the cliff housing the Yungang Grottoes.

The sandstone cliff is about 2600 feet long and 30 to 60 feet high. As a UNESCO World Heritage Site, they are considered to be a masterpiece of early Chinese Buddhist cave art. Buddhism arrived in this location via travel on the ancient Northern Silk Road, a route that traders followed for over 1,600 miles, connecting the then capital of Xián to the west all the way to Kashgar, where we had started our journey nearly a month ago near the border of Kyrgyzstan.

The figures carved out of sandstone and painted inside the grottoes were exquisite.

The figures carved out of sandstone and painted inside the grottoes were exquisite.

There were three periods of construction and reconstruction, the first one ending in 465 AD. Second and third phases lasted until 525 AD. That’s 60 years! Sometime after 1060, a fire did extensive damage. Wooden buildings in front of caves 5 & 6 were constructed in 1621 and in the 1950s, cracks in the sandstone were sealed with grouting. Being open to the pollution from nearby cities and sand storms coming all the way from the Gobi Desert, it has been an uphill battle to preserve these ancient treasures.

Of the 53 major caves, not all are open to the public. Some caves are divided into front and rear chapels. Many are beautifully painted, but have been repainted as many as twelve times. Cave #6 was one of the most impressive. Constructed between 465 and 494 AD by Emperor Xiao Wen, the cave’s surface area is approximately 1,000 square meters. The entire interior of the cave was carved and painted. More Buddhas, monks, Bodhisattvas and other celestial figures were located in the second story.

This is what you feel like after holding up a building for a few hundred years. Does anyone have an aspirin please?

This is what you feel like after holding up a building for a few hundred years. Does anyone have an aspirin please?

Caves 7-12, had more representations of bodhisattvas, triads of the Buddha, flying apsarasas (heavenly beings), heavenly musicians and jatakas, (stories from the lives of historical Buddhas), and ornamental reliefs covering the walls, ceilings and entrance.

If you want to be even more amazed, as we were, take into consideration that if you have ever been to the Vatican in Rome and walked through the Sistine Chapel and realized that Michelangelo painted those magnificent detailed images 500 years ago. Wow! Now we look at images in the Yungang Grottoes and consider that they were not only painted, about 1,500 years ago, but also first had to be carved out of solid stone. Double wow!

Back on the road, we altered from super toll-road to more interesting small towns. To our relief, heavy traffic was going the other way. We were able to pick up some supplies at produce stands along the road. Our goal was to get a closer look at The Great Wall of China, which we had previously seen the Western Terminus of. We expected more crowds this time.

 

 

China # 18 – Hunyan Hanging Monastery – September 2018

September 2, 2018

After a wonderful quiet night in our “private” parking lot, we walked up to the entrance of the Hunyan Hanging Monastery. We had seen many religious sites as we traveled across Europe and Central Asia, but never one hanging from a cliff. It was amazing to see Hunyan hanging 246 ft, (75-metre), above the ground. The temple is famous not only for its location on a sheer precipice but also because it is the only existing site with the combination of all three Chinese traditional religions: Buddhism, Taosim and Confucianism. Spindly oak poles and crossbeams chiseled into the vertical cliff hold it up. Additional supportive structures are buried inside the bed rock. Back in 2010 Time magazine listed it as one of the ten most dangerous buildings in the world.

Buddhism, Taosim and Confucianism

Three traditional Chinese Religions under one Roof

 

With all the flat land in China, one must wonder why someone would build a temple on the sheer side of a mountain.

With all the flat land in China, one must wonder why someone would build a temple on the sheer side of a mountain.

According to legend, one man, a monk named Liaoran, started the project back around 471 AD. We can only imagine what his vision was. The overhanging summit offered some protection from rain erosion and sunlight, and thanks to the ongoing repair by many of the various following dynasties, colors of the statues and the walls in the temples are relatively well preserved.

There are 40 halls and pavilions, linked by wooden walkways and stairs. To our relief, the stairs were well reinforced with metal plates and for those suffering acrophobia, there were handrails.

Looking for more Buddhas, (not really), our next stop was a short hop on a toll road to the equally impressive Yungang Grottoes. Circling the city of Datong, (population over 3.5 million), the blocks of high-rise apartments and coal power generating plants told us we were getting closer to civilization than we like.

 

 

China # 17 – The amazing Sakyamuni Pagoda, Shanxi Province – September 2014

August 25, 2018

Certainly one of the amazing pleasures of traveling across a country like China is discovering the “amazing”. The Terra-Cotta Warriors, amazing. The Great Wall of China, amazing. Driving out of Pingyáo and smiling at the angry looking turtles straining under the lamp posts, we were prepared for something else amazing, the Sakyamuni Pagoda of the Fogong Temple of Ying County, Shanxi Province.

The almost 1,000 year old wooden
Sakyamuni Pagoda of the Fogong Temple

Built in 1056 (that’s almost one thousand years ago!) during the Khitan-led Liao Dynasty, the Pagoda was commissioned by Emperor Daozong of Liao at the site of his grandmother’s family home. Some records show it was funded and erected by a Buddhist monk named Tian.

Yes, even we take the occasional tourist souvenir shot.

Yes, even we take the occasional tourist souvenir shot.

Standing on a 4 m (13 ft) tall stone platform, its steeple is 10 m (33 ft) tall, and its top reaches a total height of 67.31 m (220.83 ft). 

The nine stories tall Sakyamuni Pagoda is the oldest existing fully wooden Pagoda still standing in China.

From the exterior, the Pagoda seems to have only five stories and two sets of rooftop eaves for the first story, yet the Pagoda’s interior reveals that it has nine stories in all. The four hidden stories can be seen from the exterior by the Pagoda’s terraced balconies. The windows on the eight sides of the Pagoda provide views of the countryside. More amazing is how it was built. It features fifty-four different kinds of bracket arms in its construction. Between each outer story of the Pagoda is a mezzanine layer where the bracket arms are located on the exterior.

Dougong Construction
A complex set of interlocking wooden parts

The technique is called Dougong, a complex set of interlocking parts. It was widely used in the ancient Chinese During-the-Spring-and-Autumn-Period (770–476 BC) and further developed to its peak in the Tang and Song periods. The pieces are fitted together by joinery  alone, without glue or fasteners, thanks to the precision and quality of the carpentry. No nails were used! “amazing

This fierce looking guard was protecting the entrance.

This fierce looking guard was protecting the entrance.

Walls in these structures are not load-bearing. Curtain walls were sometimes made of latticework, mud or other delicate material. Walls functioned to delineate spaces in the structure rather than to support weight.

Multiple interlocking bracket sets are formed by placing a large wooden block (dou) on a column to provide a solid base for the bow-shaped brackets (gong) that support the beam or another gong above it. The function of dougong is to provide increased support for the weight of the horizontal beams that span the vertical columns or pillars by transferring the weight on horizontal beams over a larger area to the vertical columns. This process can be repeated many times, and rise many stories. Adding multiple sets of interlocking brackets or dougong reduces the amount of strain on the horizontal beams when transferring their weight to a column. Multiple dougongs also allows structures to be elastic and to withstand damage from earthquakes.

Sakyamuni Pagoda
(Almost) Earthquake-proof Construction

Between the years of 1056 and 1103 the Sakyamuni Pagoda suffered through seven earthquakes with only minor damage. Repairs were needed after Japanese soldiers shot more than two hundred rounds into the Pagoda during the Second Sino-Japanese War. 

Hope you are as amazed by this Pagoda as you look at these photos from the outside and the inside. Our next stop was only a short drive away. Climbing into the multi-layered Wuzhou Shan mountains, we were anticipating the famous Yungang Grottoes, also quite “amazing”!

 

China # 16 – Pingyáo, the ancient walled city – September 2014

August 17, 2018

OK, Pingyáo was not on our list of “must see” places as we traveled across China. At the time, our primary Lonely Planet China guide book did not even mention it, but once again our personal guide, Green, knew better. To our pleasure and amazement, Pingyáo is China’s best-preserved ancient walled city. Moreover, it is not some made-up tourist attraction. Thousands of local residents live here, down narrow alleys and behind creaking wooden doors that lead into courtyards where laundry was hung to dry, bicycles leaned against ancient rock walls and locals gossiped in the sun.

Pingyáo – a reflection of old China

While most of the historical sections that were once part of other cities we had seen had been bulldozed and replaced with ugly block buildings and grey apartments, Pingyáo has managed to keep its old spirit intact.

As we strolled the ramparts of the amazing ancient city of Pingyáo, we had to snap a couple of memory shots.

As we strolled the ramparts of the amazing ancient city of Pingyáo, we had to snap a couple of memory shots.

Walking along the ramparts of the magnificent city walls gave us a mosaic of tile rooftops and a private look into backyards. A unique birds-eye view of some of the wonderful old buildings including the Confucius Temple, the City God Temple and a Taoist Temple. Back on street level, there were doorways to peak into and bronze statues that depicted the history of the old financial center back in 1823. Roof peaks and arches were elaborately adorned with carved or sculpted dragons and other symbolic images.

Strolling on top of Pingyáo's massive wall gave us an interesting bird's eye view of the old city.

Strolling on top of Pingyáo’s massive wall gave us an interesting bird’s eye view of the old city.

The city center was free of cars, with bicycles and electric scooters taking locals to where they needed to go. Interesting foods were everywhere to tempt us, as well as souvenirs. The city is famous for its beautiful lacquerware.

Despite being somewhat of a tourist town, (predominantly Chinese – we only saw two Westerners), the local people were uncommonly friendly, and not the norm in China, even the bathrooms were clean and where they should be—except for the young children who still didn’t need one.

This beautiful gate is one of the main entrances into Pingyáo.

This beautiful gate is one of the main entrances into Pingyáo.

After strolling the streets for a day to visit some of the temples and historic sights, we were both ready for a relaxing foot and leg massage, a specialty along the pedestrian mall. We found a quiet restaurant to enjoy an early dinner. Later we treated ourselves to a fabulous folkloric dance and show depicting the history of this ancient city. It was called “又见平遥” (Youjian Pingyáo – See Pingyao Again). At night, Pingyáo took on new personality. Temples were lit and streets were hung with colorful lanterns.

We spent a quiet night in front of Green’s hotel. Pingyáo would be one of the few places we stayed for two nights, one of our favorite stops along what we imagined may have been part of the New Silk Road leading to Beijing and the busy ports of the Yellow Sea.

Note: We couldn’t resist posting all the photos below to give you a better impression of fabulous Pingyáo.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

China # 15 – Shaanxi History Museum, Terracotta Warrior Army, Xi’an – September 2014

August 10, 2018

Xi’an today is the capital of Shaanxi Province and was the first ancient imperial capital of China, having been the seat of more than 13 feudal dynasties, including the Western Zhou, Qin, Western Han, and Tang. Emperor Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China, and the founder of the Qin Dynasty, conceived and built the Terracotta Army as part of his mausoleum that we had just seen a portion of. The Shaanxi History Museum was constructed in 1983 and opened to the public in 1991. It contains a massive collection of 370,000 precious relics. Located near the Terracotta Warrior site, (see blog 14), it is one of the first huge state museums with modern facilities in China and one of the largest. Of course we had to see it.

Where is your great-granny’s Tang Dynasty vase?

A cool looking golden dragon.

A cool looking golden dragon.

Now unless you are looking for a replica of your great-great-grandmother’s thousand-year-old Tang dynasty vase that you broke, or you happen to be an archaeologist searching for some bit of information or a relic that was created 2000 years ago, many parts of a museum like this can be seen quickly. I don’t mean to underplay the importance of this amazing collection, but quite honestly once you’ve seen 15 beautiful ancient pots, the next 30 are not nearly as interesting. On the other hand, you never know what you’re going to find that might strike your interest, so we walked the aisles and read the placards, many of which were in English.

Pottery unicorn, Northern Wei Dynasty

Pottery unicorn, Northern Wei Dynasty

For your interest and your education, we offer you here a random selection of some of the amazing items that caught our attention, some more amazing than others. After all, it was here that the historical Silk Road began before it wound its way across China and into Europe and India, crossing the seemingly impassable Taklamakan and Gobi deserts and the treacherous mountains of Tajikistan, a tortuous route that we had just spent a year and a half following.

Start of the Silk Road

Gilded statue of Maitreya, Ming Dynasty

Gilded statue of Maitreya, Ming Dynasty

The Silk Road derives its name from the lucrative trade in silk carried along its length in the beginning of the Han Dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE). Though silk was the major trade item exported from China, many other luxury goods like tea, jade, fur, lacquerware and porcelain traveled towards Europe while  gold, silver, ivory, gems, glass, spices, pomegranates, carrots and “heavenly” horses (from Kyrgyzstan) were brought from the West. Most caravans only traveled short distances and then returned to the starting point. In addition to economic trade, the Silk Road was a route for cultural exchanges among the civilizations along its network and included religions, philosophies, technologies and unfortunately diseases, most notably the plague. It played a significant role in the development of the civilizations of China, Korea, Japan, the Indian subcontinent, the Middle East and Europe.

Cambulac, the new capital of Kublai Khan, Genghis Khan’s grandson

White glazed porcelain pillow with a dark design of a beauty, Jin Period

White glazed porcelain pillow with a dark design of a beauty, Jin Period

Ever since 1220, the Mongols, led by Genghis Khan, had considered Karakorum on the Mongolian Steppe to be their capital. His grandson, Kublai Khan, later decided to move his capital from Karakorum to a new location further south, deep in conquered Chinese territory. In the multilingual Mongol Empire, this new fortified city had several names. The Chinese called it Ta-tu, Marco Polo refered to it as Cambulac. Today, the city is called Beijing! It became the new eastern terminus of the Silk Road.

Camel, painted pottery, Tang Dynasty

Camel, painted pottery, Tang Dynasty

As a young man, Marco Polo accompanied his father Niccolò and uncle Maffeo, both merchants from Venice, Italy all the way to Cambulac (Beijing). In a travelogue from stories told by Marco Polo, Rustichello da Pisa describes Polo’s travels between 1271 and 1295 through Central Asia to Asia including his many years at the court of Kublai Khan and in the end, his return via a sea route to accompany a princess to the Middle East. 

The Travels of Marco Polo

The Travels of Marco Polo became a hugely successful book and undoubtedly inspired future explorers, maybe even Christopher Columbus. The Silk Road’s name was actually coined by German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen in 1877.

The details of the sculptors’ artistry were amazing.

The details of the sculptors’ artistry were amazing.

In the late 15th century, the discovery of a safer sea route from Europe to Asia dealt a damaging blow to the overland Silk Road trade. With less cost, harassment and danger, many goods and materials that the Silk Road could not transfer were conveyed through the sea route. Today, the dusty trails once followed by long strings of camels and horses are mostly paved and the caravansaries where traveling merchants could take refuge from the weather and bandits have now been converted to hotels or lie in various states of restoration or ruin. Oases towns like Khiva, Samarkand, Bukhara and Kashgar, once important stops on the Silk Road, are now major cities.

Reaching Xi’an was a bookmark in our goal to follow the Silk Road, but our second objective was to drive, wheels on the ground, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific. The shores of the Yellow Sea were still a few adventures away. We will continue to followed a revised Silk Road, heading north to the city of Pingyao.

China # 14 – Xi’an’s Terracotta Warrior Army – September 2014

August 3, 2018

The Terracotta Warrior Army in the ancient city of Xi’an, China is sometimes called the Eighth Wonder of the World. We have all heard about it, maybe have seen pictures or read about it, but in fact, standing in front of it is totally astounding and amazing and nearly beyond imagination. We were looking down at what was an underground mausoleum with as many as 8,000 individual soldiers, horses, chariots, musicians, dancers, acrobats, and anyone who might have been of service or comfort to Emperor Qin Shi Huang in his life after death. Why?

Qin Shi Huang, First Emperor of China
(259 BC to 210 BC)

An estimate of 8000 soldiers are lined up in military formation.

An estimate of 8000 soldiers are lined up in military formation.

3,000 years ago the Chinese commonly believed that there was life after death (Buddhists believe in reincarnation). Hey, maybe there is, since no one has died and come back to tell us about it. It could be a comforting feeling. Often wives, soldiers and personal servants were buried with a ruler or other important dignitaries to serve him or her in life after death. They were either killed or committed suicide. While it was considered an honor to be buried with the deceased, there was growing objection to the brutal loss of human life. Understandably, some people particularly didn’t want to be buried with their dead ruler. Slowly the custom changed to bury the dead with small clay figurines and later, a larger life-size replica as a substitute for the living. Emperor Qin Shi Huang took the custom a step further.

Life after Death

With his life after death in mind, Emperor Qin Shi Huang ordered the creation of his mausoleum and the surrounding areas that included the Terracotta Warrior Army to serve him.

According to forensic face recognition technology no two warriors are the same.

According to forensic face recognition technology no two warriors are the same.

The project took 36 years and consumed the conscripted labor of over 700,000 men and women.

Qin Shi Huang lived from 259 BC to 210 BC. At thirteen, he became King of Qin and later, at age 38, China’s first Emperor after conquering the Warring States to unify all of China. He was the founder of the Qin Dynasty. During his reign, he also started a weights and numbering system, a monetary system, built roads and ordered the first stage of The Great Wall to be constructed.

Now you have to imagine that his “army” was buried completely out of sight. Three deep pits, some over 62 m, (200 ft.) long, were excavated to a depth of 5 m, (16 ft.). The floors of these pits were made of compacted earth and paved with bricks. The Terracotta Warriors and other figures were placed in perfect order on these paved hallways. All were facing east toward the China that the Emperor had created.

The Terracotta Warrior Army

Thick walls separated individual hallways and were designed to hold massive beams that were then covered with heavy fiber woven mats, followed by layers of earth and soil, and planted to totally disguise that there was ever anything beneath them. As soon as the Terracotta Assembly was finished, compete with horses, chariots and attending servants, the sloped roads leading into the pits were closed and sealed forever. While there are records about the mausoleum and its construction, no records have been found about the Warrior Army. It was not until 1974 when farmers digging a well discovered the first well-preserved terra-cotta head and called authorities.

Did the artists model these soldiers from real people or was it their artistic ability to create so many different looking statues?

Did the artists model these soldiers from real people or was it their artistic ability to create so many different looking statues?

It is difficult to even imagine the work that has gone on to unearth and reconstruct these amazing figures, often from just broken pieces. Some of the brilliant colors including reds and greens, blues and pinks remained quite visible. Each warrior weighed about 600 to 650 lbs. and stood over 6 ft tall. Face cognition experts have determined that no two faces are identical. Some were armed with bronze weapons including spears, axes, daggers and curved knives. Others held crossbows and quivers of arrows. All weapons were deadly sharp, a demonstration of an advanced level of metallurgy.

The following images of what we saw can in no way encompass the immensity of this discovery. According to China Daily, over 500 million visitors traveled to the ancient capital city of Xi’an over the past five years. This leads us to make a point: If you want to see the Terracotta Army, fly there and take a tour—-don’t drive there! As an option, check out Secrets of the Dead – China’s Terracotta Warriors on YouTube.