May 11, 2008

Xian and Huashan: In and Around the Ancient Capital


China, as you may have noticed, gave me a lot to think about. Don't worry- this is my last post about it.

Xian was the ancient capital of China, and is one of the few cities that still has a fair amount of old architecture about, in particular, a bit over fourteen kilometers of really impressive city walls. The city itself is accessible and nicely walkable, with all kinds of nifty things to see inside the main downtown area. The city is also home to the terracotta warriors, the immense clay army that was unearthed in the seventies.

I don't have any mind-splitting revelations to share about the city other than to recommend it as a travel spot. In the city center one can see the twin structures of the Bell Tower and the Drum Tower, two wonderful older buildings. In each, we managed to take in some performances of Chinese classical music. In the Bell Tower there was a bell, zither, chime, and flute show, and in the Drum Tower (as one would imagine) we saw a percussion performance. Both were impressive.

We also walked around the city's walls, tried Tai Chi (which is harder than it looks), saw a Taoist temple, went clubbing, and strolled about Xi'an's Muslim quarter where we saw the city's large Great Mosque. The place was quite serene, and it was fascinating to see the various stone tablets that were a mix of Chinese and Arabic.

And speaking of stone tablets, I went to a rather nice stone tablet museum, and saw what was billed as the world's heaviest library (at least according to Lonely Planet). The place was nice, and included the breadth of what are considered the "must haves" of Chinese literature. There was Confucius, of course, and Mencius and a big stony copy of the I-Ching (complete with carved hexagrams). There were temple records, monks' narratives, historical records of China's interaction with foreigners (including Nestorian Christians- that was interesting). There were lots of commentaries and additions to Confucius, as well as plenty of poetry. Most interesting, there was a huge, stone dictionary, thought to be one of the first.

Walking about, I thought that the stone tablets were really cool looking, but really impractical. Like, if you wanted to look up a word, would you have to go to the big, stony dictionary and walk up to the place where it was? So, I was perplexed by their impracticality until I came to the middle of the museum, where one of the staffers had spread a scroll over a tablet, and was dabbing it with ink.

Then I realized they were essentially medieval printing presses. A scroll was spread over the stone and the paper was hammered flat onto the tablet so that the paper sunk slightly into the depressions, i.e., the carved characters. The printer then struck the whole thing with flat, hammer-like tool that had been covered in ink. The end result was that the characters were uninked, and stood out in white, and the rest of the page was black. Sort of like making a rubbing of a tombstone. It was interesting go from seeing the tablets as something interesting, but impractical, to then realizing that they were actually immensely practical. They were used for mass production of scrolls.

I walked around a bit more, trying to recognize familiar characters on the rocky surfaces. Every so often I'd see one. It also occurred to me there that the Chinese language has been deliberately changed in the 20th century. In an attempt to cultivate literacy, the government simplified many of the characters, making contemporary characters quite different from the old style writing that is still in use in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Japan. Several people were milling about trying to read the things- one father appeared to be quizzing his daughter on the characters, and they both laughed in the face of the linguistic challenge.

We headed out and saw the famed and vaunted terracotta warriors, which were really not all that exciting. They were impressive, to be sure, but they weren't exciting. What was sort of odd, really, was that they were, as Kori said, "a fantastic waste of wealth." The first Qin emperor, the man for whom China is named, had them built for his tomb, the army with which he hoped to conquer the battlefields of the afterlife.

The construction of the army took thousands of people, tons of clay, gallons of paint, and years of effort. The whole thing was an immense undertaking of engineering and aesthetics, and when it was all finished the fruits of so many people's labors and the purchase of so much money was put into the ground and covered with dirt. The achievement was literally buried, serving no one.

The stony soldiers seemed the ultimate in decadence. The Roman emperors might have wasted money on feasts and orgies, but at least they had fun with their wealth. The Pharohs spent the gold of their treasuries and the lives of their citizens to make the pyramids, but at least those were something that all could see, that broadcasts their decadent achievement across the skyline. Louis XIV built Versailles, but at least all could see and perversely admire his gilded wealth.

The Qin emperor, though, bested them all. His immense, kiln-fired army was something that his corpse alone was intended to appreciate, mouldering inside his slave-dug palace of a tomb. Such opulence and selfishness, I think, hasn't really been matched throughout history.

Then, there was Huashan.

Huashan is billed as one of China's Five Sacred Mountains, and it was the literal high point of our trip.

(Oh god, I just made an elevation pun. If I were really, sorry, I'd delete it. But I'm not sorry. I'm just going to let it sit there, taunting you.)

Arriving at the base of the mountain at around eleven, I was already a bit tired. Along a few nifty people we'd met at our hostel, we intended to walk all night to the summit, and watch the sunrise, a rather popular thing to do. So popular, in fact, that the place was rather crowded that night with lots of shouting, grunting, climbing people, and various water/food stands around the way.

It was fairly boring for the first hour and a half. The sky was pretty (it had been a while since I'd gotten a good look at the stars) and the air was nice, but it wasn't particularly exciting. That all changed, once the nice, level paths of the mountain turned into these rocky staircase/ladder things with chains to hold onto the side. I felt myself waking up, energized and interested in it all. Then my energy flagged, then I was interested again.

One of our travel companions mentioned that at one of the more arduous bits of elevation gain, there were lots of people cursing in different languages. Apparently there was cursing in a few Chinese dialects, two people with us from Europe were cursing in their languages, and I was saying "motherfucker" with just about every step up the thing. It was awesome.

A detail of note about the mountain- the whole thing was covered in locks and red strips of fabric. The locks, apparently, have different sorts of messages written on them, and people buy them from vendors and leave them on the mountain as token of good luck and whatnot. The result being that several areas are festooned in metal and red, which is quite the cool effect.

So, we continued up various stairs, ladders, chains, paths, etc., until we got to the top a bit after four in the morning. At that point, my various muscles and body parts were quivering in interesting ways. We rested, and waited for the sunrise. It was really sort of anticlimactic. First there was some smog. Then there was bright smog. Then the bright smog had a little circular thing in it. But, the sunrise wasn't the point of the trip. The trip was the point of the trip.

Going down I felt a sort of high and awakeness. All of my tiredness was gone, for the time being, and I was sort of active and relaxed at the same time. We ignored the cable car which would have taken us to the base of the mountain, and instead made our way down on foot.

Descending was fascinating. During the night, we were not able to see much except the path in front of us. We weren't able to see, for instance, the huge drops, cliff sides, narrow paths, and immense steepnesses around us. So, as we went down, we thought to ourselves "Holy shit- we climbed that?" Personally, I'm sort of afraid of heights, but this particular excursion seemed to help a lot with that. I knew already that I was perfectly capable of climbing up the various ladders and stairs, so down wouldn't be a problem, right? In any case, confronting my own fear was a lot of fun, and the view on the way down was stunning.

We got back, and were too tired to sleep, too hungry to eat.

And that's it. I did have another day on my own in Shanghai, after that, and Kori went to Guilin for a few days. In Shanghai, I walked about, went to the Shanghai Museum (which had an ancient Olympics exhibit in addition to the obvious Chinese art), and did a bit of shopping. I'd recommend China. Obviously, your experience and such will vary, but I personally found it to be the most eye-opening trip I'd ever taken. I'd never been to a developing country before, and before this I'd only ever been to the U.S., Canada, and Japan.

I already have a great deal of wanderlust (that's how I ended up in Japan in the first place) but now I'm pretty determined to travel more. Later this year- Korea.

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4 comments:

Eric said...

I really liked the China posts, Mr. Tongue. It's interesting to find out how they did printing presses before printing presses were invented. Of course, with that technology already in mind, it's not so hard to see how they were able to come up with printing presses in the first place. But I think the Koreans actually did it first, now that I think about it. Who needs movable type, when you have giant boulders?

Joseph said...

Seconded. It's been great reading about your trips, Llama, and looking at the purty pictures. Sad I don't get any more of either!

SonicLlama said...

Thanks, guys! I'm all aglow.

I actually curtailed this last one a bit because I've been worried about getting long-winded in my posting. Don't worry- more stories and Pretty pictures (about and of other stuff) will abound in the future.

Sydney said...

Ooh - if you want a contact in Korea, my mom's best friend's son is living and teaching there right now. Mom's friend said he was an excellent tour guide (well, he and his Korean girlfriend) when she visited and she's rather a hard audience. Let me know if you want his info - it's always nice to know an insider who can point you in the direction of the best kim chee or what have you.

And I agree with Eric and Joe: your posts=awesome. I've been crazy with the crafting/needlework lately and am just catching up; it's a pleasure to get to read all of your posts as a piece. Keep up the good work! :)