China 2012 – Day 8 – Big Wild Goose Pagoda, Terracotta Warriors, Muslim Street

The main attraction for Day 8 was the Terracotta Warriors, but our first stop on the way was the Big Wild Goose Pagoda. (And, yes, if you’re wondering, there is a Small Wild Goose Pagoda.)  The Wild Goose Pagoda is best know as the ultimate destination for the famous monk, Xuanzang, who, concerned with that the Chinese understanding of Buddhist scripture was inaccurate and incomplete, set out to correct this by embarking on a seventeen-year odyssey to India to retrieve scriptures and relics. On his return to China, he settled in Xi’an (then Chang’an) and spent years translating the scripture. Originally built in 652, the pagoda itself was used to house these scriptures and relics (photos). Over the years it has suffered some pillaging and the ravages of earthquakes, so, much like Pisa’s Leaning Tower, it now lists several degrees off-plumb toward the west. (photos)

After the Pagoda, our next stop was a jade factory. There we learned of the various kinds of jade and their different uses. As with every one of these tours, the final step is always a walk through the gift shop to ogle the final product (photos). Originally, Irene had intended to purchase some jade, but we soon learned that jade prices have sky-rocketed, so we mostly settled for some window shopping.

Then it was on to the highlight of the day, the Terracotta Warrior Museum.  It’s hard to imagine the scope of this tomb complex.  At present, excavation has primarily been confined to only four main pits located 1.5 Km from the actual burial mound of the Emperor.  One can only imagine what is yet to be discovered in this massive complex (photos).

To the credit of the Chinese government, they have proceeded rather cautiously with unearthing these treasures so far.  They have held off on excavating many of the soldiers until they could find a way to preserve their coloured laquer finish. And they have rerfrained entirely from excavating the Emperor’s tomb until they are certain they can do it properly. Still, archaeologists have unearthed hundreds of figures since they were first discovered in 1974.

Apart from the scale of the site, a few other things surprised us.  Both of us had naively assumed that many of the warriors had been excavated intact. In actual fact, the wooden beam ceilings of the chambers had long since collapsed, crushing most of the figures they were protecting – not surprising really, considering they were buried some 2,300 years ago. What followed the excavation was years of painful labelling, identification, and reconstruction. This is still ongoing today (photo).

I was also surprised by the level of individualization of each warrior.  I had known that each warrior had a unique face, but for some reason I had presumed that their bodies had been mass-produced. Not so. Each warrior is entirely unique, having been hand-crafted by an artisan.  Looking at them, one can see that each has his own distinct body shape, as is evident from this rather odd looking fellow.

Really, though, the story is told best in pictures, which may be seen here.

After the museum, we returned to Xi’an to wander down “Muslim Street” an ethnic neighbourhood within the old city, near the Drum Tower, which is located just a couple blocks west of the central Bell Tower.  This traditional neighbourhood retains some of the old world charm we had expected to find in the old city; it is lined with all kinds of small shops and food stands. Since it was only a few blocks from our hotel, we planned to return there in the evening, perhaps to try some of the food.

While in the Muslim Street area, Phoebe took us to see a traditional shadow puppet show, performed by two old gentleman, one a puppeteer, and the other a musician who accompanied the story with drum beats and the clangs of bells and cymabals.  It was in Mandarin, of course, but Phoebe translated for us. The show told the story of Xuanzang‘s travels to India. It was hokey and funny and charming all at the same time. After the show, the puppeteer let Irene try her hand at manipulating the puppets (Photo).

As appetizing as the street vendor food looked on Muslim Street, we wouldn’t eat supper there, because Phoebe had arranged a special meal for us.  After our success the night before, we were looking forward to seeking out an excellent meal again, but she convinced us that we should really try a Shaanxi specialty, the “Dumpling Feast.” Since we had vowed to try as much authentic regional cuisine as possible, we decided to go for it, even though this was going to be another expensive meal. So after a bit of rest in our hotel, we walked back down to the restaurant and sat down for our “feast.”

Within minutes we were served steamer after steamer of various types and shapes of dumplings: fish dumplings shaped like fish, duck dumplings shaped like birds. We lost track of all the types, and we certainly lost track of the number. When they had exhausted every imaginable type of steamed dumpling, they brought out the boiled dumplings. The waitress led us to understand that we were free to eat as many of these as we liked, but by that time, we were beginning to feel like two large dumplings ourselves, so we cried “Uncle.” Overall, we rated it as a more satisfying experience than the Peking Duck Feast, at about the same price.

During this little bout of gluttony, we were joined at our table by a trio of very peculiar Aussies, what appeared to be a man, his wife, and his sister-in-law.  I say “peculiar” because the women repeatedly turned up their noses at virtually everything that was served to them. I’m not sure that either one of them ever finished an entire dumpling. We marvelled why they would ever choose to spend that kind of money on a meal they had no intention of eating.  People like this bewilder me. Maybe I’m too much of a glutton, but certainly one of the very big reasons I travel is to experience different cuisines. In all the experimentation we did on this trip, I won’t say that we loved every dish, but certainly the vast majority of the food was good to excellent. And really, there’s nothing particularly off-putting about a dumpling. Yet both women sat there and sipped away at their Sprites while the man set about consuming the entire feast on his own. Weird.

Our over-indulgence had foiled our plans of dessert on Muslim Street, so we settled for walking the street to burn off some excess calories instead. More than once during this trip we found ourselves hoping all the walking and stair climbing might offset all the food we were eating. We hadn’t really anticipated going to China and coming home heavier. And never did we experience the phenomenon of Chinese meals “not lasting.” More often than not we put off eating supper as late as possible because we were still full from lunch.

We soaked up a bit of Xi’an night/street life for another hour or so,  then waddled back to the hotel for the night.

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