Terracotta Dreams: our Xian highlights

Terracotta Army in Xian

Emperor Shi Huangdi wanted to be immortal. It could have been possible. He had just conquered every kingdom he knew and proclaimed himself the First Emperor of China. His alchemists had powerful recipes to prolong life. In case his body should die, Shi Huangdi prepared a huge underground palace where his soul could live on. Statues of servants, horse-carriages for outings and bronze ducks swimming in artificial rivers and lakes made from mercury should guarantee his comforts. This underground palace was guarded by the famous life-sized army of terracotta warriors, one of the highlights of a Xian visit.

Today, the terracotta army is touted as the 8th wonder of the world. Several large halls cover the excavation site. Although the sheer size of the exhibition area is impressive, the presentation of the artifacts themselves appeared somewhat sad. Only five of the most well-preserved warriors were shown for a close look. They stood in a corner of excavation pit number 4, without much explanation. Of the seven “Generals” found so far, only one was present. Other figures stand forlornly in the almost empty pits.

Admittedly we are spoiled. We have previously seen terracotta warriors and other items from the excavations in three excellent exhibitions in Tokyo. At that time, we appreciated China’s willingness to let the warriors travel around the world.

Muslim culture in Xian

The Xian Mosque with a pagoda instead of a minaret is a highlight

Xian, the old capital, is considered to be the official beginning of the silk road. The visible Muslim minority contributes to the city’s cuisine and culture.

One of our Xian highlights was the visit to China’s oldest mosque. At first sight it looks like a Chinese temple. But the orientation towards Mecca as well as Arabic inscriptions above doorways and on the walls show its Islamic denomination.

Among the many other sights – a fantastic history museum, a huge old pagoda, the excavation site of a 5000 year old village, etc. – is a temple that may only be of interest to visitors from Japan.

A Japanese exchange student

It is the place where Kōbo Daishi, the founder of Shingon Buddhism in Japan studied as a foreign exchange monk in the 9th century. On Kōbo Daishi, see our first blog entry: 88 pages of Shikoku.

Our Xian highlight was the Qinglongsi temple where Kukai studied

Leaving Xian proved difficult because the university holidays had just started and all trains were full. Spending half a day in various ticket offices we could finally secure two tickets for a sleeper bus to Xining.

Emperor Shi Huangdi may have died, and his underground palace smashed by the following Han Dynasty just a few years after his death. But the empire he founded is still huge. We are 1000 kilometers further west in the Tibetan Highland, and still Western China lies before us.

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