It’s hard to believe I’ll be back in the U.S. in two days—where has the semester gone? The last three weeks have just flown by despite having a bit too much to do and see. To illustrate that point, I have taken a little over 1,000 pictures since I last wrote—most weeks average less than 100—and I have 2,500 in total. Even as I prepare to write this final blog post I find the pace of the last three weeks absolutely dizzying (sometimes too much to write, much of this update was written after returning to the U.S.). But I am also very satisfied in the knowledge that I really have taken full advantage of my semester in China. And while I am torn about coming home I know I’ll be very happy when I do—as much as I want to stay and continue exploring China.
The Tuesday prior to Thanksgiving I spent the afternoon looking for, and successfully finding two temples—one Buddhist and one Daoist. The first, the Great Bell Temple, was not easily accessible by subway, which is my default way of getting around. But while Beijing’s subway is unsustainably cheap—$0.30 for all rides with unlimited transfers—there is sometimes a price to pay for convenience, usually with transfers that involve walking for ten minutes or more between lines. In the case of the Great Bell Temple—so named for a 63 ton bell cast in the Ming dynasty (~600 years ago), it was geographically quite close, but two eternal subway transfers added half an hour to the trip. And when I got there the temple was closed for renovation. My guidebook isn’t infallible, but I did salvage the afternoon.
After some more lengthy subway transfers I found the Daoist White Cloud Temple, and it was open. I’ve only been to one other Daoist Temple in Beijing, and that was with my philosophy class about two months ago. The White Cloud Temple is maintained by a different sect of Daoists and the differences between the two were quite obvious. The White Cloud Temple was clearly more influenced by Buddhism, and it was better maintained and used. Conceptually I understand the basics behind Daoism, or at least I think I do, but Daoist temples don’t make much sense to me. They’re aesthetically pleasing, but hard to fully appreciate. It was also extremely cold and windy that day, something I hadn’t prepared for, which made for a blustering, numbing afternoon. But it was neat all the same.
|The pictures below are of the White Cloud Temple|
On Thanksgiving Day, which would have been Wednesday night for those of you on EST, I spent the afternoon exploring Beihai Park, which is just to the West of the Forbidden City. Beihai Park is centered around Beihai Lake, which is one of three lakes immediately to the West of the Forbidden City: the Northern Sea, the Middle Sea, and the Southern Sea. During the Imperial era (pre-1911), these lakes were used as part of a canal system that supplied the city and served as a transportation system for people and mail. Today, the Middle and Southern Seas and their surrounding environs have been converted into a large, heavily guarded compound for China’s top leaders, but the Northern Sea (Beihai) is open to the public. I wasn’t aware that the Communist leadership was living just next to the Forbidden City (the power center hasn’t moved far) so I assumed I could walk from the Tiananmen subway stop northward along the southern two lakes. But I was met with guards and walls, so I had to walk quite a bit around the compound to reach Beihai, eating up precious daylight in the process.
The walk was well worth it, however, and the park was just lovely. To reiterate, the park itself is centered around a sizable man-made lake, around which one can walk. In the southeast portion of this lake is an artificial island, which is referred to here as the Jade Islet. Given I was running out of daylight and the islet’s proximity to the park entrance, I spent most of my time there. The islet hosts a decent sized Buddhist temple, which itself is designed around a large, white dagoba—no relation to Star Wars. The dagoba was constructed in 1651 to mark the visit of the Dalai Lama to Beijing and has been damaged and repaired several times since. It’s difficult to describe so check out the pictures instead. I particularly enjoyed the view, however, more than the temple. As I’ve mentioned, Beijing is flat as a pancake and unless you’re in a plane or a tall building it’s tricky to visually get a sense of how the city is laid out. The islet offered some great views—on a smog-free day—of the old city that were quite breathtaking.
It’s also worth mentioning the interesting things one sees in a Chinese park in general, which I’ve mostly undescribed in the past. Parks aren’t hard to find in Beijing, but depending on where you are they can be large, small, crowded or sparsely used. It’s pretty standard to see Chinese people who are in their 50s or 60s and are likely retired or unemployed—this is the generation that saw the discontinuation under Deng Xiaopeng in the 1980s of the “iron rice bowl” system of full employment and cradle to grave support from the state. Consequently many entered careers, not usually by choice, in work units or factories but had the rug pulled out from under them and now have redundant or simply useless skills in a rapidly modernizing China. So, among other things, they pass the time in parks. At the Temple of Heaven (another large park) I saw people in this demographic playing cards, doing Tai Chi, dancing, singing, etc. I suppose that in the U.S. I wouldn’t be so amused by all of this, but I’ve found older adults in China to be generally warmer and more pleasant to be around than their counterparts in the states—please don’t take that the wrong way anyone, just an opinion. In Behai, there were two men doing calligraphy on the sidewalk with sponges affixed to short rods. There was also an older gentleman playing an accordion, which was audible from some distance away. And there was a game of hacky sack being played not far away—by some very limber adults in their 60s. This was all much more entertaining than the Buddhist temple, for sure.
|The Jade Islet in Behai Park, topped with the white dagoba|
As dusk settled in, I made my way to the nearest subway station and headed out to the suburbs for Thanksgiving dinner. One of the Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) at the Beijing American Center invited several students who regularly attend the student coffee hours to Thanksgiving dinner with his family. CET provided something similar for lunch the next day for the students in my program, but the dinner I attended was much more authentic. The family that hosted me lived about 90 minutes away by subway—including two transfers that entailed a ten minute walk between lines—in an upscale expat suburb near the airport. It was dark so I didn’t see too much, but from what I heard from my hosts, everything is Western and rather expensive. But the State Department provides nice housing, at least in Beijing, and I could’ve easily been in the United States with the company, food, and setting. It was a bit odd knowing no one at the table, so I didn’t do too much talking. Observing the dynamic of a Foreign Service family was interesting, though, but I don’t think I’d want that for myself, at least not with a family as well. Picking up and moving every two to four years sounds nice, but I wouldn’t want to grow up that way as a child. That said everyone was very hospitable and the food was wonderful—though I will say it was a little weird eating turkey (very rare here) with a fork and knife for the first time in months.
The following Sunday, December 1st, I spent the entire day revisiting the Forbidden City and surrounding area. CET sponsored a trip there for our entire program during the first week I was in Beijing, but it a hot day and the tour was overly hurried, such that I felt I didn’t really see the palace in its entirety. Going back on a colder day with fewer people and no schedule was much nicer. The Forbidden City is absolutely massive, such that you really can spend a few days there and still only see a fraction of it. At present, only about a third of the palace is open to the public and the bulk of it is being restored. After the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911, the last Qing emperor—Puyi—was allowed to live in the Forbidden City until 1924 when was forcibly expelled and forced to abdicate. From then until 1949, the complex was not maintained and fell into disrepair. Restoration efforts began in the 1980s, but the sheer size of the palace—which at 178 acres is the largest intact palace in the world—and the complexity of restoring the buildings and artifacts has made for a slow and lengthy process. And I’m sure the pollution in Beijing doesn’t help much.
|A map of the Forbidden City, the shaded areas are closed to the public.|
The Forbidden City was completed in 1420 during the Ming dynasty and has been rebuilt and modified many times since, but the overall design remains mostly unchanged. Like many pre-Communist structures in China it was built according the principles of Feng Shui. The Chinese believed, and many still do, that the world was driven by Qi (Romanized Chi) or energy (in simple terms, there’s more to it than that). Good Qi flowed from the south, good Qi from the north. So older buildings—homes, temples, palaces, etc.—are all very open and flowing toward the south but very closed off and restrictive toward the north. The Forbidden City exemplifies this on a grand scale. Visitors enter through the south gate, also called the Meridian Gate, a large, U-shaped gate that served as the primary ceremonial entrance for the emperor. There are four gates in total, one for each cardinal direction, each serving a different purpose. A sizable moat surrounds the entire palace complex, which is rectangular in shape and is bordered by a high wall studded with prominent watchtowers on each corner.
After entering through the south gate, one enters an expansive courtyard facing the Gate of Supreme Harmony. The courtyard itself is bisected by a narrow stream in the shape of a Tartar bow which is fed by water from the palace moat. Five stone bridges cross the stream connecting both sides of the courtyard. To the east of the courtyard is the Hall of Literary Glory, which now hosts a sizeable exhibition of porcelain artifacts. Just beyond this is the east gate, on which Imperial officials posted the results of highly competitive civil service examinations. Now it is just one of two exits, but since the bulk of the palace that is open to the public flows south to north, I didn’t go out that way and don’t have any pictures. The area to the west of the courtyard is largely under renovation, so there isn’t much to see. It is centered on the Hall of Military Eminence and served as headquarters for the palace guards.
|The Forbidden City moat, looking toward the southwestern corner watchtower|
|The concave moat that bisects the outer courtyard, you can't quite make out the Tartar bow shape from this angle|
As one passes through the Gate of Supreme Harmony, an even larger courtyard is revealed. This is dominated by the Hall of Supreme Harmony, which is one of the largest and most prominent buildings in the Forbidden City, and most likely the one you’ve seen pictures of in the past. Unlike Western palace complexes, the Forbidden City has no obvious nexus or center; rather, its structures are designed in concert with one another, each serving a ceremonial or pragmatic purpose. So while the Hall of Supreme Harmony is one of the larger and important buildings, it is by no means the most salient structure. It is, however, the center of the outer palace, an area roughly defined as the southern half of the Forbidden City. As you will see in my pictures, the buildings in this area are generally larger and more grandiose and served important ceremonial functions for the Imperial Courts of the Ming and Qing dynasties—the only two regimes that inhabited the Forbidden City. The courtyards in this portion of the palace were used for military reviews, ceremonial entrances and exits, and well as official audiences with the emperor. But the Emperor and Imperial Court lived in the inner palace, which can be roughly construed as the northern half of the Forbidden City. The structures here are smaller, more pragmatic, and serve more humble, day-to-day functions.
|The Hall of Supreme Harmony|
|These dragons are not only aesthetic, but serve as spouts for the drainage system|
The bulk of the Forbidden City that is open to the public is constituted by the inner palace; indeed, the halls to the east and west of the Hall of Supreme Harmony are closed for renovation. The halls that run north-south along the courtyard, though, contain exhibits of artifacts from Forbidden City. Some are commonplace items, others more lavish. Many of the most precious artifacts from the Forbidden City, though, are in Taiwan. Prior to the Japanese invasion of Beijing in the 1930s, the most valuable pieces were moved to Chongqing in the south of China to protect them from looting. After the Second World War, much of the collection was moved to Nanjing by the Nationalist government. But at the end of the Chinese Civil War when Communist victory was clear, the Nationalists evacuated the most priceless artifacts to Taipei. Only about three quarters of the collection has been returned to Beijing.
Behind the Hall of Supreme Harmony are the Hall of Central Harmony and the Hall of Preserved Harmony, both of which also served ceremonial functions in the outer palace. I have some pictures of each but visitors aren’t allowed inside, so people mob the three doors that are open to see. Getting to the front of the line is hard enough, never mind getting a picture, so I didn’t bother after getting a picture of the Hall of Supreme Harmony’s interior. After this point, everything in the narrative describes parts of the Forbidden City that are in the inner palace.
|One of many imperial thrones|
|The Jade Islet Dagoba is visible in the distance of this photo|
|The more figures on the eave of a building, the more important the structure|
I then veered off to the east away from the central north-south axis around which the Forbidden City is designed. This area, called the Palace of Tranquil Longevity, in the northeast quadrant of the complex, was where emperors and members of the Court spent much of their leisure time. At the entrance is the nine dragon screen—a wall with a relief sculpture of nine glazed dragons, each with different colors—which faces north to protect against bad Qi. Dragons are considered lucky in Chinese culture, rather than evil in Western culture, and so they are quite common here. The nine dragon screen wall is one of three that remains in China today. Within the Palace of Tranquil Longevity is the Imperial opera stage, which was built in 1776 during the Qianlong Emperor’s reign. It was one of the largest opera stages in Imperial China and can hold over 1,000 people. The trap doors that allowed actors to quickly appear and vanish are quite visible from ground level.
|The Nine Dragon Screen Wall|
Following this, I made my way northward through several galleries and exhibitions—the volume of artifacts, works of art, and historic documents in the Imperial City is beyond description—eventually coming upon the northern wall. I then had to walk west for a little while to find the Imperial Garden, which is immediately south of the north gate. It would probably be a lot more vernal if not for the incessant foot traffic. There are simply so many people here it seems almost impossible for anything to look lush or natural. Besides which the garden itself is rather small, especially compared to the Summer Palace—essentially a large park. To the west of the garden are the Western Palaces, which were the living quarters for many emperors, their concubines, and members of the Imperial Court. Only a few of these palaces are open to the public, and the structures are relatively mundane and there is no interior access, so one is limited to peering in through small, foggy windows.
Towards mid-afternoon I ventured back east to the clock exhibition, which is a collection of timepieces purchased or given to the Qing Court during the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries. The clocks are almost exclusively European, but they are many and varied in design—clocks that move, clocks that sing, clocks dressed up as elaborate opera stages with miniature moving actors—really amazing. At 2:30 they all chime in unison, but I missed that show. After this I toured the lesser central halls, which are at the core of the inner palace and whose structure reflects the larger out halls. They are considerably less awe-inspiring than their larger southern neighbors—deliberately so, such that they really don’t draw the same crowds.
|A large water clock|
By about 4:00 I exited the Forbidden City through the north gate, which is more stodgy and obstructive than the southern Meridian Gate. This of course is by design, the better to keep out the bad Qi. It was from this gate that Puyi, the last emperor, departed the Forbidden City for the last time in 1924 with the remnants of the Qing Court. The Qing had not wielded power since 1911, but this expulsion from the Forbidden City and subsequent eviction officially marked the end of over two millennia of dynastic rule in China. Just to the north of the Forbidden City is Jingshan Park, which is dominated by one of Beijing’s only hills. The hill itself is artificial and was created with the dirt excavated when the Forbidden City’s moat was constructed. It is intended to block bad Qi from the north—noticing a theme?—and protect the Forbidden City. Atop the hill is a small Buddhist shrine which offers commanding views of the old city. Much like the Jade Islet in Behai Park, Jingshan Park allows one to see the old city from above, conferring a much better idea of Beijing’s design. To the south is the expansive Forbidden City; just beyond it through the smog are Tiananmen Square, the National Museum, and the Great Hall of the People. To the north, along Beijing’s central axis, lay the Bell and Drum towers, used to mark the passage of time during the Imperial era. All of this is clashes with the modern—rather, Western—structures that have popped up somewhat haphazardly around the city.
|Jingshan Park from the north gate of the Forbidden City|
|The north gate|
|The northeast corner tower of the Forbidden City from Jingshan Park|
|Behai Park and the Jade Islet|
|Looking south over the Forbidden City|
|Looking north toward the Drum and Bell towers|
The following week, my last regular week of the semester, was extremely busy, with two papers to write and two exams to prepare for—all of which are thankfully finished. In addition, I spent the weekend of December 6 in Xi’an (she-an), a city 500 miles to the west of Beijing that is famous for being the location of the Terracotta Warriors. Normally I’d hunker down and get work done at this point of the year, but I don’t know when I’ll next find myself in China so it seemed a worthwhile tradeoff.
On the first Tuesday of December I returned, again, to Nanluoguxiang—the neighborhood to the north of Jingshan Park that I have so often referred to generally as the hutong—to tour the Drum and Bell towers. As mentioned earlier, these were used until the early 20th century as a way of measuring time in Beijing. These two structures stand opposite one another across a small courtyard and are surrounded by the arbitrary alleyways and winding streets that are so quintessential to old Beijing. Both were first built during the 15th century during the early Ming dynasty. The Drum tower is situated on the southern end of the courtyard. It is about three stories high but is squat in appearance. Much of the exterior and interior is pleasantly unrestored, as indicated by peeling, faded red and green paint, plus considerable mildew. I say pleasant because in China attitudes toward historical objects and places are rather different than in the United States, or more broadly the West. China’s history is so long and storied that old things are simply regarded as part of the scenery here, so replacing something with an exact replica and passing it off as the original isn’t a big deal. Furthermore, a replica is often viewed as giving tourists a better sense of what something actually looked like. So in places like the Forbidden City where many structures are restored or replicated, the Western observer might gripe that this is inauthentic, but to the Chinese, the restored/copied item in question loudly demonstrates how great China has always been—it doesn’t matter it’s is real or not. Apply that reasoning to the Western notion of copyright laws and you can see why the concept is so incompatible with Chinese society. But I digress.
The stairwell to the top of the Drum tower was extremely steep but the climb was worth it. My arrival coincided with one of the several drum performances here each day. The drums used are replicas, of course, but according to my guidebook the routine is similar to those used during the Qing dynasty when the tower served a more pragmatic purpose. There was one very battered drum from the late 19th century still on display alongside the newer replicas. Apparently, it was severely damaged during the Eight Powers invasion of Beijing in 1900 during the Boxer Rebellion. I won’t get into the Boxer Rebellion here, but it nearly toppled the Qing dynasty and was only put down when Western powers intervened. The Eight Powers army, a coalition force, invaded Beijing in 1900 and helped restore Qing rule, but many historic sites in the city bear evidence of violent looting. The Drum tower also had a small exterior balcony that offered decent but limited views of the surrounding neighborhood and, in the distance, Jingshan Park.
|The Drum and Bell towers from Houhai park|
|A drum from the late 19th century|
|Jingshan Park is in the distance, as seen from the Drum tower.|
The Bell tower, on the northern edge of the courtyard, is a bit taller and of a more tapered construction. Its stairwell was equally steep as its neighbor to the south. The interior is considerably smaller than the Drum tower, though, and is dominated by an absolutely massive bell—weighing 63 tons—suspended from thick wooden rafters. The balconies offer much better views of the surrounding neighborhood than those of the Drum tower. The bell itself was cast during the reign of the Yongle Emperor, who designed much of old Beijing, including the Forbidden City, in the early 1400s. I find it astounding that this bell was cast at a time when a Europe that was recovering from the Crusades and Black Death struggled to discharge the most basic functions of civilization; that European nations would subjugate and nearly destroy China four centuries later boggles my mind even more—an odd and tragic role reversal. On my way back to the subway station I walked through Houhai Park, another lake-centered park that is just north of Behai Park. Much of the lake was frozen over, but this did not prevent a few intrepid older men from swimming with the ducks. Frigid temperatures aside, the water is far from clean, but I’ve seen stranger things in China.
|The Bell tower|
|This story is neither touching or folksy.|
|It's hard to make out but there is a man swimming in Houhai Lake|
That Thursday I spent the afternoon at the Beijing Zoo. I’ve heard from more than a few expats here that it’s a fairly depressing place by Western standards (there was once a time when pellet guns could be purchased to goad sleeping animals), and that’s fairly accurate, but I’m glad I went. Like many zoos, most of the animals weren’t too happy to be pent up. At the same time, however, the zoo didn’t go out of its way to make this any better. The pandas in particular were particularly unhappy, and many other animals were pacing/pawing at doors/grates in pens/cages that were far too small. It didn’t help that many of the Chinese visitors would pound on the glass and/or throw objects, usually food, into the pens. Only the zebras didn’t seem to mind, they were quite fond of popcorn. And while this happens at American zoos it is at least discouraged, here the staff—if they were even present—didn’t do much to stop the behavior. So my trip to the zoo, like so many excursions, offered more insight on Chinese people than the animals themselves.
The next day I had a Chinese test in the morning, followed by a group picture and our final Chinese table—lunch in which we are required to speak only Chinese (I don’t speak much, but the food is free). After that I went to the train station with three other students in my program to catch a high speed train to Xi’an. Xi’an was China’s first capital under the Qin dynasty in 221 BCE—the first dynasty to unite China under one ruler. It served as the capital for several successive dynasties until 904, towards the end of the Tang dynasty. As the center of power shifted away, Xi’an’s population and wealth declined. Today’s old city is bounded by Ming dynasty walls that were built in 1370 and are largely still intact, but are considerably smaller than those of the Tang dynasty. And as an eastern terminus of the Silk Road, Xi’an hosts a sizable Muslim population, evidenced by the bustling Muslim Quarter in the old city. As you might imagine, the city and surrounding area have a rich history. The hills around Xi’an are dotted with Buddhist and Daoist temples, the tombs of myriad emperors from several dynasties, and of course, the famous Terracotta Warriors—which protect the mausoleum of China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang. We saw only a fraction of this in the two and half days we were there, but it was a trip I will remember for years.
A five hour train ride put us in Xi’an in the late afternoon on Friday. China’s new rail infrastructure is really something—the same distance (~1,000 miles) by train in the United States would have taken at least twice as long. The new high speed train station is far from the city center, so by the time we got off the subway and started walking toward our hotel it was closer to 7:00. The weather was a bit warmer than Beijing but still very dry. We got off one stop too far from the hotel (courtesy of me) and had to walk north for a bit longer than planned. But it was the first of many delightful unplanned excursions, as you will see. Our hotel—which was insanely cheap for the quality we got, that is, by American standards—was located in the southeastern quadrant of the old city within walking distance of the subway and some major landmarks. After walking through the old city walls at the south gate, we walked past a series of alleyways and mostly closed shops on our way to the hotel, but did manage to find dinner along the way, and finally arriving around 9:00.
|The South Gate|
Getting an early start the next day, we walked back toward the south gate to rent bikes atop the city walls. Along the way we witnessed what I have come to consider quintessential China—the same shops and alleyways that were still the night before had come to life and were bustling with all manner of activities. Older adults doing Tai Chi, street vendors peddling a menagerie of goods and services, among them haircuts and the Chinese equivalent of cheese poofs—made out of the back of a truck (see pictures). When we did finally get to the south gate it was around 9:45. Unlike Beijing, Xi’an’s city walls are almost entirely intact, and those sections that were in disrepair have been restored in recent years such that it is possible to traverse the entire perimeter. Bikes are rented from each of the four gates for a reasonable fee, and we had a little less than two hours to bike around the wall.
|They're tastier than they look|
|Brushing your teeth on the street|
It was a little cold and breezy at first, but that soon dissipated once we started moving. The larger problem for me, though, was the smog. I was expecting Xi’an to be less polluted than Beijing but that was far from true. Indeed, the entire train ride there, though it was mostly through rural areas, was one smog-filled scene after another. Xi’an was no better than Beijing, even though it only has 6 million people to Beijing’s 30 million (New York has about 8 million, think on that!). Biking for almost two hours was enough to make my chest ache for another two afterward, and I was blowing black snot out of my nose for the rest of the day, not fun. But the bike ride was lovely. The walls are quite bumpy, but at over six centuries old that’s par for the course. Many of the watchtowers and gates have been restored, but there are few original ones still intact. The view of the bustling urban scene below was sublime from such an anachronistic vantage—I never expected to be biking on top of medieval fortifications in China!
|The South Gate being reconstructed|
|The West Gate, where the Silk Road once began|
|A Buddhist temple|
|Part of the city moat|
|Panorama from the northwest corner|
|Buses just inside the North Gate|
When we descended the walls it was about noon, so we hopped the subway back to the train station to catch a bus to the Terracotta Warriors museum, which is about an hour east of Xi’an proper. But there was a slight kink in the plan—Xi’an has two train stations, the new one for the high speed rail and the older one that’s much closer to the city center. Again, courtesy of me, we ended up at the new one, but the buses to the Terracotta Warriors left from the old station. It’s frustrating trying to navigate a city when you don’t speak the language, which contributed greatly to my confusion—this wouldn’t happen to me in the States. But my friends—who all speak Chinese much better than I—didn’t seem to mind much as we made our way to the correct train station. When this misadventure was finished with—though I will say the bus ride to the old train station was entertaining—we reached the Terracotta Warriors museum around 3:15. The parking lot itself is about a ten minute walk from the actual museum, which covers a substantial area itself.
The museum is constructed around three pits that have been excavated since 1974, when the Terracotta Warriors were first discovered. Pits 1 and 2 are the largest and contain the most statues; pit 3 is much smaller and contains far fewer terracotta figures. The army itself was buried in 210 BC 1 mile to the east of Qin Shi Huang’s tomb to protect the emperor in the afterlife. It is thought that there are more soldiers in the surrounding area, but archaeologists haven’t excavated them because they cannot properly preserve the statues at present. Those figures that have been uncovered were once painted, but when they were exposed to air for the first time in millennia this peeled away in seconds. That aside, what has already been excavated is remarkable—to think that there’s more to be found is astounding.
We began our tour at pit 3, which is thought to be the command pit as it contains many high ranking officers and generals. The base of the excavated area is about twenty feet below ground level and its shape is highly irregular. I say its entire area would encompass an average sized American home. Very few of the figures themselves were intact, and many were literally in pieces in the surrounding dirt—I presume the result of various seismic events that have occurred in the years since the warriors were buried, or more likely from looting. Pit 2 was considerably larger but only partially excavated. It contained a mix of infantry, cavalry, and war chariots, but like pit 3, many of these statues were in shambles. It also appeared that many rows of soldiers were deliberately left unexcavated, so there wasn’t much to see besides mostly broken statues. There were very likely concrete answers for my speculations here, but we raced through the museum very quickly so that we could see Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s mausoleum before sunset.
Pit 1 was the largest and most extensively excavated of the pits, and it contained many, many intact soldiers assembled in neat rows that stretch back for a few hundred feet. Seeing all of this was literally stunning—it’s hard to put into words how amazing it is to see all of this up close. Each statue, even from a distance, is visibly unique from all the rest, right down to individual facial features. Armor, helmets, and weapons are all individualized with every terracotta figure—and there are thousands of them. When the shock and awe subsides the whole thing is a bit eerie too, but that may just be me. The statues are very lifelike—if they were still painted I really think they could pass, momentarily, for real soldiers.
|Model of the Terracotta Warrior's location (the cluster of buildings on the left) in relation to the tomb (the pyramid on the right).|
After finishing our tour of the final pit, we raced to Qin Shi Huang’s tomb. It was only accessible by bus, but was only two minutes away. The entire mausoleum complex is absurdly large and it looks more like a large park at first glance. The mausoleum itself is a large earthen pyramid, about 200 feet high at its summit. The surrounding areas are flat and expansive, but extensively landscaped. Apparently, there are many pits surrounding the mausoleum that contain objects the emperor wished to take with him to the afterlife. Some have been excavated or looted. The mausoleum, however, remains unopened to this day. What’s inside remains a mystery. From contemporary accounts, Qin Shi Huang was a man who was consumed by a quest for immortality and preoccupied with his own afterlife should he not find a way to live forever. Ironically, China’s first emperor died from mercury poisoning when he was only in his mid-forties. He consumed mercury regularly believing it would allow him to live forever. His mausoleum is thought to be a sprawling necropolis that is a replica of his imperial palace, with all the objects—and people—he would need in the afterlife. The mausoleum took decades to construct and was begun when Qin Shi Huang became king at age 13. Over 700,000 laborers worked on the project, and they are all said to have been buried here after its completion so as to keep the secrets of the tomb that way. Historical accounts also state that the tomb contains flowing rivers of mercury, among other things. Soil testing around the earthen pyramid substantiates this claim, as the mercury levels here are 25 times higher than the naturally occurring rate. But the tomb has never been excavated for fear of damaging its contents, so there’s no way of knowing precisely what’s inside.
There wasn’t much time to walk around the entire mausoleum complex, but we did have enough time to explore the burial mound. As one approaches it, the whole thing just looks like a big, overgrown hill. Indeed, it does not appear maintained or landscaped in any way. But getting closer it definitely looks man made. When I got to the base of the pyramid, I noticed what looked to be an overgrown path leading to the top. If left to my own devices I probably would’ve left it at that—the whole area was really weird, in a spooky way (call me crazy)—but my traveling companions had other ideas and shortly thereafter we were at the top of Qin Shi Huang’s burial mound. The climb up wasn’t steep but was irregular, and there was a ruinous brick stairway that was sometimes more hazard than help along the way. We stumbled upon the partially intact torso of a terracotta warrior that looked as though it belonged in one of the pits we had just visited. The view from the top was mostly obscured by foliage, even in December, and what I could make out in the distance was thoroughly smog choked, so the few pictures I have aren’t that great. Copious litter made it clear that the summit platform had been visited many times before, and there were a few well-worn paths leading down in other directions. So while this was probably not supposed to be part of the tour, and there were signs saying “no climbing,” we were not the first, nor the last, to climb the pyramid—and I’m happy to say I was there (besides, so many rules in China are optional anyway). But I do wish there was a way to know what precisely I was standing upon—rivers of mercury, 700,000 laborers who were buried alive, a sprawling underground necropolis?
|Emperor Qin Shi Huang's tomb|
|The entrance to the path we climbed to the top of the mausoleum|
|A plaque of some sort on top of the burial mound|
|The smoggy view from atop Qin Shi Huang's mausoleum|
By the time we clambered down the hill and back onto the bus it was very much nighttime, and we returned to Xi’an around 7:00. From the old train station, which is just to the north of the old city walls, we walked a short distance west to the north gate, then into the old city towards the Muslim Quarter for dinner. After a long day with lots of walking, we ended up grazing along the way from various street food vendors. We also happened upon the Bell and Drum towers, which served the same purpose as those in Beijing. The Bell tower is marooned on a large traffic circle that is now the center of the old city, the Drum tower stands just to the west near the Muslim Quarter. The Muslim Quarter itself is just off one of the main avenues and is quite large, though we only saw a fraction of it. The narrow street we turned down was lined, stuffed really, with food vendors and shops of all sorts—the picture I have doesn’t do it justice. All manner of sights, smells, and sounds—most of them utterly foreign, even after three months in China—filled the atmosphere in a simultaneously overwhelming and endearing cacophony that I am hard pressed to fully describe. After I don’t know how long, we found a traditional soup restaurant (traditional according to the guidebook) in which patrons rip up flat bread, then the cooks mix it in with beef soup. It sounds odd but was actually very tasty—just perfect after a long, chilly day. And the atmosphere—eating on a cheap table on the street, the noisy, charmingly chaotic street—was something I will remember for a long while. Though that doesn’t quite impart the fullness of the moment, I know. By the time we returned to our hotel, which was a good thirty minutes away on foot, it was nearly 11:00 and we were all totally wiped, I certainly slept well.
Sunday was equally full of adventures, misadventures, and more than a few moments of sheer frustration. The plan for the day was to venture early out of the city to Hua Shan (Mount Hua), a famous mountain outside of Xi’an that is sacred in Daoism and famous throughout China, then return to Xi’an and return to Beijing on the 6:00 train. We rose early and ended up waiting half an hour longer than we expected for breakfast at the hotel (which was not served on time, again), then walked half an hour north to the old train station to catch a bus to Hua Shan. By the time we got to the train station, boarded the bus, and departed for Xi’an, it was 9:00—an hour later than we had planned. That often happens in China, plans don’t work because of extenuating circumstances, so you change the plan five times along the way. Now remember this for later, nowhere was the bus schedule displayed, nor could any of the attendants near the bus tell us—we just knew the buses ran regularly. Two hours later we arrived at the base of Hua Shan—though with the smog (or fog, as I say to comfort my lungs) you wouldn’t have known the mountain was over a mile high and just ahead of us.
Unfortunately there wasn’t nearly enough time to actually hike the mountain as we had hoped—that would have taken time and equipment we simply didn’t have. But there were buses that ran further up the mountain to an Austrian-built cable car that ran to the summit. Hua Shan actually has five peaks, all over 6,000 feet. The cable car—which wasn’t exactly cheap—ran to the North Peak, which is the shortest of the five summits. The eight minute ride to the top was spectacular. I wish I could’ve hiked it, but another time perhaps. Bare rock and scraggly vegetation rapidly gave way to lots of bare rock, snow and ice as we ascended. After reaching the top, we climbed briefly up some very steep stairs to reach the North Peak. The temperature, with the wind chill, was easily in the high teens or low twenties, for which I was not dressed—but it didn’t matter, the view more than made up for my numb extremities. Hua Shan has been inhabited by Daoist monks since the 2nd century BCE, and they have maintained temples and shrines on and around the mountain since. I couldn’t tell you why it is one of the five sacred mountains of Daoism, but it clearly has religious significance. We encountered several Daoist shrines and what I would classify as a small temple clinging to the top of the mountain amidst howling winds.
After about 90 minutes walking around we had to turn back, as the descent would take at least an hour. By 2:15 we had boarded the bus, which was sitting without its driver in the parking lot. It was the correct bus, according to the sign display in the front window, and the few people on board said they were going to Xi’an, but why was there no driver? After waiting for 45 minutes we departed promptly at 3:00. I have since inferred that the buses run on the hour, but it would have been nice to know that for the purposes of planning. We got back to the old Xi’an train station at 4:45, but had to travel south to our hotel to recover our bags, then back north to the new train station to catch our 6:00 train to Beijing. After ten minutes trying to find a cab driver who knew where the hotel was and was willing to take foreigners (many drivers will ignore you if you’re not Chinese, oh and there’s no subway at the old train station), we found a driver who would take the four of us. With traffic being a constant problem, we finally got to the hotel at 5:20, grabbed our stuff, jumped back in the cab, and sped off for the new train station. Since you probably already know where this is going, we missed the train—the last train of the night to Beijing—by ten minutes. But the cab driver ran many a light and really did gun it in an attempt to get us there on time.
Surprisingly, we were able to get tickets on the first train the next morning for no extra cost—since the fare was the same and we had already paid. And the concierge at the train station found a cheap hotel for us in the city. We would all miss Chinese class the following morning, the thought of which I could hardly bear. So after an extended stay in the train station for dinner we headed for the hotel—the station closed at 9:00 (there was brief talk of sleeping in the station overnight). Four subway stops later, we found the hotel and checked in around 10:00. We only booked one room to save money, something the clerks at the front desk couldn’t fathom—really too funny. But three of us fit on the bed and one on the desk, so it worked for a night. And we were up early the next day anyway so it didn’t really matter. And while the whole thing wouldn’t have happened if the bus schedule had only been displayed, I found the circumstances rather amusing more than anything—only in China. Thank God we had each other though—being alone would’ve been really lousy—that made everything seem better. The next morning we returned to the new train station (now for the third day in a row mind you), boarded the train, and returned to Beijing by early afternoon, exhausted but relieved.
My last full week in China was really, really busy, primarily because of schoolwork. Because I’d spent the previous weekend (and part of Monday) in Xi’an, I had very little time to finish two final papers for my English elective classes. Neither was particularly difficult, about on par with the nature of study abroad academics (easy), but they did require some synthesis and time. I finished both just before the deadline and they came out well, but at this point I’ve had six weeks of late nights and very little sleep—which wouldn’t happen if I didn’t spend so much time traveling—and I’m looking forward to a short break. My Chinese final, however, was very time consuming. The oral exam—only thirty minutes—was given on Thursday, that was easy, just some memorization. The written exam on Friday was much more involved. It wasn’t as bad as three-hour finals in high school or the SAT, but I spent a lot of time preparing and I actually think it wasn’t so bad. Final grades still haven’t been posted so I don’t know that for sure, but having had some really abominable Chinese tests I think this one turned out alright. Even if that’s totally wrong, I’m done with Chinese and that’s reason enough to be happy. At this point I know enough “survival Chinese” to come back to China on my own in the next five years, which I would very much like to do, but with respect to my career goals it makes little sense to invest six to eight years to become fluent. I’m not planning on working for the State Department and I don’t see Chinese helping me much at home. So for my purposes what I know is enough—and that I learned as much as I did in such a short time continues to surprise me.
I did have time during the week to make a short afternoon trip to the Ming city walls ruins park, which is located near the Beijing train station in southeast part of the old city. This was one of the last things on my list to see in the city. Beijing’s city walls, which were first constructed during the Ming dynasty (c. late 14th-early 15th centuries) were central to the city’s basic design. They were pulled down during the 1950s and early 1960s by an ideologically motivated Chairman Mao, who sought to modernize and sweep away old China. The loss today is tragic, as the walls were a fundamental part of Beijing’s identity and form. Today’s city has several concentric ring roads that facilitate (sometimes impede) the flow of traffic, the second ring road follows the path of the outer city walls, as does line 2 of the Beijing Subway. But there are a few remnants of these ramparts scattered about the old city. The park I visited is one of the larger sections left intact. The section was part of the inner city walls, which separated the Manchu are of the city (the Qing dynasty was Manchurian, not Chinese), including the Forbidden City, from the outer city which was predominantly Han Chinese. Today, the section of wall is partially in ruins, but a small park runs along the southern side of the ramparts and the southeast corner watchtower is still intact. On the north side of the wall is the Beijing Railway Station. A short segment of the wall including the tower is accessible to the public, offering surprisingly good views of the surrounding area. The watchtower contains a small museum about the history of Beijing’s historic fortifications. Xi’an’s walls, though they are intact, are much smaller than Beijing’s ever were—it’s hard to imagine the city with such defenses today.
|Satellite image of Beijing with the location of the old city walls drawn in green and several sights labeled in red. The park I visited was just south of Beijing Station.|
|The translator doesn't know his consonants too well|
|Southeast corner watchtower|
|The interior of the watchtower|
On Saturday I spent the afternoon exploring the Old Summer Palace, or Yuanmingyuan, the last thing on my list of places to see in Beijing. Yuanmingyuan was constructed in the 18th and 19th centuries by multiple emperors during the Qing dynasty and was arguably one of the grandest and most lavish palace complexes ever built. Nearly all of it was razed in 1860 by British and French troops during the Second Opium War, a slight still remembered well by Chinese today. The Summer Palace that I visited earlier this fall was principally built in the 19th century just to the west and became the primary retreat of the Qing emperors after the destruction Yuanmingyuan. But it pales in comparison to the former grandness of Yuanmingyuan. Much of the palace complex was constructed using wood, meaning nearly all of it burned to the ground in 1860. A few Jesuit-built stone structures remain at the northern edge of the palace, themselves in shambles after the Anglo-French invasion.
|Map of Yuanmingyuan, courtesy of Wikipedia|
Yuanmingyuan is divided into three great gardens, which are largely centered around lakes and ponds of varying size. I purchased a map at the entrance near the subway station that displayed the locations of now razed structures, which made navigation challenging because none of these exist. Essentially it is large park today, with a handful of stone ruins—usually bridges—serving as reminders of former greatness. A few buildings near the southern entrance have been restored, but mostly it is beautifully landscaped open space. I began in the southernmost garden, the Elegant Spring Garden, which is the smallest of the three, containing some restored structures. Then I walked north and west through the largest of the gardens, the Garden of Perfect Brightness, which features Fuhai Lake, the largest body of water in the complex.
|The remains of a stone bridge, there were over 200 in Yuanmingyuan before the Anglo-French invasion|
|Some reconstructed buildings|
After circuiting the lake, I headed east to the northern edge of the palace to see the ruins of the European-style palaces. These were built by the Qianlong Emperor, one of the last powerful Qing emperors, akin to France’s Louis XIV or England’s George III, in the 18th century with the aide of Jesuit missionaries. The Qianlong Emperor reigned for just over sixty years and had much influence over the construction of Yuanmingyuan. The European-style palaces included large fountains, a small mosque, and a stone labyrinth with a small pavilion at its center. Most of the treasures at Yuanmingyuan were sent back to England and France after its looting in 1860 and have only been partially recovered by China since, so besides stone ruins there’s not much to see in that area of the palace. Running short on daylight (and heat, it was frigid) I headed south to the exit through the Garden of Eternal Spring and then again the Elegant Spring Garden. I probably covered about 10 miles on foot by the end of the day, seeing only a fraction of the 860 acre complex (though I took 250 pictures). As you will see in the pictures, after about an hour, with the exception of the Jesuit-built palaces, it all starts to look the same. There aren’t any buildings to see, just evidence of once great foundations and wonderful landscaping. So in some ways you could say it was just an extended walk in the park on a frigid day, though there’s more history in Yuanmingyuan than the average park.
|Panorama of Fuhai Lake|
|The buildings of the "new" summer palace is visible the distance in this picture|
|Remains of the the 17-arch bridge|
|The ruins of what was a large water fountain|
This last trip marked the end of a long week, in a series of long weeks, and I’ve spent my last few days preparing to come home, tying up loose ends, etc. On Friday we had our end of semester banquet at a hotel near campus—ironically half the food served was Western. Our professors, Chinese teachers, and most roommates were there. Following some (nearly) final goodbyes and a nice meal we received graduation certificates and copies of our group photo taken the week before. It was difficult to fathom that less than four months before I knew none of these people when I have come to know so many of them well. You could say the same about the first semester at college, but under those circumstances you’re going to see everyone again after the end of term. But in this case I’m going to keep in touch with many friends here but I’m not sure if or when I will see them again—which is really weird to consider, that sort of change is much harder to forecast.
At the same time I have mixed feelings about returning home, though as I get closer to departure I take some comfort in knowing I’ll soon be back. On the one hand, being in China is like being on vacation from my life—few responsibilities, lots of fun, and the chance to explore a country that is so radically different than the United States—it’s a completely different reality here. I am fortunate in that I have many wonderful things to return to, but personally I’d rather explore China more than return to what I already know so well. I’ll try to return to China in the near future when I can travel light and only as a tourist with no academic responsibilities.
Not surprisingly, there are many big and little things I will miss about China—and just as many that I won’t. The lack of personal space has actually grown on me, solely for the reason that getting around the city is simply easier when it’s socially acceptable to walk on top of people. Being able to have conversations in English with my American friends in public about subjects that would normally be off limits at home has grown on me. Amazing public transportation is simply wonderful. The cheapness of nearly everything here is also a real treat, thanks to a six to one exchange rate. Food is almost better than what we have at home—but I miss good bagels and pizza—and I’ll never be satisfied with American Chinese food again. Just about everything is considered edible here, as I’ve mentioned before, from jellyfish to chicken feet and everything in between—and you’d be surprised how tasty all of these can be. I certainly won’t miss the persistent smog that constantly puts a damper on outdoor activities. And of course, the little things that you don’t miss until they aren’t there: laundry machines that eat your clothes, a broken dryer, horrible, horrible internet access, the maid service (yes, the maid service)—I can clean up after myself thank-you, being leered at everywhere I go (staring is socially acceptable), omnipresent uncomfortable furniture that makes the limbs go numb, tap water that isn’t safe to drink unless boiled, having random people take pictures of you furtively because you’re a foreigner (I actually think I’d mind less if they’d just ask), and so on.
As I get closer to leaving my tolerance for the annoying little things has evaporated, which must mean that part of me really wants to leave (?). And I know I’ll be happy to return home and pick up where I left off. I have a promising semester in DC to look forward to with an internship on the Hill. Furthermore I take deep satisfaction in the knowledge that I have gained more from four months in China than I could ever have imagined. I’m not a Sinophile, but I came to Beijing to understand what makes this country tick because I know that whatever the future holds, the U.S.-China relationship will continue to be the most important bilateral tie we have, and getting a handle on that will be valuable in whatever career I choose to pursue. Having lived here for four months I can safely say I have accomplished that goal and more.
Seeing Beijing inside and out and traveling to Shanghai, Hangzhou, Xi’an, and Tianjin has shown me that China is as, if not more diverse than the United States with a deep and rich cultural heritage. And while I think it would take a lifetime of study to claim a fundamental understanding of China, I have a grasp of the deep divisions that underlie Chinese society, the existential obsession with harmony and pathological fear of chaos that drives the ruling regime’s every decision, the significant problems that China faces in coming decades, and I think most importantly, the pervasive ad hocness that undergirds every aspect of Chinese society from the ground up—which explains everything from how Chinese people drive to President Xi Jinping’s foreign policy. Decisions here are made for today and maybe tomorrow, but almost never any further. Having lived with a Chinese roommate and made several Chinese friends has driven that fact home for me, but has also demonstrated that there is more common ground between the average Chinese and American than you might think. And I am very much looking forward to putting that understanding to use in future classes, internships, and jobs.
Final pollution and Chinglish photos are below.
|Monday, November 25, 2013|
|Tuesday, November 26, 2013|
|Thursday, November 28, 2013|
|Friday, November 29, 2013|
|Saturday, November 30, 2013|
|Monday, December 2, 2013|
|Tuesday, December 3, 2013|
|Wednesday, December 4, 2013|
|Thursday, December 5, 2013|
|Tuesday, December 10, 2013|
|Wednesday, December 11, 2013|
|Thursday, December 12, 2013|
|Friday, December 13, 2013|
|Sunday, December 15, 2013|
|The Overlordporridge was really great|
|Outside a hair salon in Xi'an|
|I don't want to know why this sign is even here|