Xi’an: The Song of Everlasting Sorrow

10882176_10154935904655405_3960091212494479929_nChristmas was wonderful. Eve began with some ferocious mince-pie making, which turned into a bit of a pastry disaster but everyone was very polite about it. In the evening I joined the American teachers from across the city for a Mexican feast and an evening time midnight mass. The next day, I opened the presents that had been patiently waiting under the tree from my mum, and was overjoyed with the Christmas jumper inside. I wore it all day and after explaining what Christmas crackers, and thus Christmas paper hats, are, everyone could join in the delight of my festive knitwear as we went for burgers the size of human faces. It was a lovely day, and I felt super lucky to be sharing it with two of my best friends in China, who in a few weeks will be leaving me forever 😦 I know that this is the nature of the beast, but I don’t know why we can’t just live in a world of unicorns and candyfloss.

Quickly after Christmas I took flight and landed in Xi’an, most famous in the West as the home of the Terracotta Warriors. A small tea spillage on my return rendered my keyboard useless for a few days, and I was devastated not only to have to shell out for another one (with keys in the wrong place) but also because half a cup of my prized nectar Yorkshire Tea had gone to waste.

I’ve travelled far but not wide. I came here because I wanted to see things. But even on the other side of the planet we have to work for our keep and it’s easy to be drawn into the mundane details of routine and daily life. Travelling necessitates earning some money, and it’s in my nature to make an effort when someone is paying me money, and so even though teaching truthfully wasn’t the main pull for me, I still like to work hard and give all I can to what is actually a very demanding job. The demands of the job coupled with government-scheduled holiday times sadly mean that I’ve not actually seen much of China. I can boast Wuhan – a rapidly developing city; Beijing; Shenyang – good for a day trip to IKEA amongst I’m sure a wealth of other attractions; Shanghai domestic terminal – a depressing rest stop at the back end of a 3 leg journey mostly spent weeping at the thought of leaving home all over again. This winter, my last in China for now, I want to spend seeing some more of this fascinating country.

China is undergoing the biggest migration in human history, as countryfolk leave their families to find factory and construction work in the cities. Add to this the fact that Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) is the most important and most family orientated holiday in the calendar, and the fact that vacation times are government-scheduled, and what we’re left with is a miasma of planes, trains and automobiles packed to the brim with tens of millions of students, workers and families trying to cross thousands of miles to get home for the same precious few days. It’s estimated that around 3.6 billions trips are made by Chinese migrants during this time. As my holiday coincides with that of every other person in China, it’s difficult to avoid this entirely unless you’re happy to live in Harbin, cold and alone, and cold, and quite alone, for the entire winter. But with a spare week between Christmas and my exams, I decided to jet off to Xi’an (pronounced She-an) for a few days. One of my students here in Harbin has an old classmate who studies in Xi’an who’s keen to improve her English. A more perfect combination you couldn’t imagine. I suggested we meet in Starbucks, have a chat and maybe I can pick up some insider tips for how to navigate this ancient city. She went 10 better and created a detailed itinerary and came with me almost everywhere! When I was alone I wandered around the maze of alleys and stalls in the Muslim Quarter, an old section of the city tucked away behind shopping malls, the walls adorned with Chinese architecture and Arabic script. This area is famed for its food – Muslim food can always be relied upon to be a safe choice in China, and here is was also the tastiest.

I arrived at my hostel at about midnight, thinking nothing of the empty hallways and deserted common rooms. Two of the 8 beds in my dorm were clearly occupied by boys, judging by the hastily abandoned quilts and the pairs of boxing shorts airing out on hangers around the room. They weren’t in, which made me think that a) they were party animals, or b) they’d been kidnapped. I didn’t dwell though, and went to bed thinking I’d meet them in the morning. I’m aware that I talk in my sleep, and I always seem to to the falling-off-a-cliff hypnagogig sleep jolt whenever there are other people in the room, and if I stop and think about it, it’s a bit weird. But I’m over it now – whilst my temporary cohabitors are getting freaked out, I’m having a nice dream about sailboats or characters from Wind in the Willows. The next morning I awoke and left early, walking the couple of miles to the centre of the city. Xi’an is a multi-ethnic city, with tourists from abroad and all around China flocking to drink up its history and take selfies infront of warriors. It was home to ten of China’s ancient dynasties from the Qin dynasty in 221BC up to the end of the Tang dynasty in 690AD. It was home to China’s only female Emperess, Wu Ze Tian, the Terracotta Warriors and the largest in-tact city-walls in the world. It’s a city that lends itself to tourists well in that the entire thing is made of perpendicular lines. When locals give directions, they’ll tell you to go “north for 20m, then west, west again, north, then east.” It makes for a legible tourist map if nothing else, and as most things including my hostel were within the city walls, a nice feeling that one can’t walk too far in the wrong direction without hitting a brick wall.

I met my guide and we hit the Muslim Quarter first. Through the maze of streets, the sounds sizzling onions, hawkers bargaining, food vendors squeezing pomegranates and the repetitive thwack of mallet on barrel as they go about some traditional process that requires dough and a manly show of strength thrum through the air. This is street food at its best; not just overpriced weird stuff on sticks for the benefit of tourists, but authentic Northwestern cuisine that’s actually eaten by the locals every day. One Shaanxi (the province that Xi’an is in) delicacy that has to be tried is Yang Rou Pao Mo (steamed bread soaked in lamb stew). The process begins when you pay and are handed a bowl with two dense, undercooked naan breads. You should use your fingertips to finely tear apart the bread, until you have a bowl of breadcrumbs, each no bigger a rice crispie. You then return this to the kitchen, where it’s filled with lamb broth, rice noodles and lamb. Once I overcame my initial feeling that it looked like something scraped up from the street after the night before, it was actually delicious. Although many people use a machine to tear the bread these days, some will still sit for hours gossiping with friends as they tear bread for their families’ dinners. After half of the bowl I was stuffed (hao chi), but this didn’t stop us from sampling half a dozen other bits and pieces. I came back here a few times during the week, just to wander the streets and take in the atmosphere.

On New Years Eve during wander around the Muslim Quarter I came across a little folk house, tucked away between an unassuming little gap between two little restaurants. It opened up into a big courtyard, and turns out it was the city home of someone famous. I wasn’t very interested in the house, but in a small shabby building at the back (a traditional Chinese house/palace was always a series of outhouses that you’d have to run between, presumably hoping not to drop the towel in between) an old man with no teeth was perched on a spindly chair drinking from a thermos flask. He beckoned me in, calling a few others inside too. He was a shadow puppet master, and he looked delighted to have a small audience. After demonstrating his skills with some traditional instruments, he darted behind a white screen and flicked a light. Suddenly we were in darkness, and the battle cries of Journey to the West echo around the room and his puppets danced with perfect precision. I don’t know the story and I couldn’t understand the heavily accented Chinese, but the music and the craft and the old man’s warm passion in this cold little building made it an unforgettable little surprise.

Shadow puppet theatre started up over 2000 years ago, when Emperor Wu’s favourite concubine died. So heartbroken was the Emperor that he locked himself away in his room and wallowed, letting his empire fall to ruins. The top minister (a eunuch, standard) saw his master’s sorrow. He saw some children making shadows from the light of the sun, and this gave him an idea. From paper thin cow’s skin he created the moving silhouette of the Emperor’s beloved, painting in every details to form the beauty his master so longed for. He invited Emperor Wu to sit before the setting sun and as he watched his beloved come to life once more, the life came back into his eyes. He restored his country, and since then shadow puppets have been an important part of entertainment, oral tradition and culture of the Northwest.

New Years Eve was nice. I sat in one of the common rooms half reading my book and waiting to hear signs of life that I could ambush, and at around 11, I heard voices coming from the dimly lit restaurant. I went in, bought a Bailey’s, leaned against the bar breathing smoke circles from between rouged lips (it seemed right to add an element of 1940’s hardboiled noir to the scene) and surveyed the room. Four distinctly traveller looking people awkwardly sat around a laminated top table, all on their phones but one who was eagerly felt-tipping away on a piece of paper. On the other side was a middle aged woman with a younger man and woman. Running the risk of interrupting an introductory menage-et-trois, I sidled over and asked if I could join them. Happily it was no such arrangement, but rather mother, daughter and daughter’s boyfriend. The mum had decided to do something out of her comfort zone for her 60th birthday, and the other two looked a bit bohemian so they’d come for the ride. They welcomed me and told me their stories, everything lubricated with gin and merriment as the clock inched towards midnight. The others moved over to our table and at 12.00am we linked up and sang Auld Lang Syne (mostly me, the mother & daughter). Turns out they don’t sing it in Spain, Germany or Australia. In Spain they have another important tradition. At 11.55pm, a Spanish guy practically fell into the room clutching three small punnets, exclaiming “Encontrado uvas!!” (I found grapes!!). The Spanish were graceful and allowed us to sing first at midnight, but as soon we unlinked they were youtubing a video of a clock striking twelve. They sat on the edge of their seats, staring at the screen. At every chime, in popped a grape. Chime. Grape in. Chew. Swallow. Chime. Grape in. Chew Swallow. Chime. Grape in. Chew. Swallow. This goes on for 12 seconds, and by the end, eyes were popping, faces turning blue, I was trying hard to unfog the instructions I’d received back in my Emergency First Aid course about how to stop a Spaniard from choking at midnight. But all was fine; this is an annual tradition and so they were well practiced and recovered quickly. I was happy to have found some good company to see in the New Year, and happier still that for the first time in at least a decade, I’d been able to do so in the same building as my bed.

The next and final day was a trip to see the Terracotta Warriors. I was supposed to meet Emerald at the bus stop near one set of City Wall gates, but with it being quite a large wall, and me not being able to read much Chinese, I walked to the wrong gate. To head to a more southern gate, I took a path that ran alongside the Wall, with a small river running between the two. Getting the gate wrong was a stroke of fortune, because I spent 20 minutes walking through the prettiest, most serene Chinese gardens I’ve ever seen. The dawn was crisp and fresh, and I weaved my way along the footpath, between rockeries and flower beds and tall bamboo hedges and the river. On a raised path, some old men were practicing their Tai Chi to the sounds of traditional Chinese music. Further along, a woman was slowly pacing up and down, her small lungs belting out an indecipherable song that trickled down into my ears. Further still, groups of old people pruning their gardens, meeting with friends and getting in their morning exercise. The effect of the Shaanxi government’s paying to enhance the Wall’s surrounding area into a traditional bite of China has worked; instead of the often garish and indulgent replicas installed to attract tourists, this is an authentic, working little oasis in the shadow of the imposing wall. Sorry, no pictures, it felt too obtrusive and touristy and my hands were chilly.

There isn’t much to say about the Terracotta Warriors that you don’t already know. I’m pleased I went, in that I can say I went, but if you’ve seen a few pictures of the warriors on the internet you’ve pretty much seen them. We got to the huge bus station and I swear I’ve never been in such a huge crowd of people. We found one of the many queues for the Warriors, and got to the back. At this point I noticed that the girl with her hood up had been stood by me for over 15 minutes, keeping within a metre of me at all times, brazenly holding my eye contact when I looked at her. Halfway up the long three-deep queue, with her standing to my left, I was feeling really uncomfortable and a bit worried I was about to be mugged or stabbed. I clutched my bag to my chest, hoping to prevent both mugging and stabbing, and I moved over to the other side of the queue, away from her. Two minutes later, she’d shuffled all the way round the back and was right beside me again. It was like something out of a horror film. If I should have been flattered that I must have looked to be the best option for lifting gold and jewels that she’d stuck by me for so long, I didn’t feel it. Eventually she gave up and was replaced by the more loveable jade sellers, crooked old ladies who grab you and try to force bracelets over your hands that you then have to buy.

We got on the bus after a while and decided to hop off at Hua Qin, an ancient palace at the foot of Lishan mountain built during the Western Zhou (pronounced Joe) dynasty of 1100-600BC. Today it’s most famous as the setting of the love between Emperor Xuanzong (685-762 AD) and his beloved concubine Yang Gui Fei. During the Tang dynasty, China became incredibly open, trading with countries around the world, art and literature flourishing, and with this shift in mental attitude came the opening up of women’s rights. To this day it was the first and only period that has allowed a female leader. Women came out from behind their men, and it was acknowledged that women have the ability to wield great power. Amongst this comes the rise of the romantic legend, and the love between Emperor Xuanzong and his concubine Yang Gui Fei. So mythologised is she, she’s now one of the iconic ‘Four Beauties of Chinese Legend’. Of his hundreds of wives, Yang Gui Fei was Xuanzong’s greatest love. She was intelligent, witty, feisty, beautiful. One day her sister was brought to the court to become another of the Emperor’s wives. Burning with jealousy, Yang fled the palace and ran back to her father’s house in the country. The Emperor was heartbroken. He sent his men every day to convince her to return, and eventually she cut off her hair and sent it to him – an ancient symbol of marriage – to show she had forgiven him. She returned to the palace, and was treated like a goddess of the heavens. She had a particular penchant for lychees, and so the Emperor commanded a continuous conveyor belt of horses to trek to the south of the country, to the demise of several horses and men, to satisfy his love’s desires. One day, Yang’s brother, who was against the Emperor, planned an act of treason. The Emperor’s army hunted him down and killed him, and demanded that Yang be next. The Emperor was devastated, and the pair fled to the hills. It wasn’t long, however, before the marching of the soldiers was heard through the trees, and Yang knew she had no choice. If the Emperor refused to let the soldiers kill her, he would be seen as weakened, choosing his heart over his country, and worse, he’d lose face (an important concept to Chinese people even today). Yang knew this was no fate for her beloved, and so she tied a rope to a tree and let herself hang. This all happened in and around Xi’an, and the Hua Qin springs are now devoted to telling the the story of The Song of Everlasting Sorrow.

Back onto the bus and we reached the Warriors by mid-afternoon. We took a tour guide who sold herself on her impeccable English, and for a good price she detailed every inch of the place in English to me, and then again in Chinese to Emerald. However, through the cattle gate and it’s clear that she’s rattled off the same speech with little variation three times a day for the last 17 years she’s been a guide here. She goes into robot mode, her English so quick and so many syllables shaved off and in such a thick accent that I haven’t got a clue what she’s saying at least 70% of the time. I nod intently and laugh when her expectant pause tells me I should, then I read the signs when she’s not looking. We were shepherded around the 3 pits, ongoing excavation sites that tickled the Tony Robinson within me a little. None of the warriors were found intact, and so the ones you see have been glued back together and arranged in orderly rows. The magnitude of the project is enormous – it took 40 years to create the warriors part of the tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huang, and there are at least 6000 soldiers (all men – the women were buried closer to hand, inside the tomb with him, many of them still alive) and horses. Over subsequent decades, rival Emperors looted the pits and trashed the place like the naughty punk rockers they were. At some point in time, they ended up buried under mounds of earth and all trace of them vanished until a farmer in 1974 who was just getting on with his day digging a well when his shovel hit down on the greatest treasure chest in the world. The unlikely hero of this story now receives a healthy monthly stipend from the government and spends his day making appearances at the Warrior museum, where huge crowds flock around him to have their photo taken with him and an autograph. The tour guide took us to see him in the feeble hope we’d pay £20 for a signed book and DVD. He looked disinterested, so we left him to his adoring fans.

So that was my trip to Xi’an. I learned at the beginning of the week that I had to give an exam for two of my classes, a bit awkward given I was 2000km away. This has now been done though, and I’m spending my free time beavering away at the new courses for next semester. My next trip will begin on 22nd Jan, where a few of us will head off to Nanjing, which is famous for something but I haven’t had chance to google what that is yet.

I’m sorry no pictures right now. This is in no way related to my raging technophibia, just a red error message in an upload box that I’ll never understand


3 thoughts on “Xi’an: The Song of Everlasting Sorrow

  1. Thank you so much for writing that – I’ve just finished reading through to the end. I feel as if I’ve had a tiny taste of China at New Year. 🙂

    I’m so glad you came across the old man with the shadow puppets, and the traditional patch of land by the Wall – those are the kind of moments that move into your memory. It’s really hard with ‘must see’ things like the Terracotta Warriors, isn’t it? On the one hand, as you say, the internet photos tell you what you’re going to see, from every possible angle, but you never know whether there’ll be an extra layer of magic that doesn’t translate into photography. It’s always better to go and regret it than not to go and to be told, once you’re home and far away, that there was some tiny detail that would have changed your life forever. Which doesn’t help at that moment when you’ve suffered the queues and the tourist-herding that helps to push as many people as possible through an ‘experience’ and come to realise that the end of the rainbow isn’t all that it promised, nor anywhere near. Oh well. Your memory of the robotic delivery of your tourist guide’s English and the feeling you had when you noticed the hooded woman in the queue will all fuel future writing – your Terracotta Warrior dystopian thriller. 🙂


  2. Heather Hebco Owen, your story of the Terracotta Warriors (a potential new franchise for American soccer in San Francisco Chinatown?) reminds me of an exchange involving Prince Philip.

    He had emerged from a helicopter.

    Sir, how was your flight?
    Have you flown in a helicopter?
    Yes sir.
    It was like that.


  3. If Nanjing is the same as Nanking, it is the site of a massacre by the Japanese. I hope it’s peaceful when you go there.
    Unless you’re a committed Sinophile, Harbin is easily exotic enough for us spectators (readers) to marvel at. It’s a different world!


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