Wandering China

An East/West pulse of China's fourth rise from down under.

Wandering China Day 9: Huashan 华山

Spanking new train station at the north of Xi'An, situated near Xi'An's third ring, it is about thirty minutes away from the city centre. The fast rail from here to Huashan was only 30minutes. Comparatively, traditional rail and bus services typically take about 3 hours. Huashan is an important icon in the Chinese imagination. Much folklore and Chinese thought originated here, described by some travellers (read tourists) as one of the most dangerous to climb in the world. To the locals it's a piece of cake.

Happily in the cabin. They offer plenty of leg room and reclining seats. The train, like advertised travels around 300km/h, about 50 short of its top speed due to the fear that corruption had led to rail development that was potentially not up to full-operational-scratch.

The face of China's 21st century high-speed rail 中国高速铁路 - China currently holds about 1,000 patents for high speed rail technology. This bullet is but one of the many high-speed train models in China - the CRH2 train (2007-present, modified from a Japanese model like most of China's fast trains, today apart from the exterior shape, the Chinese design and build their own versions of this) which I also took from Shanghai to Hangzhou

At the foot of Huashan - about to take the cable car to ascend about 1,600m. Most visitors scale the mountain by steps carved out way back in the Tang dynasty. I had insufficient time to do this by foot, when I return I shall.

The steps that many would take to emulate history. A winding 6.0km hike up near vertical mountainfaces as mentioned earlier, carved out from an ancient time.

As far as the eyes could see, there were literally tens of thousands of people there climbing the mountain. All ages, all sizes, all types of footwear, all types of intentions from tourists to adventure seekers, workers to priests. Young or old, they came, equipped or not, they went. And because there were hordes of domestic and foreign tourists, the danger was not in falling, but in stopping as there were tonnes of people behind moving forward as a mass.

Literally, the translation of Hua Shan is "flowery mountain" or "splendid mountain" and some argue that the word "华" (hua) has become the political synonym of being Chinese - Huaren (华人). One of 5 sacred Taoist peaks, this is where hardy Taoist hermits came to build temples and reflect on the Chinese '道 way'. Understanding the Chinese reverence for Hua Shan is critical in understanding the Chinese mind.

Taking a time-lapse of Hua Shan in action - clouds, people and movement.

Billboard in a train station - it reads One day in Xi'An, A thousand years spent in history. I would agree, the 9 days in Xi'An helped me see how China was in the most ancient to the most contemporary of times. It was breathtaking staying in China's ancient capital that spanned over 13 dynasties.

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Filed under: Back to China, Bob's Opinion, Culture, The Chinese Identity, The construction of Chinese and Non-Chinese identities, Xi'An

Wandering China Day 8: Terracotta Action

The day started with a visit to the Xi'An Banpo Museum (西安半坡博物馆) -the museum's built on top of the excavation site of the Banpo matriarchal (arguably) community of the Yangshao Culture. Here we find evidence of a 6000 year neolithic settlement in eastern Xi'An. I could not help but notice the sign above as a drawcard (Western style washrooms?)- probably reminiscent of the Museum's age being first built in 1958.

The settlement was surrounded by a moat back in a time when building walls were not an option, the houses were typically semi-subterranean.

Close-up of the Banpo neolithic village

And the Terracotta Army 兵马俑 - early signs of Chinese opulence. Arguably the first to unite China as we know it today and standardize the written text (forcibly), Qin Shihuang sent 700,000 of his subjects to their graves building his mausoleum and this army to protect him in the afterlife. His first desire was to sacrifice the real soldiers the army was modelled after (each terracotta warrior is unique and apparently modelled after real people), but he was dissuaded from doing so. Yes, he was also responsible for starting the legacy of Great Wall building in China. Images of the warriors have been part and parcel of my imagination of China from early on, and it was gratifying to see for myself what the fuss was about.

Contrary to belief, the warriors are actually all in a state of disarray like the photo above. Only one piece ever was found completely intact. First discovered in 1974 by a group of farmers digging a well (I managed to get a photo and autograph of one of them) in Lintong District in Xi'An, the warriors had to be pieced back together bit by bit. There are currently three pits that have been opened. They Army contains 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots with 520 horses and 150 cavalry horses, the majority of which are still buried as the Chinese are still figuring out the best way to unearth them without damaging and discoloring the artefacts. Proclaimed the eighth wonder of the world by then French president Jacques Chirac, construction first began in 246 BC.

The Giant Wild Goose Pagoda 大雁塔 - is a very significant Chinese icon. The pagoda's function was to hold sutras and figurines of the Buddha that were brought to China from India by the Tang-dynasty monk Xuanzang, perhaps commonly known as Táng-sānzàng (唐三藏) (the Chinese narrative of Journey to the West stems from his journeys, it is now one of the four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature) travelled West towards India in an epic journey to study Buddhism. It is in this pagoda where he spent years translating and storing the scriptures, and in a sense giving birth to a significant religious and literary imagination of the Chinese today. Note - as much as Buddhism has become synonymous with many aspects of Chineseness, Buddhism is not an indigenous religion to China much like how Islam is not indigenous to South-East Asia

A sacred relic in the Giant Wild Goose pagoda described as containing Buddha's remains that was brought back by Xuanzang after his travels to India.

Filed under: Back to China, Bob's Opinion, Xi'An

Wandering China Day 7: Xi’An Day 2

Day 7 Photo Story – exploring the Xi’An’s past – the ancient city of Chang An. I am having problems updating wordpress at the moment – it seems to run really slowly when I am in China. The rest of the entry will *fingers crossed* arrive soon.

The day started with brekkie at MacDonald's - price? All of 7¥. = $1.2AUD.

The Drum Tower of Xi'an (西安鼓楼) was built in the early Ming Dynasty in the 14th century and was named as such as it featured a large drum in the tower that signaled the end of the day. Its cousin, the bell tower would signal the start. In terms of dimensions, it is 34 meters high and a little more than 52 meters long from east to west and 38 meters wide from north to south.

Looking west from atop the Drum Tower, Xi'An. Unlike the other Chinese cities I've visited, ancient and contemporary Xi'An are accorded respect and space with each other. Xi'An city (at least within the original Tang City Walls) is spacious, featuring broad streets, perhaps indicative of a design mindful its past as capital city over 13 dynasties. One sore point - like much of China's advanced cities, the skies are almost never blue. It's been 3 days and polluted skies have been the name of the game.

The Great Mosque of Xi’An (西安大清真寺) on Huajue Lane is the oldest mosque in China and founded in 742AD during the Tang dynasty. This mosque is still used today by the Hui minority as a place of worship and interestingly, completely Chinese in construction and architectural style, and lacks the Middle Eastern/Arabic tradition of domes and minarets. It was very interesting to find out that China had a tradition of being open to foreign religions, thanks to the Silk Road the Jesuits and Muslims had entered China; evidence China’s great walls were not always ‘closed’. Here is one angle at pondering the question if there is religious freedom in China.

Reminder to protect the environment in the Great Mosque in three languages. In Mandarin in reads literally - protect the peace.

Lunch was here at the Hui Min Jie West Gate where the Hui minorities have congregated over the years. These streets are where the Hui people themselves go about their daily lives, on top of being a top drawer tourist spot.

The street is just north of the Drum tower. Here is a popular Hui pancake/bun store. Overheard - some say the muslim Hui minority in China is a religious destination, not a question of ethnicity.

Xi'An Bell Tower - The tower was built in 1384 by Tang Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang to dominate the surrounding countryside and provide early warning of attack. It makes the geographical center of the ancient capital. From here extends the East, South, West and North Streets, connecting the Tower to the East, South, West and North Gates of the city walls. To the bottom right corner is the mascot of International Horticultural Expo in red - designed after the city flower of Xi'an, the pomegranate blossom. The pomegranate is not indigenous to China; it came via the silk road way back in the past.

Xi’An traffic around the South Gate. Traffic in Xi’An like much of developing China, is an absolute mess for most used to a system where drivers and pedestrians actually follow the road signs. The traffic signals here remain an aesthetic display. Zebra crossings are at best, indicators of where is safest to cross the road, but no cars nor public buses, nor police vehicles actually pause to give way to pedestrians. China, despite the overwhelming propaganda plastered around the cities to move towards being a civilised 文明 society – there is still some way to go towards being civil on the roads. I remain positive that it is not too far away though.

Shaanxi History Museum - like many public museums in China, entry is free, but one is required to queue at set times for the tickets. I had to queue a little more than an hour to get in; and it was somewhat worth it - there the fossils of the Lantian man 蓝田人, older than the better known Peking man. Architecturally the museum was designed in the Tang style. As Xi'An was the ancient imperial capital of 13 Chinese dynasties, there were relics galore including a very interesting Tang mural that proved that Polo was played in China back then.

This was the highlight of the Shaanxi History Museum for me - Zhang Qian 张骞 was probably one of China's first and clearly defined diplomats, Zhang Qian as a Han dynasty imperial envoy was responsible for opening up the ancient Silk Road, i.e. China's foreign affairs officially started with this man. Today Zhang Qian is seen as a national icon for the role he played in opening China to the world of commmerce more than two thousand years ago.

Filed under: Back to China, Bob's Opinion, History, Xi'An

Wandering China Day 6: Entering Xi’An

Xi’An (西安) is capital of China’s Shaanxi province and the city was traditionally known as Chang’An before the last Han Chinese dynasty, the Ming (1368-1644). I have long known about Chang’An thanks to my love for the Romance of Three Kingdoms narrative so I am excited to be here. Xi-An is this year, host of the upcoming International Horticultural Expo 2011, one described by its official website as an ‘international gathering hosted by China after the Beijing 2008 Olympics and Expo 2010 Shanghai… an important opportunity to showcase green civilization and promote the nation’s image.’

Arriving in the evening at Xi’An’s Xianyang (咸阳) international airport a little later than scheduled and it was dark when I arrived. As mentioned in Day 1 of this series of posts – One of Four Great Ancient Capitals of China (中国四大古都), Xi-An is now an important cultural, industrial and educational centre of the central-northwest region, with facilities for China’s space exploration program. As one of the oldest cities in China dating back more than three millennia, the never-conquered-by-foreign-power city (the Japanese never made it that far inland) in central China Xi’an was the eastern terminus of the Silk Road and home to China’s first emperor Qin Si Huang’s Terra-cotta Army. Checking out the World Heritage Site of the Terra-cotta Army will be a priority on this trip to see first hand the origins of the idea ‘the Son of Heaven’ (天子) and the logistics and organization required for work on such a scale; historical records by Sima Qian reveal that 700,00 workers were involved in building the Qin emperor’s mausoleum and this was way back two millennia ago. A detailed report will follow.

The locals here speak a Shaanxi dialect though the cab driver anecdotally shared that few do, as it simply ‘does not sound very pleasing to the ear’ – this was a first time I’ve heard a local prefer the sound of Mandarin as opposed to local vernacular . Housing here ranges up to 7,000 to 8,000 RMB per square foot, taking on average 15-30 years to finish paying for; expensive for most Chines yes, but substantially cheaper (about five times less) than Beijing and Shanghai. Agriculture, tourism and education (Xi Jiao Da (西交大) is a member of China’s C9 university elite) are key drivers of the local economy, and first impressions were positive. The freeways into the city were wide and broad, with advanced and newly built tollways designed as a hybrid between imperial and contemporary China.

A quick walk around the city where I was revealed a high concentration of the Islamic Hui minority stock (with 8.61 million, they are one of the largest of the 55 ethnic minorities) running the restaurants in the southern part of the city. Will definitely be finding out more about their integration into Han China.

Filed under: Back to China, Bob's Opinion, Xi'An

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