Notes From Far Away: Two Armies.


Feeling relieved that unlike Humpty Dumpty, I had indeed avoided a great fall off the Great Wall, I woke up the following day a little saddened that this was to be our last day in Beijing.

We were to return on the 4pm train, and once back in Xi’an , there would be just two days left on this wonderous adventure I had undertaken.

Holly , as ever had her nose in her guide-book, and it seemed we were off to Tiananmen Square, with a visit to the Forbidden City as well.
It seemed a fitting end to our stay so we trooped out of the door and went down to meet our driver for the last time.

I saw no reason why today’s visits should have been different in any other way than the countless ones we had done up to now.

How misguided I was.

I sensed from the moment I got in the car that our driver was tense, and bore a strained look on his face. He politely explained that despite my difficulties walking he would only be able to drop us at a certain point “near” the square, as stopping on any of the roads that surrounded the square was strictly forbidden.

We alighted along a back road that was strewn with security lodges and military posts, and walked the short distance to the square.
It was a vast open space, and we were estranged from it by the road , road blocks and a security check point.
We submitted to an airport style search and shuffled over to the zebra crossing, which was also barred, only allowing a few people at a time to cross the road.
We stepped on to the square on yet another brilliantly sunny day, and we were not disappointed with what we saw.
However, it was very soon apparent that this was not a place to idle or loiter – there were no benches to sit on, which was a problem for me – I intended to negotiate my way to the Forbidden City by taking bench stops en route, so was now a little confused as to how to proceed.
The barriers that separated the road from the square were lined with small bins, so that the national pastime of spitting on the sidewalk could be completely obliterated – I saw men scurrying towards the bins – their expectoration bore an aura of the reverential – it was all rather surreal.
There were big crowds, but they were moving , moving, moving.
I leaned against the railings to rest my back, and within 30 seconds a small electric car with 2 police officers in it parked up beside me to watch my movements.
Holly wanted to go and see the monument just off to my left and was told she could not take her rucksack – this left us with the quandary as to what to do with it: She could neither take it, nor could I guard it as I too was being guarded.
She decided to give it a miss.
We took the obligatory photos, and were given a military display every few hundred yards or so – full-blown soldiers and young cadets joined ranks to send the clear and resounding message:

The Chinese Army is here – so don’t you go misbehavin’!

The show of both military and police strength was not difficult to understand – Tiananmenn Square was and still is a very sensitive political hot spot.
We started to move towards the Forbidden City but it was clear that as there were no decent respite stops for me, we would have to cross it off the list and go elsewhere.
Personally, the sombre notes of our surroundings did not induce me to want to stay, so we trotted back off to lunch at Atmosphere and took a long and leisurely lunch instead.

All too quickly our time in Beijing came to an end and we were once again aboard the Bullet Train ready for our return leg to Xi’an.

The following day served as a catch up day for one and all, and on Friday we hired a driver to go out on our last big sight-seeing trip to see the Terracotta Army.
While it is technically in the Lingtong district of Xi’an, we drove for well over an hour to get there.
For the last time, we were bombarded with offers of a guide, and decided on a man with a kindly face who spoke excellent English.
During the course of his excellent tour, I discovered he has been a teacher, and wondered how on earth the modest sum he charged for his tireless services compared to a teacher’s salary – I can only guess that he could earn more this way, which seemed perverse to say the least.

Yet again, I had envisaged the following

” A few statues in a shed like building like an out-of-town Boots or Primark”
Oh no……!

There were 4 enormous buildings, the largest of which house “the army” of some 2500 terracotta full-sized statues.
The scale is hard to describe, but Holly’s “ant” analogy rang true yet again.
The figures were magnificent, and the photo above shows a few of them in the “repair shop” as believe it or not, there are some 6000 plus soldiers, but contrary to common thought the discoverer of these soldiers found them largely in pieces and they have been painstakingly restored, like the ones in the pictures above.
Those already exposed to the air have lost all their wonderful colours, and the Chinese are fervently searching for ways to open up still sealed crypts without losing the vibrancy of the colours to oxidation.
It was amusing to see in the repair area that the modern-day use of cling film was being fully employed to help secure broken pieces that have just been glued together.
Another two vast mausoleums housed a pit with just sixty odd soldiers, and the third, compete with its undulating roof, housed the yet unseen army that are avoiding the ageing process by staying well away from the outside air.
Part of it was exposed, and, as in the main hall, there were numerous examples of shattered bodies, lying there patiently, like puppets in Geppetto’s workshop awaiting their turn to be brought to life, just like Pinocchio.
Their resemblance to real soldiers was uncanny – although motionless, they bore an eerie resemblance to people, and their sheer volume of numbers augmented the sensation that they were real – the silent guardians and protectors of Qui Shi Huang – hearing, seeing and saying no evil, and waiting to do their liege lord’s bidding in the Afterlife.

All pretty heady stuff, but this was one place I would certainly not visit after dark.

The last hall, or museum housed the two gold chariots, which sadly were a bit of a let down – photos abounded on the approach to the glass cases of their shattered chassis and livery in their original resting place.
However, these, were the only two ( as yet uncovered) exhibits that are in fact half size.

I guess, there’s only so much gold to go around – even if you are an emperor.

They were beautiful but were small fry compared to the 2500 strong army in the other building.

We were near the end of the day, and indeed the end of our holiday in China, so we and took in a last few hours to see the traditional tea ceremony at the Terracotta Army site.

It was an exquisite and genteel experience, which was accompanied by some excellent tea and the detailed explanations by the young woman who was performing it.

It had a vague familiarity, and I realised that when we were having lunch a few days earlier in Beijing, I had seen a young waiter prepare tea for customers in the exact same way – in a 21st century building in an ultra modern restaurant and bar.

The tea ceremony was now over, and as a representation of what was good about China,it has remained unchanged over time.
This tea ceremony had been performed in two entirely different contexts – one in a skyscraper, and one just metres away from the silent terracotta soldiers, represented for me the meeting point of the old and the new China.

Our entire stay had been littered with confluences like this – too numerous to mention here, but for me spelling out that the wind of change was and is blowing through this vast and magnificent country that we here in the West know so little about.

I consider it to have been a privilege to share this 20000 kilometre round trip with my family to the other side of the world. I  will look on with enthusiasm and interest as China takes its role on the world stage over the next few years.

Like the Tea Ceremony, the  Terracotta Army has stood firm against the ravages of time and all that it brings.

I am confident China will do the same.


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