Xi’an: Hitting the Wall and finding a Temple

After the hectic day catching buses to and from the Museum of the Terracotta Warriors, plus attempting to move against the flow of the masses while there I needed an outdoor activity that meant absolutely no riding vehicles. My goal was to reach the nearest accessible gate to the wall surrounding Xi’an to view the city from above. Once again the hostel (Ancient City International YHA) proved to be in an ideal spot for an easy walk, this time to the arched gate that would lead me to the stairs on the inside. Of course there is a fee – 54CNY=10.50CAD,most likely used to help with daily maintenance suh as sweeping, garbage and light security. After all, even with the heavy gates still on their hinges, the wall is no longer there to prevent anyone from entering or leaving.

A sea of neon. Necessary for the pea soup smog.
Before the mad dash – non-participants (that meant me) headed up the opposite set of stairs
Before the run all was quiet on the rampart

Thr first difference I noted from Nanjing was the stairs are inside, after going through the gateway with two sets to keep the comings and goings less muddled. That might have worked out but for the excited crowd I walked into. Jumping jacks, stretches, running on the spot, numbers fluttering, cheering – I had walked smack dab into a gathering marathon! I did find someone to direct me, same way all of the runners would eventually be heading once above. I followed some young men carrying, then setting up heavy drums – similar to the drums on dragon boats to keep a beat, but these ended up being used as encouragement once things started. I did have a fairly good headstart and figured out where I should not be based on stations along the top of the wall.

He was one of a few drummers along the wall
A statistician would have kept track of how many mobiles were in use!



What I was not ready for was another, far more fun, smaller mass of marathoners wearing clown wigs, painted faces, painted T-shirts and some pretty nifty silly colours overall, coming from the other direction It was the clash of the marathoners. Later I found out that this was the Xi’an City Wall International Marathon – from what I understood the marathoners started at the same gate although it appeared to me they were going different directions – I guessed those finishing were coming towards me as the 13.7 km runners were starting where I had been – it seemed to prevent any clashes.


Blurred Solitude: smog, distance, architecture, movement

Considering the density of the soupy smog they very well might have had difficulty seeing each other at times. I was beginning to wonder if I should seek out a mask from one of the very few stores that I might come across – I had passed one, after buying more water. However, I decided to just stay out of the way, cheer people on as they ran by, and take photos when I could. How often would I see a marathon, let alone two, on one of the ancient walls of China?




A little history lesson: Xi’an, once known as Chang’an, is considered one of the birthplaces of Chinese civilization, with a 3000 year history of which 1100 years it was the capital city of a few dynasties. The area is rich in history. The Xi’an Wall is the most complete of walls that has survived and can be traversed all around the top, walking, bikes, even some motorized tours, and of course running. Originally build as a fortification in the old Tang Dynasty (618-907) it now forms the base for the City Park. I started at the South Gate and walked to the East Gate. The smog did not improve which made me glad I was not running and rather worried about the children who were running in the family groups. We did some high fives and hellos. Even the most serious runners, on their return run, were smiling at times.



Still impressive despite tourism, smog and the modern age
my first glimpse of Guangren Lama Temple from the ramparts of Xi’an Wall



Looking down – is this how the gods see things built to them?

As I wended my way along the wall there were some interesting sights. I discovered a temple I planned to visit the next day. There were families enjoying little picnics, cyclists, (I did not want to attempt riding when I knew hudreds of runners would be soon surging through) groups of young people being young, and below, at one of the secondary gates, wedding shoots were taking place. (I decided to save those photos for my Wedding Wednesday blog) I spent my time trying not to worry about the AQI (air quality index), found my way down the east gate, became handily lost (I really must get a map App I can use anywhere) before coming across a coffee shop that seemed to beckon. Of course I went in. It is pretty hard to get lost in Xi’an when all the main streets within the walls are on a fairly simple grid plus the very visible Bell and Drum Towers standing as beacons.

Not helpful!
Of course I did not write down the name, yet alone take a photo of it.
Books and coffee – perfection.

Once I made it to the Drum Tower I knew where I was, the Muslim Quarter, what better time to explore some of the side streets this time as well as visiting one of the few ancient homes still intact, and I think in the same family. I even paid to see a shadow puppet show. Although I did not understand a single word of the high pitched opera style nor very little of the story it was a fun 15 minutes to end my long day and time to take my weary pandas home to our hostel.

Entrance at the Ancient Home to the Ancestral Shrine
The room where the master of the home would entertain guests
One person shadow puppet show
Bath time – they were looking quite grubby but unwilling to be thrown into the washing machine


Dinner, bathed, tired and the next day planned out. I was looking forward to seeking out the path to enlightenment at the Guangren Lama Temple.

Xi’an: Terracotta Warriors

I nearly gave Xi’an a miss with the rather rude thought that once one has done the obligatory vist to the Terracotta Warriors Museum there was nothing else to see or do. Of course I already knew this, yet I just could not muster up any excitement – until I was on the train from Liaoning. By then I had taken time to look up where I had not visited when last in Xi’an so many years earlier. I would also be on my own, so much different from when I had to take into consideration three children travelling with me in the dead of winter. I discovered that, although a little chilly overnight, November in Xi’an was a rather pleasant change from southern climes.

Everyday would have been perfect weatherwise if the smog had not been so heavy. Not as dense as I had encountered in Beijing when I lived there, but still not as pleasant as true light fog or misty days. Anyone planning to visit China must be prepared for the pollution – it is now, sadly, a part of the experience. Fortunately I had only one day that was really not great – more on that later. I was happy I would not need an umbrella, too many layers to keep me warm, nor a toque – all cumbersome when visiting museums. Which takes me to the reason anyone goes to Xi’an – the terracotta warriors.

Each warrior is unique, experts believe the faces are of individuals serving in the Qin army
hairstyle, uniform and where they stood shows rank

A very short history: Construction 246-206BC for the tomb of Qin Shi Huang, the ‘first’ emperor of China. His other wonder was the building of the Great Wall. He died in 210BC. (there is an underlying contention that any historical references prior to his reign were destroyed to ensure he was the ‘first’) Discovered in 1974 by farmers digging a well the site consists of three vaults, two of which are still being excavated with, at last count, 8000 figures. pretty impressive. The last time I was there the largest was open and the second vault. There is also now a large museum that houses many smaller items, and the stunning, to scale chariots with horses, I first saw before being moved and glassed in.



Science is unlocking what was used for the pigments and small items have been refurbished;  it is unlikely any pigment  restoration will be attempted on these larger, beautiful pieces

I am getting ahead of my visit – first I had to get there. I was somewhat worried transportation may have changed drastically since my last visit which had meant a trip to the railway station in the centre of the city. The only difficulty was the usual issue of being given incorrect information. However, getting to the train station, snaking my way to the state run buses, and boarding, was fairly simple. The bus still has two numbers 5 (306) and is not primarily green as I was told and read. White and green best describes what to look for. It was pretty easy, the long line of visitors was  telltale sign. I ended up being the only foreigner on the bus I was directed to. By now there are so many visitors I cannot understand how anyone can be convinced to hop on one of the fake bus tours! One big difference from now and my previous trip to Xi’an is how strictly potential passengers are vetted, look even a little ratty and you will be turned away, no idea if this goes for backpacking foreigners. This also occurred at the ticket office when I was at the museum. Knowing just how bad pickpocketing was when I was last in Xi’an I can understand why it is necessary to have something in place to prevent thefts in order to keep visitors coming.

(The buses do eventually arrive but at a higher expense, more stops and a side trip to one of several shops) It took at least an hour – and often much longer can be expected – to finally get to the museum; however, the buses are comfortable, air-conditioned, and relatively inexpensive – I believe I paid 9CNY. Everyone was told where we stopped would be where we could catch a bus back. The crucial information as to how to get there was left out. (Guess who got lost)

The majority of weaponry such as bows, arrows, and various spears have disintegrated to dust.

I had forgotten how lovely the area is, it was after all a field, and has since been planted with grass, shrubs and trees to welcome the throngs. I have no idea if the farmer whose land it was ever compensated for losing his rights to farm – probably not by much if at all. It was 1974 after all.


The whole museum is massive – once getting past all the touts and to the ticket office it is another ten minutes to reach any of the pits. I can understand why some people hire guides, they know where to go and provide some excellent information. (I listened in a few times during some of the crushing viewing) I just followed the largest group until I found signs pointing to the largest pit. Once again, though not as profoundly as at the Longmen Grottoes, I was stunned by the history, this time laid out below me. These clay warriors are ancient, they are waiting, they are ready, impervious to time. It is also very difficult to get adequate photos of them as the lighting is subdued, they are several feet below the viewing platforms and walkway, the jostling of people is ridiculous, and I found it is not easy to get clear pictures of reddish beown clay. I was however very happy to see probably 200+ PLA members enter the main museum – perfect timing if I could manage to wiggle out of where I was penned in by enthusiastic groups thronging to one of the ‘best’ viewing areas. I had not been aware it was.

Many of these young men had the audio, I wonder if they had a test after
Still not a great shot. It was impressiveIMG_3321



Many did not survive intact

The first time I visited here one of the pits had not opened and the satellite museums had not opened. Already a must-see then large groups members of the PLA were visiting that long ago Spring Festival for what I assumed was a rare opportunity for them to enjoy a holiday, even if as a unit. At the time I took several photos of the ancient, clay warriors and the young, energetic, excited PLA to display them as one overall unit. None of my photos turned out. As one of my plans for travelling to sites I had already visited was to capture similar scenes I had shots of from the past I was ecstatic to once more take advantage of this opportunity. I also realized such visits must occur fairly regularly.



I do not know if this fellow is a copy (I do hope so) or one of the 8000 strong

Roughly five hours later, with a break at either KFC or Mcdonald’s for directions and a much needed coffee (I had the sense to being along some lunch) I was ready to head to the bus back to the city. A common scene ensured – helpful person directed me to go left, said there would be signs. Indeed, going left there were signs, to the parking lot. The very big parking lot. So much for my recalling any landmarks, and I had forgotten to take a picture of signs for the bus station. When I finally found a sign with 5 (306) I nearly shouted with glee. Except the sign was pointing the wrong way and I became hopelessly lost. Grrr. When I finally found my through a tangle of alleyways – where not a single person even questioned me, yet alone helped – to what appeared to be a main road I could see the buses with the necessary numbers trundling past, in both directions. Two people pointed out opposite ways – I guess it depended on where they thought I wanted to go. I was getting rather cross with myself and anyone around me, headed down one side street that seemed to lead somewhere, even if back from where I had seen the sign would have been fine, when someone called out to me, “Watch out, car”. It took five seconds for me to realize it was in English. So I headed in the direction of that voice where I found a group of middle school students and some teachers – they all spoke English. Although they had to board their bus someone had the good sense to ask their tour guide to point me in the right direction. I had indeed become turned around. This became a major lesson for me – take pictures of a landmark and signage when going solo. We headed back to the city, I was feeling brave enough (or foolish) to jump off the city bus to walk back to my hostel before heading out for a much needed dinner.

Here Be Dragons

Travelling in China and Vietnam one cannot miss a beast of myth the countries share. Dragons lurk above, rear up from fountains, wind along stairwells. Dragons control rainfall, typhoons and floods. They symbolize power and good luck. In ancient China the dragon symbolized the sovereignty of the emperor. Images of dragon decoration in architecture, furnishings, monuments, musical instruments, tools or war and clothing were common. Look closely at the number of claws when visiting royal palaces – five claws were for the sole use of Emperors. The dragon is one of the twelve symbols in the Chinese and the Vietnamese zodiac. Dragons in Vietnam generally have similar symbolism to China. They bring rain to feed the fields, but can also cause destruction through typhoons and floods. A dragon symbolizes power, intelligence and luck and symbolized supreme power to the King. The country of Vietnam is shaped like a dragon.

Here be dragons. Major equipment issues and a resulting blogger breakdown resulted in a few having little information. However, these choices are more for how artists perceived the dragons of imagination.

Ba Then Hau Temple, Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam 
Temple built and dedicated to President Ho Chi Minh, Vinh Loc, Long Duc village
IMG_2180 IMG_2184
I never could decide if this dragon looked shocked after biting its tongue or that mere mortals have dared to cross the steps.
However, it is a wonderful carving that catches the breath 
vehicle used in funeral procession for deceased followers of Caodaism; Tay Ninh, Vietnam
Now this a dragon! Dragon Bridge, opened to traffic 2013 on the 38th anniversary of the liberation of Da Nang, Vietnam
Dragons adorn the corners this quiet Buddhist temple’s eaves
Made out of chipped pottery, these dragons look a little friendly; Quang Trieu (Cantonese) Assembly Hall, Hoi An, Vietnam
Jade dragon at the Confucius Temple, Nanjing China

Luoyang: Longmen Grottoes

It was fortunate I had enough sense to record some of how awestruck I was by these magnificent, ancient carvings as, even after going through my very few photos and my notes, I cannot adequately describe what was coursing through my senses. As for pictures, they barely do justice to the majesty of the workmanship – I put my phone and camera away to just enjoy the legacy left behind after the carvers, monks, adherents, royalty and commoners had turned to dust. I spent seven hours marvelling, discussing, pondering, searching, with a young man from the Netherlands I had met at my hostel. It was nice to spend time with someone just as inquisitive as I am about the history of a place. A bonus was how quickly he could look up the meaning of a character – sometimes writing it on his phone with his finger (I need an app for that).

My very first glimpse – I was smitten

Longmen Grottoes (pinyin: longmen shiku – Dragon’s Gate Grottoes. a.k.a. Longmen Caves) were added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2000. The majority of the 1400 caves with 100,000 statues, plus steles and pagodas, are along the western bank of the Yi River. By the time we had finished the western bank my new friend and I were worn out. An excellent excuse to return another year.

My first glimpse of the Longmen Grottoes and I knew I was in for at least a few hours of viewing marvellous carvings, with their mystery and magic, there was a feel to the air of just how ancient the area is and how revered it once was. The care, the belief, the fortitude of the craftsmen who carved these astonishing statues in their manmade caves out of the sandstone cliffs vibrates. (I am not prone to sensations of a mystical, religious or ghosts of the ancestors nature)

Many of the carvings are so massive it is impossible to photograph them as a whole 
Boddhivistas in the Central Binyang Cave (508-523 C.E.)

These are artifacts that deserve, and must, to be retained for as long as time can make it possible. There are many, many defaced figures, missing limbs; however, perhaps, in the 21st C. it gives pause for us to understand how fortunate we are to be where we are and how much we have advanced. These figures were chiselled by hand with great care. No electricity, nothing motorized. The smooth cheeks on many of the figures made me want to reach out to touch them. How was this accomplished? My young friend and I discussed this and came up with, from our very limited knowledge of art, the possibility that sand may have been used as the medium – much like sand paper – to rub the cheeks, smooth the brow, encourage the slight curve of a smile, or enhance the intense draw of the eye to the future unfolding before each statue. It is amazing what those stone eyes can make us ponder. From a distance one of the extremely tall, intimidating, powerful, stone guards watches over the area, and yes, his eyes do seem to follow you. Once we made it up the stairs and were at his feet, looking up – you know you will never be at his level – physically or spiritually – I remain still unable to adequately put into writing how the realm of gods can affect the realm of disbelief. As always, and it was absolutely necessary here, I looked up, way up. To my delight and curiosity I discovered a small opening close to the ceiling – with its own, bricked ceiling. Definitely put there for a reason although anywhere close to what we bantered back and forth. My friend and I were so curious (ah, to be young) that he did a search on his phone. It was a resting place, or hideaway for the immortals who embodied the statues! So much better than a place for the tools of the trade that carved the magnificent figures.

The majority of the carvings have lost their colour

Tourists are encouraged to get up close, up the concrete stairs, with railings, along wide, easy to maneuver to appreciate the craftsmanship of over 1500 years ago, with the relics far enough out of reach of accidental, or sadly, purposeful damage.

Even this Peony Stone overwhelmed the pandas!
The majority of carvings range from the tallest at 57 feet in height to tiny, barely one inch square that hold exquisite, single carvings



We must have spent 15-20 minutes just studying this ceiling lotus flower!  I could not find information about its diameter
The detail of the carvings in this grotto, despite the destruction, are stunning
These grottoes within a larger one shows the influence of Buddhist carvings from India
Bared to the elements it is amazing any of these lesser carvings have survived so long. This is one of the last photos I took – barely one quarter of the way through.

Visiting the caves is fairly easy – unless provided with a bus number to one of the least numbers of trips. While waiting for  probably 40 minutes, on a somewhat chilly morning – I had been in the south until now – I introduced tea eggs and ‘oil’ drum baked sweet potatoes to Tristan. These kept us going until lunchtime when I finally succumbed to hunger and ate both of the granola bars I had packed for emergencies. As for the bus, we decided to walk to the nearby train station, found a bus idling by with its driver looking for passengers. I think once we boarded others were encouraged to also hop on as it soon filled and we were off. Only a 15 minute ride away.

Tristan. Not only did we go to the Longmen Grottoes together, we took a very rushed tour the following day to the Shaolin Kung Fu Temple Academy and the White Horse Temple

The tour the next day reminded me, once again, how much I do not enjoy tours. We were picked up across from the hostel, and stopped to pick up other passengers also going on the tour. Our guide seemed horrified she would have to be in charge of two foreigners and eventually asked if there was anyone on the bus who could look after us. Or something along those lines. The poor fellow had his work cut out because we tended to not follow the group like sheep. I do not know why he volunteered, his English was worse than my Chinese!

First stop, Shaolin Temple and Kungfu School of China, 1 1/2 hours out of Luoyang. Yikes! As we scurried after our guide, once we had arrived, I felt like I should start to Baa – I think I managed to refrain. It was difficult to enjoy anything because we kept being rushed hither and thither. One of the supposed highlights is to watch a performance put on by students. A rather slick operation getting everyone inside and seated for the short show then out again for the next crush. I tried to be impressed.

One of the many steles erected in memory of great masters, this one was draped with silk to commemorate (I think this is correct) the anniversary of the death of one master
A quick fix to stop monuments from toppling over
The gate to the temple and school


I finally captured one student not moving

For some reason I took very few photos of the White Horse Temple. I can only think it was most likely due to all the driving to get anywhere. A lunch stop in the middle of nowhere provided a chance for a quiet, cobbled together picnic – those granola bars do come in handy – before heading for the last stop of the day. It was quite busy and once again less seeing anything of significance (much the same happened at the Wu She School) and standing around waiting.

We did not get back to Luoyang until dark – descends early and suddenly – and were then hustled into a smaller van before finally getting into a car and eventually a public bus to the train station. We were tired, hungry and happy.

More lotuses, this time at the White Horse Temple. The leaves are from a gingko tree

Of course the highlight of my time in Luoyang was the Longmen Grottoes; however, meeting a new friend, sharing meals and hanging out at yet another apartment turned into a hostel were all part of why I enjoyed my time there. In all I spent three nights, the first simply a matter of having arrived too late to do any exploring, and the only item on my list that I missed seeing was the Luoyang Museum after spending a whole day at the grottoes. A quick calculation indicated I had spent barely 1000CNY = under 200CAD including half the train fare from Guilin. Somehow I was managing to stay on budget! My next destination was Xi’an – home of the Terracotta Warriors.