Continuing my 1985 diary of a trip to China.
It snowed during the night, so we decided to build a snowman, much to the amazement of the passing Chinese. Quite a few stopped to watch as we toiled away. One of them, a lad who could speak hardly any English, told us, with the help of a Japanese tourist, that he was an art student and, could he sketch our faces?
First we had to finish our mighty project. Our grinning snowman, adorned with Elspeth’s beret and Cheryl’s scarf, was the subject of a lot of pictures. We arranged to meet the student and went off for lunch. Baozis again, and bowls of beer – the waitresses just ladle it out of a barrel.
Student came back with a friend and we went to their place. It’s like a hall of residence but it seems to house their families as well. They seem quite well off because they have a television and a fridge. There was a glorious painting on the wall, done by one of their fathers, of a red cross nurse on horseback. Unfortunately the guy with the key to the room where all their art stuff was stored was out and didn’t come back. We promised to come again. Went back past the snowman. Somebody had kicked it over.
Today we got a bus to see the Terracotta Soldiers. These were found about 10 years ago by some farmers digging a well, and apparently they are amazing.
First though, we had to get up early and trek in the cold dark to the railway booking office again for tickets to Liu Yuan. Two English girls who checked into our dormitory yesterday said it was really easy to buy seat tickets and then, once on the train, to negotiate for sleepers. So we bought three seat tickets and then went to get the bus to see the soldiers. The bus was freezing. Our breath condensed on the windows and then turned into ice. There weren’t many people, but one woman, who was English, was wearing a skirt. It’s the first time I’ve seen someone in a skirt since I left Britain. I’m surprised her legs didn’t drop off in the cold. But it didn’t seem to bother her. She kept up a bright patter all the way up Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi’s burial mound and pointed out the places of interest from the top. Not that she knew any more than us. She just wanted to tell us all about what she’d read in the guide book. I felt as if I were on a school trip. Any minute now she would tell me to get off the grass or to pay attention and stop fossicking about.
The army was amazing. Life size soldiers and horses stretching out in all directions from the emperor’s burial mound, supposedly to protect him from the armies of the underworld. At the time of his burial apparently, the emperor’s real soldiers were so worried about their souls being stolen by these model ones that they broke into the grave and took their weapons, thus removing their power. Only about 500 of the soldiers have been uncovered, but there are estimated to be more than 6,000, and the burial mound has never been excavated, although legend has it that it is filled with heaps of treasure with a ceiling that has pearls for stars.
The soldiers are under cover, but it is all pretty basic. It’s like being in a farm shed. There are some exhibits in glass cases, with labels in Chinese and English, which say things like, more trifles belonging to the imperialist running dogs. Or, another example of capitalist excess.
The Chinese are obviously in a bit of bind over this exhibit, as they are with so many things from their past. They have such an obvious pride in being ‘the central kingdom’ (in other words, the only place on the planet of any significance) and they did invent bureaucracy and gunpowder and papermaking and printing and hydraulics and pasta and, well of course, china, and bicycles. (No, scrub that last one, ed.) But after being kept down for so long, and then coming through the havoc of a revolution, they can’t quite bring themselves to praise too loudly the exploits of their despised imperial past – or their running dogs. I wonder if they’ll ever raise the shutters and come out to meet the west.