China 1982

Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan 2018

China 1982

I got through on the phone to Australia at last – a momentous achievement.  It was quite an effort though.  I booked the call for an hour and a half after I woke up, and was told not to leave my room during that hour and a half in case the call came through early.  It didn’t; it was two hours before my phone finally rang with the operator at the other end of the line.

Once I confirmed with the Sian telephone operator that I did indeed want to make the call, I was told to wait on the line, and after a couple of minutes I overheard the conversation between the softly spoken operator in Sian and the considerably louder operator in Sydney.

Sian operator: I have call from man for Dianne.

Sydney operator: Where are you calling from, love?

Sian operator: I call from China.

Sydney operator: Where are you in China, sweetheart?

Sian operator: The call is from Sian.

Sydney operator: How do you spell that, duckie?

Sian operator: (after a long pause) I don’t know how to spell it, I can only write it.

Sydney operator: (after an even longer pause) Okay, never mind, putting you through now.

We began this morning’s program with the 40 kilometre drive north-east to Lin Tong, the location where the famous terracotta warriors are being excavated.  You’ve probably heard about the discovery in 1974 of the terracotta army by some peasants digging irrigation wells in a field; it has been called the archaeological discovery of the decade.

The terracotta soldiers and horses were guarding the tomb of China’s first emperor of the Qin (pronounced Chin) Dynasty, Qin Shi Huang (from whose name we get the name “China”), who lived from 259BC to 210BC.

Qin Shi Huang is often regarded as the first true Emperor of China.  He ascended the throne at the age of 13, assumed real power at 22, and died of appendicitis at the age of 50.  Construction of his tomb began when he was 13, but was not finished until two years after his death despite having a workforce of 720,000 people working on it.  The warriors and horses are life-size, and cover an area of 14,000 square metres even though they are tightly packed together.  It is estimated that there are more than 8,000 warriors and horses in pit number 1, and there are two further pits which have only had preliminary exploration.  Each warrior is an individual with its own unique face and expression.  The average height of each warrior is 1.8 metres.  Unfortunately, many were damaged during a raid at the end of the Qin Dynasty in 207BC, and many the 800 or so that have been unearthed and are on display have been glued together again.  All the soldiers and horses are arranged in the correct battle formation of the day.

Although this is undeniably a great sight, some facets of the site are disappointing.  There are no signs in English and no guide services are offered.  John Shaw told me that no work has been done over the past two or three years to expand the display, and it suggests they feel they have unearthed enough to bring visitors and therefore see no need to do more work at the site.

We returned to Sian and had lunch in a Chinese restaurant (by which I mean a restaurant where local Chinese people go to eat).  After lunch we went to visit the Banpo Museum, which I thought was more impressive than the terracotta warriors even though it is not nearly as famous.  Artistically, Banpo was less impressive, but it gave a much better impression of day-to-day life. 

Banpo is an excavated Neolithic (Stone Age) village that is about 6,000 years old.  It is clearly labelled in both English and Chinese, and it contains remains of the foundations of both round domed houses and square tent-like structures, and it also features excavated weapons, agricultural implements, burial urns, a moat, and so on. 

Having inspected Banpo, we drove to the Dayan (Big Wild Goose) Pagoda, which was built in 652AD.  It originally had five storeys, but this was expanded to seven when it was re-built during the Ming Dynasty.  It now stands 64 metres high and offers an excellent panorama of the very flat agricultural land on the southern outskirts of Sian.  Naturally I climbed up to the top and took what I hope will be some good, worthwhile photos.

We had an hour and a quarter before dinner, so several of us took a walk to the Xiaoyan (Small Wild Goose) pagoda, which is about a kilometre from our hotel.  It was definitely worth the 5 fen admission price.  The Small Wild Goose Pagoda was built in 707AD, and was originally 15 storeys high.  Now it has only 13 storeys as the top two were destroyed in some obscure earthquake in the past.  Because of its instability, the tower section is closed.

Another member of the group asked me tonight what the highlight of the trip had been for me so far (for her it was the Great Wall).  I don’t normally think in such terms, and so it took me quite a while to think about it.  I had to shift my mind to reflect on what had impressed me the most at the time of my visit.  In the end, I concluded that among an abundance of brilliant experiences, there had been three that stood out; (1) the Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon, (2) the Wanxian Silk factory, and (3) the Wuhan Steelworks.  Having said that, I also thought that many highlights were not our destinations but the everyday scenery on the way – the journey rather than the destination.

The person who posed the question seemed very surprised by my response, but she is not a geographer.  I’m hoping that tomorrow’s scheduled visit to a commune will be pretty special too.

I have been very impressed by the freedom we have been given in China to wander about.  On many occasions we have gone walking and exploring, in old areas and new, into slums and along back alleys.  We are often surrounded by curious onlookers, but there is tremendous spontaneous goodwill as mothers get their bare-bottomed toddlers to wave and old people’s faces light up as you express (or mutilate) a phrase in Chinese language.

The Chinese people also seem to have much more freedom than I had expected.  They go on tours to scenic spots, they buy ice creams on street corners, they approach you and want to practice their (often quite good) English.  The faces of local people are full of expression – from the old men playing dominoes or chess on the footpaths to the children trying to figure out their Rubik’s cubes and the teenagers sitting on stones in a park struggling with their homework.  The Chinese people are longer the large amorphous mass of humanity to me as the western media tends to portray them.

Day 19

Sian, China


20 April 1982