Across the Middle Kingdom

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9 August

5 August 1998 - Xi'an

Morning was spent at the New Provincial Museum, a historical museum of limited interest to us (of course, we had little chance to explore). It was like every other Natural History Museum I've ever seen, except of course here the Asia section was the whole place. They had a few examples of the terra cotta soldiers here as well, although I decided to wait until we saw the real thing before getting pictures. We also saw the Wild Goose Pagoda. Very nice, I thought. Lovely gardens.

The afternoon was dedicated to the terra cotta soldiers. After viewing a display of an unearthed bronze chariot, and suitably hokey 360-degree movie, we saw the digs and the soldiers themselves. The sheer scale was impressive, as you might imagine. Just the parts they'd unearthed were interesting enough, and you could see how much more remained to be excavated, all enclosed under an enormous curved roof to keep out the elements-- it was sort of overwhelming.

So was the merchandising. Go figure.

Anyway, the big surprise of the afternoon was that picture-taking of the soldiers is forbidden. So I got nothing of the digs, and there were some wonderful pictures there. I suppose this policy may be to encourage people to buy more souvenir picture books, which I therefore refuse to do. It may also be for the more legitimate reason of preventing light damage to the soldiers and unearthed artwork. If they were exposed to a million flashbulbs a day, they would start to fade as surely as if they were sitting in the sun. I could accept this reasoning-- not that anyone ever actually made it-- but then I should have been able to take pictures, since I wouldn't have been using a flash. I thought about sneaking a few pictures, but then decided that a possible confrontation with one of the soldiers guarding the site was a little too much excitement for me.

Well, I guess those are the breaks. The things of which I would have taken pictures remain fixed in my mind, as it turns out. From one vantage point, we were viewing the soldiers from a low angle, so that they almost looked like a real army of men waiting for a march order. They were mostly faced away from us, and a diffuse light from one of the few windows rimmed their heads with light and caused the air around them to glow, very pale. Poetic, in its own way.

At other points, we were able to observe digs in progress. The archaeologists were busy digging and brushing new objects out of the ground, in the usual way you see on the Learning Channel. Only here, they were doing it under halogen lamps... which were necessary, thanks to the roof over the whole site. I wonder what they do when they find out that the site extends beyond the outer walls of the covering?

A third site, mostly uncovered, actually showed a headquarters for the terra cotta army. There was a general, officers, and so forth, all gathered in one building. We stood there and thought about the fact that it really was a replica of an army, from the general down to the various units, each with its own officer, and even clay horses and real weapons. It was sort of spooky.

We had dinner at the Tang Dynasty Theater. The meal was a banquet of so-so dumplings, and the show was something like Chinese opera meets Las Vegas, except on a shoestring budget. I took lots of pictures anyway. The production values were pretty good, considering. I think I've been hanging out in theater a little too long.

Faced with a 5:30am wakeup call for early departure to the airport, we went to sleep as soon as possible. Not soon enough, of course. At least I've been feeling better.

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