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Monday, 01 March 2021

Xi'an & Suzhou

Written by Eric D. Goodman
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Part 2 from Fortunate Cookies: A Father-Daughter Adventure in China

Part 1 is here:


Wild Geese, Big and Small

Our next destination was the ancient city of Xi’an—the first capitol of Unified China. Even though there are more than eight million residents, Xi’an had more of a small-town feel than Beijing and Shanghai. But eight million is small-town compared to the twenty-one to twenty-five million in each of the larger cities


Our tour guide picked us up at the Xi’an airport and took us directly to our first destination in the city: the Jianfu Temple and the Small Wild Goose Pagoda. It was built in the early 700’s and was meant to store and protect sutras (or scriptures) brought back from India. The temple was named in honor of the divine experience of a monk who traveled for two years in the Gobi desert (on foot) and almost died three times. He was carrying the sutras back from his years learning from monks in India. Every time this Chinese monk was on death’s doorstep (due to lack of water), he saw a wild goose flying by in the sky. Each time, the monk followed the wild goose to water. The monk believed the Buddha was sending the goose to help him survive.


An interesting feature of the pagoda is that it is cracked and damaged at the top. The story is that in the 1500’s an earthquake split it in two and, still standing, the two sides of the tower were split down the middle. Then, another earthquake came and made them fall back together again. Evidence of the split remains present.


A bit further from the city center stands the Large Wild Goose Pagoda. It is taller, and shares the same back story for the origin of its name, but our guide said that the smaller one, given its history of natural destruction and repair as well as the peaceful gardens and prayer bell and towers around it, was the more interesting of the two to visit, given our limited time. More than a hundred cultural relics are housed on the grounds at the Xi’an Museum.


While we were on the grounds of the Small Wild Goose Pagoda and Jianfu Temple, we rang the temple bell and tied prayer flags to a prayer wall. We saw the temple’s small drum and bell towers. Also in the park grounds we visited a small art collective where we were presented with our names brushed in calligraphy on rice paper. “Nicole” means “elegant.” “Eric” means “Noble.” We supposed they decided to focus on the positive attributes of our names in case we felt inclined to offer a tip, or purchase a work of art.


Another Day, Another Wall

China’s Great Wall may be the longest, but Xi’an’s City Wall boasts the thickest ancient fortress wall in the world, and it’s the most intact fortress wall in China. The City Wall was visible from our hotel room at the Titan Times Hotel, along with the Xi’an Bell and Drum Towers in the center of the City Wall. But it was only as we walked alongside the wall—and along it—that we came to appreciate just how massive the wall was. Protecting downtown Xi’an within a nine-mile rectangle, the City Wall boasts bastions nearly 40 feet high and 60 feet thick at the base. Built in 1370, they’re actually rather new to a city that dates back 4,000 years. It’s amazing that the wall still stands strong after so many hundreds of years. The Chinese know their walls.


After settling into our hotel, when the outside was dark except for the red lanterns and city lights, we visited the local supermarket and got some Chinese cookies, noodles, and other local food. It’s always interesting to visit a local supermarket when abroad. With its many floors, escalators, and a department-store feel, this grocery store reminded us of one we’d frequented on a previous trip to Stockholm, Sweden, in the suburbs of the city. The food, however, was a very different affair. Different, but good.



Something Fishy About These Breakfast Noodles

At breakfast, we thought we were getting ready to bite into an interesting, translucent rice noodle. The texture was like a bean sprout, crispy on the outside but soft (and fishy) on the inside. I asked the waitress what it was and she couldn’t figure out how to translate. “Fish,” she said. “Kind of fish.” After we ate some of it, she came back with the proper translation. “Jellyfish.” Fortunately, there was a lot of other food (noodles, rice, waffles, bacon) to cut the jellies in our bellies.


Perhaps primed by the first unexpected bite of the day, when one of the westerners asked whether the benji cakes had dog meat in them, we decided to stick with sticky rice, noodles, snow plums, dragon fruit, and the usual breakfast comfort foods. They filled us, and we were ready for another highlight of our Chinese adventure.


Eight Thousand Snowflakes of Mud

On our first full day in Xi’an, it was all about the Terracotta.


The official Terracotta Replica Museum provides an interesting way to prepare for the army itself. Our guide showed us how terracotta army figures were made thousands of years ago, and how they are still made today using the same ancient process, with bricks set over the opening of the fired kiln instead of a door. The main difference between then and now is that the originals are each unique; the ones produced at the replica museum, for the most part, are molds of the same several examples.


After visiting several rooms and areas of the factory and replica museum, we exited through the gift shop. One of the most interesting shops we encountered during our time in China, it featured not only replicas of the terracotta warriors, but many other statues of clay, stone, and even jade, ranging from miniature to larger-than life. Life-sized horses, glazed and colorful, and all sorts of figurines were available. They even offered a life-sized replica carved from a solid slab of precious, green jadeite. Priced at about $20,000, it may have been a bargain given the value of the jadeite itself!


Other items in the multi-room warehouse of a shop included landscape paintings and calligraphy, beautiful tea sets and lacquer jewelry boxes, even tables and furniture made out of natural wood that looked as though they belonged in nature.


But for all the marvels in the museum of a gift shop, our focus kept coming back to the reason we were here: the army of terracotta warriors. The official replicas they sold included various sizes, from inches tall to larger-than life. The full-sized soldiers stood six feet tall. The most popular figures tend to be the fourth-size replicas. As we toured the collectables, we kept coming back to them.


I’ll bet Alex would like one of these.”


It would be a great souvenir.”


After some debate—and a good bit of persuasion from the manager—we placed our order for not just any soldier, but a terracotta statue of the first Emperor of unified China, Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi, for whom the terracotta army was constructed, and with whom it was buried. It turns out that there is no terracotta Emperor buried in the tomb—the Emperor himself took that place—but this was an artist’s rendition of the Emperor based on the images that exist and the style of the terracotta warriors, replicated in the same way that the originals were made. The statue was too big for us to tote around with us; the manager arranged to have it shipped to our home.


It is a long way,” Mr. Weng warned us. “It may take a few months.”


That’s fine. It will be a surprise reminder of our visit long after we’ve returned to our daily lives.”

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Last modified on Monday, 01 March 2021

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