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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.”


An Army Fit for an Emperor

If the Terracotta Replica Museum impressed us, the real deal blew us away. Located on the spot where the enormous burial site was discovered, the Terracotta Museum was unlike any other in the world—thousands of unique, life-sized terracotta statues standing before us. When the Terracotta Army was uncovered in 1974 experts and the general public alike heralded the find as the greatest archeological discovery of the century.


No one expected that such a treasure was buried in the area. In 1974, four peasants were here, digging a well. That’s when they struck gold—or in this case, clay. The clay artifacts, in the form of human body parts, told the farmers to stop digging and contact the authorities. It appeared that something more important than a well was under the dirt.


Indeed, 8,000 six-foot soldiers, each one created uniquely using a coiling artistry—not molds—stood under the earth’s surface, just waiting to be uncovered. Each statue was individually made with distinctive features, from the armor to the fingers to the decorations and positions of hands. Every face as unique as a snowflake. To verify this, scientists have employed complex face-recognition software. Sure enough, there is not one set of twins in the army.


We didn’t have time to look each warrior in the eyes for ourselves, but spread out before us, we witnessed the thousands. Footmen and equestrians, horses and generals, archers and swordsmen. And each of the countless warriors had an individual and unique face. It is one thing to see pictures and another to actually see the great field of terracotta warriors in front of you.


We visited two pits, one completely excavated, the other still active. Most of the terracotta soldiers on display were complete; some were still being pieced together, fragments missing. In pit two, many of the figures remain broken and partially uncovered, showing visitors how they were discovered. We looked out upon a sea of dirt, the soldiers almost appearing as though treading water in the pit.



The Indiana Jones of Chinese Archeology?

After witnessing both pits and the terracotta warriors within them, we were fortunate enough to meet one of the four farmers who discovered the army while digging a well. We shook his hand and asked him to autograph a copy of the book about his discovery. He brushed his name on the title page in Chinese calligraphy. Three of the four original farmers who discovered the terracotta army are still alive, and we’re told they live comfortable lives and are taken care of by the state for their discovery.


It turns out, our guide told us, the farmers were nearly forgotten until foreign visitors, such as presidents and ambassadors, expressed an interest in meeting the terracotta army’s founding fathers.


During one such visit by President Bill Clinton, the farmer we met (who did not speak English) was prepped for the important meeting and attempted to learn a few phrases in English. When he shook hands with Clinton, meaning to say “how are you,” the farmer asked “Who are you.”


The President grinned. “Why, I’m Bill Clinton, President of the United States,” He answered to laughter all around.


We laughed at the story ourselves as we left the site of the terracotta army. Our last visit in the area was to the large mound where the Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi himself was buried.


Close Calls in a Rickshaw

With a few hours to spare before our evening engagement at a dinner theater, we walked to the west gate and passed through the city wall towards the east gate. On the sight-filled walk through the center of Xi’an, we happened across the City God Temple, which featured several shrines full of large, colorful statues carved from wood. An active temple and virtually tourist-free, we spied locals making offerings outside and burning large bundles of incense. Being the only foreigners present, in spite of our discrete respect, we garnered a number of suspicious looks—as though we’d been pegged as spies. Feeling out of place, we left the temple area and returned to the main streets.


Shopping areas and venders filled the streets, from little booths to large department stores. During our walk through the city, we visited the Bell and Drum Towers. We went inside the Drum Tower and saw the Drum Museum with an array of drum types; there was even a traditional performance going on when we entered the tower. Directly across from the Drum Tower stood the Bell Tower. The Bells kept the time during the day and the drums at night.



We must have been under the spell of the drums, because when we looked at the time we realized we didn’t have enough time to walk back to the hotel in time to meet our guide for our dinner engagement. We decided to hail a taxi.


But rush hour had come. The streets burst at the curbs with cars, busses, scooters and bicycles. The sidewalks were packed with people coming home from work and going out to dinner. Instead of waiting hopelessly for a taxi, we opted to hire a three-wheeled scooter rickshaw with a plastic film back. It was basically a scooter with a homemade bench fastened to the back and a cabin made out of flimsy see-through plastic.


The first rickshaw taxi we approached laughed at us when we showed them the card with our hotel’s address. After a few blocks of attempts, we finally found an older man who smirked, and opened the flap for us to climb aboard.


Our motorized rickshaw driver was a maniac! He sped the wrong way in heavy traffic, he almost ran people over, he navigated tight spots between buses, trucks, and large vehicles, and we almost got crushed between two huge busses. A few times, he went the wrong way in a round-a-bout so he wouldn’t have to go all the way around—busses and cars were flying toward us and at one point a traffic cop even gave us a funny look. Our driver missed old ladies and old men scuffling on the side streets by inches, their clothes fluttering as we sped by. And he seemed to like to squeeze between busses and trucks when there wasn’t a lane between them.


This guy’s going to get us killed,” Nicole said.


I’ll bet he’s doing this on purpose—to give the “spoiled Americans” a scare they won’t soon forget.” I laughed


He’s doing a great job of it!”


We made light of the situation. But it was probably the most dangerous ride we’ve had, zipping in and out of traffic where no vehicle should be able to squeeze.


Eventually, our daredevil driver got lost. It took us 40 minutes to arrive at the hotel; it should have taken us ten minutes. It was a dangerous ride, but a unique experience. We were now wide awake for the show!


But we were late. At the hotel’s front desk, we asked to call our tour guide. Our tour guide knew we were out on an adventure so he had already arranged a taxi to pick us up. It only took three minutes to drive to the show. We arrived to the table right before our dumplings.


Dumpling of a Dynasty

The dumpling feast featured eighteen different kinds of dumplings, and the accompanying costume show was based on the sort of musical entertainment the Emperor and Empress would have enjoyed during the Tang Dynasty. The show included dancing, costumes, a bit of acrobatics, and traditional Chinese songs.


After dinner, we drove thru the city walls to see the city at night. It certainly looked different at night—and at a much slower driving pace. We visited the “times square” of Xi’an and the Bell and Drum Towers, this time all lit up. Once we arrived back at our hotel, we noticed that, when illuminated, you could clearly see the drum and bell towers from our hotel window. When we went to our beds, we kept the curtains open to the night lights. But it was the terracotta warriors who still occupied our dreams.


A Day of Three Cities

The next morning, the bellboy took our luggage—and the next time we saw our bags they were waiting for us in Suzhou. After breakfast we’d planned to take a taxi to the Big Wild Goose Pagoda, but with our flight looming and after our recent experience with the crazy rickshaw taxi, we decided not to press our luck.


Instead we walked along the city wall again, and in the garden. We witnessed groups of people doing tai chi, badminton, hacky sack badminton, jump ropes, people snapping whips, staffs and bows, people dancing, flying kites, moving and dancing while balancing a ball on a racket, people playing instruments and singing, painting, and much more. It was something we’re not used to seeing in the states. It’s as though every retiree and many workers were taking a refreshing break from business to relax and enjoy the simple pleasures.


After we walked, we came back to our hotel and got on the bus to go to the airport. But while driving we learned there was a flight delay. Instead of sitting around and waiting, our tour guide took us to Hanyangling Mausoleum and Museum.


Terracotta Junior

The Hanyangling (0r Han Yangling) Mausoleum and Museum was another Emperor’s burial ground, where miniature Terracotta figures were found. This mound was discovered, and the museum is currently located, about twelve miles north of Xi’an in the farming village of Zhangjiawan. This was the final resting place of Emperor Liu Qi and his wife, Empress Wang, and was built in 153 A.D. More than 3,000 artifacts have been excavated from the pits belonging to the couple, surpassing even those found in the main Terracotta Museum.


Some of the terracotta figures here included pigs, sheep, cows, and soldiers. The glass floor allowed us to look down into the pits and see the figurines as we walked over them. A hologram movie detailed the history and discovery. Especially interesting: the remains of an old dirt-constructed city wall. After the museum we said goodbye to Xi’an and flew to Shanghai.


Skirting Shanghai

Shanghai was our relay, but not our destination; that would come later. Once we landed in Shanghai we got a new tour guide and hopped on a coach destined for Suzhou.


But we got a taste as we passed through the outskirts of what is probably the fastest-growing city on earth. Some of the skyscrapers and buildings form a distance were unique and amazing—as was the sheer mass of seeing so many buildings and so much construction concentrated in one area. As the skyscrapers gave way to farmland, our guide entertained us from time to time with information, stories, and jokes.


We have a very good driver,” he assured us. “Number Two Driver. It is the best kind to have, because a Number One Driver is already in the hospital or jail.”


The drive lasted three hours, and the farmland was a beautiful contrast to the high-density cities of Beijing, Shanghai, and even the concrete and steel of Xi’an. Once in Suzhou, we went straight to our hotel, the Grand Metro Park Hotel, settled in, and then walked in the lit-up neighborhood. We ended our day at a family market with green bean ice cream. It sounds disgusting, but it was delicious! At the same family market we bought dinner and tried unusual things like dried snow plums, cantaloupe gum, milk tea soft drink, and a flower tea. A flowery end to a long day.




Silky Suzhou

With a population of about six million, Suzhou’s not nearly as huge as Shanghai, Beijing, or even Hangzhou. It’s known for its peaceful gardens and waterside canal towns where people live today as they did in generations past. But there was one important commodity that has made Suzhou a successful city throughout the ages—silk. Known over the centuries for both its silk production and fine silk embroidery, silk is what put Suzhou on the map. That, and the gardens, which date back to the Ming and Qing dynasties.


We woke early, checked out of our Suzhou five-star, stowed our luggage on the coach, and enjoyed an enormous breakfast of eggs, sticky rice, and jellyfish “noodles.”


Our first stop of the day was the Number One Silk Factory. We learned about the production of silk and saw each step firsthand. Our guide took us from the raising of the silkworms in different types of habitats to the cultivating of mulberry bushes to feed them. From the boiling of the silkworms to how silk pulled from multiple silkworms at a time to form one barely visible strand.


We also saw how some bigger silkworms are used differently, to create comforters and pillows—instead of pulling a thread of silk, the silkworms are pulled open on a stick, then a bigger one, then each single silkworm is stretched open to the size of a blanket. We even got to pull open one of the silkworms ourselves. These larger silkworms used to be thrown away because the silk strands couldn’t be pulled off like string—until a lady figured out how to use them and these “rejects” became even more prized than “normal” silk worms.


After the silk production factory, we visited Suzhou Lanli Garden Embroidery Research Institute, in an area surrounded by beautiful mountains. There, we viewed original, million-dollar silk embroidery works of art, and witnessed the process of embroidering silk into masterworks. We took in a number of different styles. For example, the double-sided works with different pictures on each side or figures that are different colors on each side, using the same stitch work. It was amazing to see the nimble needlework of the masters as they worked with multi-colored thread (one color on each side of the silk strand) so thin it was nearly invisible to the naked eye, to create two intricate pictures in one.


One work that impressed us was the portrait of a tiger who looked as clear as a photograph. When we rotated the center of the frame around to the other side, the same picture was there. These were not two of the same picture duplicated—it was the same picture, the needlework so masterful that it created twin copies of the same portrait at once.


Another amazing example was the two-sided image of a cat toying with a cricket. On one side, the cat is gray. On the other side, the identical picture can be found, but the cat is orange. These were not two works of embroidery matched up—it was the same thread with one side of the silk colored gray, the other orange. It was astounding that the embroidery masters could accomplish such a feat. But they do it every day.


After the silk production tour and silk embroidery institute tour, we were hungry. We took lunch at a local farmers’ restaurant, which was quite good. As with most of our lunches, an assortment of many kinds of food was placed on a lazy susan for us to share. As we ate, our guide pointed at one of our waitresses.


Beautiful, don’t you think?”


We nodded politely, expecting the awkward moment to pass.


Suzhou women have a reputation for being the most sought-after in China. But the reputation did not come about by chance. It was cultivated.”


One of the single men in our group took an interest. “So this is a good place to pick up women, you mean?”


Our guide smiled. “Not easy to pick them up. But if you do find one here, you will have a keeper. Suzhou women learn four things to become the most charming women in China.”


Mr. Single leaned in, seeming more interested in these morsels of information than the morsels of pork, chicken, and broccoli on his plate.


First, they must learn calligraphy. Then, they must master embroidery. Third, they must train themselves to sing beautifully. Finally, they must learn to play an instrument well. This is how Suzhou women make themselves among the most sought-after in China.”


The single guy shrugged and went back to eating. The rest of us were starting to feel a bit full. Now that we knew why Suzhou had a reputation for charming women, it was time to find out why Suzhou was known as the “Venice of the East.”



Venice of the East

Suzhou is known for its network of canals, stone bridges, and waterside houses with cement and stone porches that literally fall into the narrow waterways. This is how locals have lived since the 6th century BC. Most of six million who live in Suzhou today live outside this center, in modern housing. But those who still live here still live a simple life in the traditional way.



As our boat carried us through the narrow waterways, we saw people doing their laundry on scrub boards where their patios dipped into the canal. We watched people hanging laundry to dry, hanging out meat, and putting breads and baked goods in their windows. People stood on the stone bridges and took pictures of us as we took pictures of them. A man held up his baby to wave at us and we waved back. Girls sitting at a café and reading books looked up and waved, smiling. Vendors sold newspapers and nylons, food and tools. We even saw a wedding party, the bride and her bride’s maids all dressed up, two boats along the canal waiting for them, decked out with white flowers. The bride and her ladies giggled and waved.


Is this place the attraction,” our guide joked, “or are we?”


Picturesque and peaceful, but feeling more authentic than touristy, we enjoyed the sights—and the sights enjoyed us—as our boat carried us through the canals, under stone bridges, passing the homes and markets of the local village. We came to a 1,100-year-old street in old Suzhou, and got off the boat.


We visited the crowded streets of an old famers’ market where just about any animal you could want to eat (and a lot we didn’t want to eat) was available for sale, dead or alive: snakes, turtles, frogs, fish, chickens, geese, pigeons, various birds, and all sorts of creatures big and small. We watched a butcher kill a chicken right in front of us by hanging it off its own cage. They don’t cut the necks because they want to keep the blood in the chicken—it’s good for warming the body and the liver, locals say. It was easy to feel sorry for the animals, frogs piled on top of each other, chickens caged so tight they couldn’t move, eels in mounds that made it impossible for them to move. But it wasn’t that the local farmers were crueler than the western meat complex—just that they were more open about it. The animals cleanly and conveniently packaged in American supermarkets likely endure the same indignities and suffering—or far worse. We’re just more interested in hiding it from consumers.


Within the old farmers market, we visited a 100-year-old winery. The current wine master has been making and selling the family label all his life. While there, we sampled four different kinds of sticky rice wine. They called it wine, but it was more like a liquor, slightly sweet and made out of fermented white rice in large clay pots. The wine master dipped a silver ladle into the clay pots to distribute our samples. They were different ages—from three years to 30—and had very different tastes, from smooth and sweet to harsh and strong. When we purchased a bottle to take home and our guide bought a jug of the “fire water” to take with us to our next dinner, the master used the same metal ladle to dip into the clay pots and pour into specially made plastic bottles. The bottle our guide purchased for dinner ended up lasting a few meals.


Let’s Linger

After taking in the famers market, we took a canal cruise back to the mainland and visited the Lingering Garden. What a refreshing and peaceful place to linger.


We explored the full gardens, pond, bridge, willow trees, island, flowers, mosaic sidewalk pictures, display rooms, halls of bonsai trees, and more. The traditional Chinese garden is a popular tourist attraction, and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It dates back to the 1500’s and appears to be every bit as serene today as it was then.


As we took in the bonsai trees, our guide cleared up the misconception that we were looking at traditional Japanese art in China. The Japanese took the idea for bonsai from the earlier Chinese art of Penjing, or Penzai. In fact, Bonsai was simply the way the Japanese pronounced the word Penzai. The Chinese Penzai we saw here tended to be just as dependent on naturally formed rock sculptures as cultivated trees. We stood in a forest of Penzai, and it was beautiful.


We lingered a couple hours—but who was counting? We could easily have lingered for hours more. But there was no time—we had a coach to catch, and it was headed for Hangzhou.


©Eric D. Goodman with help from Nicole Goodman


Last modified on Monday, 01 March 2021