From Chengdu, we headed north to Xi'an, which doesn't look so far away on the map but still takes 18 hours by train to reach. Brooke's cold was getting worse, so when we reached our hostel, she took a rest while Andy and I headed out to see the monuments and meet the locals.
The symbol of Xi'an is the Big Goose Pagoda. It doesn't really look like a goose to me, but it certainly was big. Unfortunately, they also charge a big admission fee, so we just admired it from the outside.
Xi'an, like some other Chinese cities, has a drum tower and a bell tower. The bells used to be rung in the morning to wake everyone up, while the drums were beaten at sunset to tell everyone to go to bed. Both are illuminated at night these days and are very attractive (here's the drum tower).
The next day, we all headed about an hour out of town to see Xi'an's top attraction, the Terracotta Army. Known as one of the greatest archaeological finds in the world, it consists of thousands of 2,000-year-old terra cotta soldiers and horses, all built to guard an emperor's mausoleum. They were buried with the emperor, and only discovered again in 1974.
The soldiers have amazing detail. Here's a kneeling archer. His wooden weapon has long since rotted away, but you can still admire his elaborately scultped clothes, hairdo, facial expression, etc.
The details just get more amazing the closer you look at the figures.
Of course, not every soldier is in perfect condition. A lot have lost their heads over the years, probably thanks to invaders who desecrated the tomb.
A few horse-drawn carriages are in impressively good shape, though. These even have a bit of their original paint still visible.
There are three main excavation pits you can visit. All are still actively being dug through by archaologists, so you can see the unrestored state in which they find some of the statues.
We saved Pit 1, the biggest pit, for last. It's the size of an airplane hangar and is filled with regiments of soldiers. This is just a small area from that pit.
Back in Xi'an city, we had enough time to explore the famous Muslim Quarter. The real highlight was the delicious food specialties that the local Hui Muslims make, but we also visited the mosque, which impressively combined Chinese- and Arabian-style architecture. Though the Chinese style really is dominant.
The mosque's minaret, or call-to-prayer tower, had this sign outside of it. It took us all several readings to realize that it's trying to say "Retrospection Tower," not "Retard Inspection Tower."
Our last stop in China was many people's first destination--the capital, Beijing! We spent four days there and could easily have spent several more, as there is so much to see there. I was kind of expecting a dirty, traffic-choked, tourist-cluttered megalopolis, but was quite pleasantly surprised to instead find a city with many trees and parks and old neighborhoods called Hutongs, which were full of tiny, winding streets, traditional homes, and more bicycles than cars.
Our first major activity was going to an acrobatics show, where young acrobats blew us and a large auditorium full of (mostly Chinese) tourists away with their tricks. Andy got a few shots in of the tightrope girl and the contortionists before an usher noticed and pointed to the large no cameras sign...
A street in Beijing near our hostel, decked out with lanterns for the dining crowds.
The next day, it was off to visit Tianamen Square--apparently the world's largest public square--and the Forbidden City. First we popped by Mao's mausoleum on the square, thereby completing Andy's trifecta of pickled communist leaders viewed (he's seen Lenin, Ho Chi Min, and now Mao). No cameras allowed inside, but here's the mausoleum from the square.
Mao's likeness graces the entrance to the Forbidden City. Here Andy and I add our likenesses to sweeten the image.
The Forbidden City was constructed in the 1400s by the Ming Dynasty and housed the Chinese royal families and their attendants for centuries. Commoners were not allowed, but now for less than $10 a person, anyone can go in. It was really crowded when we visited, so we kind of wished that maybe they'd decided to forbid just a few more people...
Anyway, you proceed through a series of impressive gates, like this one. Many are heavily restored to have that slick, built-yesterday that so many historical sites in China sport these days...
You can get an audioguide in an impressive number of languages. I searched in vain for Pig-Latin, but apparently the only fake, made-up language you can get is Esperanto.
Many structures in the Forbidden City have little animals on the roofs to protect them. The more animals, the more important the building.
A Tara, a building, and a huge friggin' crowd.
Nice cauldron! These held water to help put out fires--necessary, since all the buildings are made of wood. Ironically, when the water froze in the winter, attendants had to light a fire each day to thaw it...and hope that fire didn't spread to the buildings and necessitate the water's use!
When a dragon and a turtle mate, this is what you get.
The City has a fun museum of fancy clocks from Europe and China from the 18th and 19th centuries. The best one has this animatronic figure who writes calligraphy using real ink and parchment at specified times.
This sign is such a lie. The toilets at the Forbidden City were your standard dirty, paperless squats. Don't be fooled!
The next day, it was off to the Great Wall of China. We skipped the more touristy and restored sections and went straight to Jinshanling, which is farther from Beijing, more in its original state, and set in beautiful countryside. Construction in this part began in the 1300s (though some parts of the wall are older than that). We highly recommend visiting this section of the wall, which was one of the highlights of China for all of us.
We shared a car to the wall and explored it with Virginie and Pierre-Louis, a fantastic couple from France. How often do you get to learn dirty French cabaret songs while hiking along a beautiful ancient monument?
We have so many pictures of the wall, but we'll wrap it up with this one. The weather was a bit overcast, but that made our hike cooler and made the surroundings more atmospheric. I didn't know that the terrain the wall was built on was so hilly--it was quite a workout just to hike along it, so I can see now how, combined with the natural landscape, it helped keep invaders at bay.
On our way back into the city, we stopped for photos at the Bird's Nest stadium, built for the 2008 Olympics. I bet it looks even neater when it gets illuminated at night.
Our hostel was located right next to the Lama Temple, the most important Tibetan Buddhist temple outside of Tibet. It has some nice dog/dragon statues...
And a few awesome blue demons. Nice skull hat! I'm still not clear on the role of these demons in Buddhism, though...
Here is my namesake, the bodhavista Tara! She is enlightened, but stays on earth to help other people reach Nirvana. You know, just like I do.
The highlight of this temple is the 18-meter (60-foot) Buddha, carved out of a single piece of sandalwood. Add it to the list of enormous Buddhas that we've paid to see in Asia.
While Brooke bravely rented a bike and explored the Hutongs, Andy and I went to the not-so-impressive Beijing Natural History Museum. Though you can't say it was a total bust, because he got to climb inside a big plastic uterus. Yes, that's what you think it is swimming towards him along the floor.
Near that museum is the Temple of Heaven, a nifty round Taoist Temple from the 1400s, set in a lovely park.
That was our last major stop in Beijing. That night, Brooke headed back to Shanghai to catch her flight home, and the next morning, Andy and I flew to the Mongolian border to cross and continue our Asian adventures in that country.
Before we came to China, I was so concerned about the language barrier, the food, the crowds, and the pollution, but I have to say that it was one of the most pleasantly surprising countries we have been to on this long trip. Amazing eats, good public transportation, friendlier people than I'd ever expected, lots of English signage, and so many interesting and beautiful sights to see. So if you're thinking of taking a trip to Asia, I'd strongly urge you to check out China. I'm looking forward to heading back and exploring a few more corners of this fascinating country myself.