Tofu and Terracotta Army

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The Great Wall of China

My first visit to China was to Shanghai in 2007. Unfortunately, my memories are somewhat mixed from that visit. It was mid-August, so the air was very humid, hot, with the heavy pollution visibly all around. It was difficult to take strolls and generally walk around with the dirt from the cars and overall air pollution making breathing rather uncomfortable. But on the flip side, I had several amazing tea drinking experiences in traditional Chinese tea houses and the Other Me had an absolute blast of negotiating prices on the bazar for tea sets and whatnot!

This year we decided to visit China again, but we chose to travel to a different direction instead. After all, it was about time to walk on the Great Wall, visit the Forbidden City and pay respects to hundreds, if not thousands, of killed civilian protestors by the military suppression in Tiananmen Square in 1989. I was excited about all the upcoming sightseeing, of course, but I what was really looking forward to, was to finally visit the excavation site of the Terracotta Army! I had previously seen some of these clay warriors couple of years ago, in the National Museum in my hometown in Poland. There are 20-30 warriors “touring” the museums in different countries in Europe and the Americas. But I wanted to see them in their point of origin, 30km east from of Xi’an in the Shaanxi province.

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Production of green bean cookies

But before having one of my dream trips come true, the Other Me and I were taken to a Muslim Quarter in the city. The Muslim Quarter in Xi’an covers several blocks and is inhabited by about 20 000 Muslims. There are 10 mosques, amongst which the Great Mosque is the most famous and most popular. It is said that current Muslim Hui inhabitants are direct descendants of foreign diplomatic envoys and merchants, who lived in the area, married with local people, thus giving rise to an interesting new mixed population. As they lived in tight community, they have maintained their own traditions and culture.  Beiyuanmen Muslim Street is located near the Drum Tower of the walled old city center and it is a nice change after regular sightseeing. It is because in the length of almost 1 km, there are countless stalls of street food, with an amazing variety of foods and sweets on the offer. This is the place where locals and tourists, both international and local, come to enjoy the atmosphere, buzz and good street food.

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Spicy tofu in Muslim Quarters in Xi’an

The food looked very tasty, but I had my eyes set on a local version of tofu. This particular tofu snack was not too complicated, but it left my taste buds very happy! Big and square pieces of bean curd were slightly fried with chillies. After cutting them into smaller pieces, the spicy sauce with bit of soya is added, mixed and sprinkled with fresh onions. Decent portion of this spicy mixture ended up at bottom of the bowl, and later in my hands. For spicy food lovers, this would be a very nice starter. While I tried various different tofu snacks in the later stages of my trip, this certainly ranked as my favourite.   Now I was ready to see the army! Terracotta means “fire clay”. This is the reason why the army was named this way as every warrior, general, horse, and carriage was made out of clay, and then left in the fire for at least a day for the clay to harden. It is well-known that each warrior is unique. What this means is that each figure has a different facial expression and a unique posture.

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Battle chariot from Pit3

But what is not as widely known is that the soldiers were made to look and represent a real-life army down to a tiniest detail! If you look closer, for example, you will see nails and life-lines on the palms. Moreover, each type of soldier is marked by different hair style. The infantry had hair pinned into one knot at the top of the head to the right; the archers, one knot on the left side of the top of the head; the cavalry had flat hair and finally higher ranked officers like a general had their hair pinned in a shape of a butterfly wings. Each soldier is believed to have been modelled after a real-life person from the time period, which further adds to realism that these clay figures convey.

The Terracotta warriors are only a part of a larger entire necropolis that was created by the first Emperor, Qin Shui Huangdi, of the Qin Dynasty. The initial works started when he ascended the throne at the age of 13, ci. 246 BC. He was in fact a key ruler in the unification of China, as he conquered seven kingdoms and unified them into the core of what we recognize as today’s China. He was also the one who started building the Great Wall to protect the lands from the Northern nomadic tribes. Qin Shui was a tyrant, however, obsessed with immortality and the legacy he would leave behind, having essentially reached all his earthly goals.   It is believed that this necropolis also contains 48 tombs of his concubines buried alive upon his death. Currently, the excavation site is divided into three pits and a display of two chariots based on the time and place where digs took place. The biggest one, Pit 1, was first found in March, 1974, when local farmers dag a well.

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6 000 warriors in battle formation in Pit1

There are 6 000 warriors in this pit, with more than 2 000 on display and horses located in 11 smaller corridors. All warriors, infantry, are in the battle formations with three rows of infantry in the front, vanguards on each side, and columns of soldiers and horses ready for the battle in each corridor. The columns are divided by the beams that used to support a roof. Throughout the years, the roofs have collapsed and tons of soil has covered the area. It is important to note here that the army is located in front of the tomb of the Emperor. The distance between them is about 1.5 km, so they act as the bodyguards, ready to defend their ruler at any point in time.

Two smaller pits, Pit2 and Pit3, were discovered in 1976. Pit2 includes 1 500 warriors from four different types of the cavalry and higher ranking officers and a war chariot. Pit3 is believed to be a location where all major battle decisions and sacrifices to the gods were made. There are only 68 warriors in the guarding stations, facing each other. However, the tomb of the Emperor itself is still not excavated. The reason for this is that the available technology is not sufficient enough to start on the digs now.

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Bronze chariot for the Emperor’s soul

The last room in the Exhibition Hall displays two bronze chariots. First one was to guard the second chariot where the soul of the Emperor was carried. On the contrary to the life-size army, both chariots are smaller and were unearthed near the burial mound of Qin Shui. Each chariot is made of over 3 600 metal pieces.

The entire site made a huge impression on me, of course discounting groups of local tourists pushing their selfie sticks in every free space and corner, instead of taking in all the history in front of them. But what took my breath away was the actual enormity of the creation and the attention to the tiniest details. One ruler obsessed with his own death created a site that made him immortal. While he may not have attained the immortality in the terms he was seeking, he has indeed become immortal through the works of over 700 000 people firing the clay and creating something truly incredible, surviving for over 2 millennia!

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