Friday, August 20, 2010

Day 17. Travel to Xi’an

Luke stayed up until the wee hours of the morning playing games with Lucifer and her Corean gang (I am just reporting it as I heard it), so he barely had any sleep before it was time to get up and catch a taxi for the airport. Punctually at 7:45 am the plane took off and two hours later we were in the historic Xi’an. It was here that the emperor who unified China established his capital, around 200 BC. Since then it has been the capital of the empire on and off, so it has relicts from just about every single dynasty.

The wall that surrounds the old city has been reconstructed, with is monumental gates and all, and our hostel lies at the base of the south wall, on the inside of the city, along what is called “ancient street”.

As soon as we dropped our packs we headed for the Muslim part of the city, with the idea of getting a Muslim lunch: Lamb stew with pieces of unleavened bread (they actually brought us the bread and the empty bowl, so we could break it in little pieces ourselves before the broth was added), cold breaded fish on a sweet sauce (Luke ordered it thinking it was chicken and ended not liking it), a mushroom medly, and a super spicy chicken dish that had us sobbing after the first bite. We then went to look for The Grand Mosque, which didn’t look so grand because visitors are not allowed past the first hall.

We then went to look at the monument that marks the beginning of the silk road, the trade rout that extended from Xi’an through the Gobi desert, Kazakstan, the Caspian Sea, the Carpathian Mountains, Poland, and finally Holland (with a southern branch that went through Iran, Irak, Turkey, and from there the Mediterranean). The monument itself is well done, but the real thrill is to think that we were at the point where caravans with hundreds of camels would gather, to start of a trip that would take them through 5,000 km of oppressing heat in the desert, and of freezing nights in the mountains, to maintain alive the flow of goods from east to west and viceversa. I can almost hearing them saying “Bye Honey, I’ll see you in a couple of years” and off they went!

Our last hurrah was visit to the Forest of Steles, a museum devoted to the preservation of the stone steles where the teachings of Confucius were first written down, legends were carved, and legal mandates were preserved for posterity. It may seem dumb to wander through rooms filled with stone pillars where the Chinese characters can barely be distinguished, but in a way is like browsing through a library where very old manuscripts are preserved and exhibited to the public.

As I said, trying to read a stele is very difficult, but the museum has developed a nifty technique in which they apply a thin layer of wet “paper” (kind of a hybrid between a fabric and paper), which when it dries shrinks and clings to the stone. You can then roll ink on the said paper, and create a negative copy of the stele (it is called a “rubbing” but I think it is closer to inking a lithograph stone). It is such a neat technique, and such a chance of having a museum quality copy of an ancient document, that I couldn’t resist. There was a stele, dated 1530, that showed a topographic map of the Yangtze River, in a stretch that had had catastrophic flooding in the past, and the accompanying text described the actions that the Ming dynasty engineers were taking to prevent flooding. It was exquisite . . . and they had made a “rubbing’ of it . . . and it was so tempting . . . and . . . and . . . and I just had to spend a small fortune getting it for the library! I will still have to invest quite a bit getting it mounted in fabric before it can be exhibited, but I think it will be magnificent :)

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