Wednesday, 19 November 2008

ps bliss on the battlements

Bliss indeed to walk the eight miles of city wall, high up above the streets, at one remove from the clamour and bustle below. I could stay up there forever....... but there's a train to catch!

terracotta tourism

Xi'an may be the start of that fabled, most alluring -sounding of all routes, the Silk Road, but on a wet misty morning you could well be in Birmingham. (Apologies to my Brummie readers). Our first day here we all have traveller's fatigue. David wants to be back in Sugar Loaf Walk, warming his slippers; I want to be in my garden at Primrose Hill, admiring the autumn colours of all the Acers I planted in the spring and am entirely missing; Joanna nibbles at things all day long.

This is a metropolis of 5 million, and renowned for its textiles. It is a dowdier sister to Beijing, where everything sparkled and gleamed. Here they glister. The Chinese love shopping and the shops remain open long after my bedtime. All the great European Queens are here: Yves St.Laurent, Versace, Louis Vuitton, Ermenegildo Zegna and the newest of them all on the block Alexander McQ...... You can just imagine the whoops of joy on the Champs Elysees and the coffee haunts of Milano, not to mention the Stock Exchanges, when the trade barriers came crashing down. The Chinese learnt in less than 20 years to replace their blue suits with haute couture.

For over a millenium Xi'an was China's capital. We visited the Big Goose pagoda which once stored Buddhist scriptures brought back here here in the C7th from India by a monk Xuanzang, who travelled for 17 years in the sub-continent collecting sutras, and then spent the rest of his life at the Big Goose translating them into Chinese; he was thus responsible for re-introducing Buddhism to China after it had been banned by some mad emperor. Buddhism here never looked back after that.
The next day the sun returned, and with it our 'esprit de touriste'. We book on to a tourist bus (our first) for the day, and in the company of Columbians, two pretty Marseillaises, a Los Angelino and a Chinese-Australian exploring his roots, we set off for the suburbs where we visit first an ancient Neolithic settlement, to whet our appetite for things to come. Then a Disney-esque re-creation of what the mad emperor's (another one) tomb might have looked like. Great fun. Then a vast studio churning out replicas of all manner of thing, from pottery to furniture. Then a vast lunch in a vaster (obviously) dining hall. And then, only then..... do we enter the precincts of the Terracotta Warriors. In the 30 years since the first clay head was uncovered by a farmer digging a well, the site has grown to mammoth proportions and is probably China's prime tourist destination. In spite of this it is absolutely marvellous!
You enter first a vast hangar, which could house several Concordes (remember those? sleek glamorous beasts that flew at vast expense between London and New York - now as dead as a dodo, and entombed in Aerospace museums up and down the M1). And there is a stupendous sight - rows and rows of soldiers and horses, some bathed in sunlight from the glass roof. It does not disappoint. And then two more vast hangars with thousands more of the same. What megalomania created all this? The actual Emperors tomb has not yet been excavated. He had his catafalque, reputedly, placed in a great lake of mercury, to deter visitors. Traces of mercury have been discovered; health and safety panic......!

Last night I walked down a boulevard of petshops - goldfish in vast shoals, a small pig out on the pavement in a cage hardly bigger than its body, all manner of pooch.... and budgerigars in the greatest abundance outside the antipodes. In another Proustian moment I recall Bobbie the blue feathered companion of my childhood. One day when I was at school he dropped off his perch, dead . In a panic to protect me from the truth of impermanence, my mother consulted a neighbour and together they performed a clandestine funeral in the neighbour's garden. When I learnt this I was furious, deprived of due obsequies for my mate. At the time I was incapable of expressing fury. It stayed stored up and festering, being added to over the years, until perhaps 40 years later it erupted in my mother's kitchen in St.John's Wood in a very messy moment of things being thrown around - eggs, flour, china, nothing was spared in an attempt to make my mother HEAR me. It was a terrifying moment for both of us. A very dodgy few months ensued, where sometimes I could not stay in my mother's presence for more than 5 minutes without having to leave, for fear of repeating the brouhaha. A great deal of therapy smoothed out our relations, eventually. But I'm still not sure if she ever really heard me.

Last night too, as for the previous couple of evenings, I stood outside the China Construction Bank, watching the dancers cavort on the pavement with fans and parasols like Geisha girls (whoops, wrong country!), and that was just the men! Who are they, these ordinary folk, whom you see everywhere, practicing their Beijing opera arias, scraping away at strange instruments, blowing on their hurdy-gurdies? Were these after-hours bank employees letting their hair down after a day at the tills? Or a group which chose the venue for its acoustics, a vast wall of plate-glass, reflecting the cacophony and high spirits out onto the boulevard? The music rises to a tremendous climax of kettle drums and cymbals, which sets off several car alarms; a hallucinatory hubbub, Dervish-like. And then its over. No applause, although a big crowd has gathered, and clearly appreciated the event. A lot of smiles, and shaking of hands, and people slope off into the evening, satisfied. Me too.

This evening we set off on another night train to Chong Qing, south of here, where we embark tomorrow for a three day trip down the Yangste, to visit the Three Gorges. I'm putting my sea legs I'm off round the city walls, 12 kilometres of them!