Monday, December 22, 2008

dreams of grandeur

This is about Xian, China.

The hall is huge. Very wide, and twice as long. The ceiling, so high that even though there are over two hundred people inside here at the moment it just swallows up their words, dimming them to a dull murmur, like a distant waterfall.
Everybody is looking at the men in the pits. Terracotta men. Warriors whose weapons — spears, swords, bows and arrows — are no longer in their hands. Some of them are whole but most wear signs of their battle with time, missing bits of nose, ear, chest, leg; leftover smudges of once-bright colour.
They’re tall men, of noble bearing. You know it just by the expressions on their faces — chins up, looking squarely at whatever the future might bring. They stand in neat rows, protecting the tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huang, who became the ruler of China in 246 BC.
Emperor Qin is credited with building a unified law-abiding nation — he defeated six kingdoms and built the first version of the Great Wall of China. He survived three attempts on his life and perhaps, as a result of them, became obsessed with the idea of death.
Some say that he died looking for Peng Lai, a mythical land of immortality, inhabited by the undying. He started the construction of his mausoleum and the Terracotta Army that was to accompany him in his battles in the afterlife, several years before his death.
The army was discovered fairly recently, in 1947, when a farmer digging a well in his field found pieces of terracotta arms and legs.

Imagining the possibilities
Inside Pit 1, listening to the guide’s story, it’s easy to let the imagination wing its way on a flight of fancy.
After the first few thousand warriors were excavated, the uncovering of the remainder was halted until a way could be found to continue the process without submitting them to the ravages that occur when they come in contact with air.
Looking at the row of warriors peter into a bank of soil, covered with tarpaulin, it’s easy to picture hundreds, nay, thousands of sombre-faced warriors standing in the dark, dank underground all the way to the tomb, about a kilometre away.
The imagined picture lends greater grandeur to what I actually see before me.

Old world charm
The Terracotta warriors maybe the reason why Xian figures on almost every tourist itinerary to China, but it’s not all there is to this city. Xian was once the starting point of the Silk Road, known as Chang’an in those days. Traders from along the route, Persia, Afghanistan, the Middle Eastern countries, came to live here, giving rise to the city’s Muslim Quarter, a tight knit group that exists even today, lending Xian its distinctive character.
Head here in the last of the evening light, so you can see the lights come on. Everyday is a festival here, with music and lights and dancing. Stalls that sell all kinds of foods, and nuts and souvenirs. Each step of the way you find something that catches your eye. Clay flutes that look like little pots. Crickets in tiny cane cages, like keychains — in Xian, the sound of the cricket is considered musical and brings luck. Don’t miss the ‘jing gao’, the rice cakes, and ‘shi zi bing’, the city’s famous parsemon cakes. Xian is also home to its distinctive dumplings — little doughy bundles of full of delicious meat and veggies, each bite soaked with flavour.
A tiny lane off Muslim Street leads to the local mosque. Here, the stalls come closer together and the bargaining is fiercer. Chinese kaftans and cheap cotton t-shirts compete for attention with antique silver and stone jewellery that is a unique mix of Chinese and Muslim designs. Narrow streets crisscross and run into one another, turning in on themselves in to a maze of bylanes.

A time for celebration
Walking out of Muslim Street, it feels like you’ve left behind a older century and entered a new one. Xian has the wide streets and well-behaved traffic that is typical of most Chinese cities. Broad sidewalks and boulevards encourage aimless strolls past the Drum tower and Bell tower at the city’s centre. Each inch of the monuments is lit with tiny yellow lights, looming in the night as the backdrop to so many Chinese kites snaking skywards through the evening breeze.
In the square between the two Xian landmarks, a boisterous celebration is on, celebrating the launch of a new energy drink. There’s music and contests and ice sculptures, and streams of melt water at our feet. I like the lemon flavour more than the orange, and as I nod my approval, I get offered a second; ‘Welcome to China’ says the beaming face attached to the hand extending it to me.
Suddenly the music changes to a more steady, urgent beat, and tall beautiful models walk on to the improvised ramp, their heels clicking in time with the music.

A slice of life
Xian’s two main streets cut the city into four quarters, like an orange, The Bell and Drum tower like the pits in the centre. Heading east down Main Street, I walk past the more modern shops, the McDonalds and the KFCs, the international brands that are booming in a China where suddenly everybody has more money to spend on clothes and eating out. And then all of a sudden are the souk-like bylanes. Offshoots from the streets full of designer labels that meander into no where — displaying women’s knick knacks like hair clips and cosmetics on one side, and fresh meat and seafood and nuts on the other — and beckon to you in with the friendly babble that your can hear from far away.
It’s these little surprises that make Xian the sort of place where you want to finish off the main sightseeing spots on your agenda quickly, so you can spend the rest of your time walking around, exploring. It tempts you to stop and watch the kites soaring in the sky, to listen to the haggling at the shops, watch the musician’s fingers fly over the holes in his clay pot flute, to sip a beer sitting at the park benches and take a late night walk on the lit ramparts of the city walls.
It also makes you wish you were in the city on a Wednesday, so you could find out for yourself if the rumours you heard of boisterous noisy cricket fights held during the weekly market in the Muslim Quarter that could put the cock fights of old to shame are true.

A version of this was published in the Hindustan Times on December 6


raven said...


I was wondering if you could share the text of a post you wrote around mid May 07 titled 'bent out of shape' URL:
You seem to have removed the post since.
I had linked briefly to that post nd wanted to read it again.


neha said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
n said...

The post you mention belongs to another era and has been taken down along with the rest from that time. But since, you're asking me so nicely, drop me a mail at, and I'll mail you the text of it. Perhaps you can post it on your blog with a credit to me.

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