A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: dagosto

On Lessons from the Terracotta Warriors

I spent a total of three days in Xi’an, China’s ancient capital city. The 1974 discovery of the Terracotta Army a few miles away turned Xi’an into one of the most popular tourist destinations in China. As I wandered around the ancient city center trying to find my way to the various historic sites, it seemed to me that Xi’an was attracting a much higher percentage of foreign visitors than Beijing or Shanghai. Europeans were the most visible and the most audible, especially British, Germans, and Italians. Still, by far the greatest numbers of tourists were Chinese nationals. Again the major cultural and historic attractions were so crowded that tourists taking pictures mostly ended up taking pictures of each other. There were probably hundreds of Chinese tourists who returned home from their vacations, looked at their trip photos, and asked each other: “Who is that American with the curly brown hair, and why is she walking the wrong way through so many of our pictures?”

I had expected the highlight of my time in the Xi’an region to be my visit to the Terracotta Army site. It was indeed a highlight, but not in the way that I had imagined. I had expected to be awed by the scale and artistry of the army, but I hadn’t expected visiting it to be such a dark experience, both literally – heavy rain poured down from the dark sky the entire day, and figuratively – leaving me in a darkened, pensive emotional state for days to follow.


I visited two archaeological sites that day, the Xi’an Banpo Museum and the Terracotta Army historic site, both of which are nestled in the beautiful Qin Mountains. The Xi’an Banpo Museum is built on the site of the Neolithic settlement of Banpo, home to a community of Neolithic people from about 6,700 BC to about 5,600 BC. Several ancient foundations have been unearthed and are exposed and viewable inside the museum. The excavated pits indicate that houses in the settlement were either round or square and made of mud and wood.


A number of communal burial pits have also been excavated, as have remnants of a protective moat dug around the ancient town. Extant ceramic shards indicate that the ancient residents were skilled potters who used pottery for creating daily life implements and for funerary purposes as well.


The museum was interesting, but small. It doesn’t tend to attract many visitors, unlike the Terracotta Army site, which attracts more than a million tourists each year. The day I visited the Terracotta Army site it was relatively empty; the driving rain kept all but the most intrepid tourists away.

The Terracotta Army was originally created as a massive subterranean installation for the mausoleum of the first emperor of China. In 1974 farmers digging a well on their land unearthed some ancient pottery pieces that turned out to be parts of the Terracotta Army and one of the most important archaeological discoveries of the twentieth century. When I remarked to my Chinese tour guide about the historical importance of the find, he put an interesting spin on the story. He reminded me that the find came only about six years before China moved from a strict communist economy to one more open to capitalism and private industry. Had the farmer found the treasures just a few years later, my guide said, he could have sold his land for a large amount of money and never had to work another day in his life. Instead, he reported the find to the communist government and got little in return for his land, although he later did receive a small income from royalties from a book relating the story of the find.

And what an amazing find it was. The Terracotta Army was created between 246 BC and 209 BC by command of Emperor Qin, the first emperor of China and the first person to unite the country as one. No one knows for sure why he ordered the creation of the clay army. Perhaps he believed that it would go with him into the afterlife and would enable him to fight new battles and rule into eternity. Or perhaps he wanted it to scare away potential grave robbers and provide protection for the treasures he planned to have buried with him in his tomb – statuary and other objects of precious metals, glowing jewels, and fine porcelain. Most of these priceless artifacts are still buried with him about a mile from the Terracotta Army site in the main tomb. Regardless, an estimated 700,000 workers, including local and distant craftsmen and more than half a million prisoners of war from the six kingdoms Qin had conquered to unite China, worked on the project during its thirty-seven year construction period until Qin’s death and burial.

Hidden and buried underground as soon as it was finished, the Terracotta Army included more than 8,000 life-size sculpted soldiers, plus a large collection of additional sculptures representing chariots, horses, and government officials. Over the centuries the statues were crushed or burned, possibly by warring parties or vandals and possibly by the accumulating weight from above ground. Art historians, archaeologists, and other experts from around the world have spent the past 40 years reconstructing many of the original sculptures. Reconstructive work and research continues at the site today.





Emperor Qin was more than just a visionary who saw the powerful potential of a united China. He was also a brilliant and violent military leader who led a series of wars to defeat the six neighboring national governments that stood in the way of his realizing his vision of a united China. Qin also started work on the Great Wall of China to keep would-be invaders from entering the newly united nation and threatening his despotic rule. The historical importance of his rule in terms of Chinese history cannot be overstated. The administrative union he created has lasted for over 2,000 years; thus, he can be credited with the very existence of China as we know it.

But there is a darker side to the story, one of almost unthinkable violence. It was not just Emperor Qin’s war ambitions that resulted in death for many ancient Chinese people but also the building of the Terracotta Army itself. After the project was completed surviving Terracotta Army workers were killed to keep them from revealing its secret location. No one knows how many craftsmen and prisoners of war were murdered, but the mass murder of thousands – perhaps tens of thousands – of workers did keep the location of the great army secret. For centuries local legend had suggested that priceless treasures and a mighty clay army had been buried with Qin, but it wasn’t until 1974 that the core of the legend was proven to be true.



Today the site is both a museum and an active archaeological location. There are three large excavation pits, each encased in a high-ceilinged museum building with elevated walkways leading visitors around the edges of the pits. My guide and I entered the largest of the three pits first. I walked along the perimeter, gazing down at the life-sized clay army. The first pit contains more than 6,000 soldiers, but only a portion have been excavated and reconstructed.


Each human figure has unique facial features, making each one look like a real person, beautifully crafted and lifelike. Art historians believe that Terracotta Army workers probably modeled for the artists who sculpted the more than 8,000 unique human figures, meaning that the faces we see today are the faces of some of those who toiled on the project and later died there for their labor.


I snapped a picture with my phone and sent it to my texting buddy (my daughter). She texted me back just one word: “Haunting.” It was the perfect word to describe not just the visual scene but the feeling inside the enormous building. Tourists who visit the pits are not alone as they wander around the ancient site. The ghosts of the thousands of workers who spent years toiling on the project and then died for having been involved walk along with the tourists. Looking into the faces of those long-dead men, the scene struck me as the bittersweet collision of art and violence. I felt quiet, sad, and respectful for those countless forgotten men. History typically venerates the wealthy and the powerful, erasing the poor and the powerless. But here the poor and the powerless live on in the faces of the terracotta soldiers, day after day, month after month, decade after decade, watching the tourists watch them.


Although it was intended to immortalize China’s first emperor, a man of utmost wealth, power, and privilege, I saw the Terracotta Warrior site as the immortalization of the thousands of less fortunate people who toiled and died there, each of whom deserves every bit as much as the emperor to be remembered and honored. I also saw it as a cautionary tale warning future generations about the violence and horror that absolute power can feed and instantiate, a warning that we must never, ever forget.


Click here to read more about the craftsmen and workers who built the Terracotta Army.

Click here to read about how I spent the remainder of my time exploring the ancient city of Xi’an.

Posted by dagosto 17:45 Comments (0)

On Exploring the Ancient City of Xi’an

Despite my mortifying departure from Beijing, my flight and entry into the ancient city of Xi’an went smoothly. My guide – a dead serious man in his early 60’s, with little to say, which is odd but kind of comforting in a tour guide – and driver picked me up at the Xi’an airport early in the day.

Xi’an was the capital of China from 221 BC to 904 AD. It was also the starting point for the famed Silk Road, the ancient trade route running from China all the way to the Mediterranean Sea. Today Xi’an is probably best known for being the largest city near the world-famous Terracotta Warriors archaeological site. It’s a huge city, with a city population of about 9 million and a metropolitan population of about 14 million, making it China’s ninth largest metropolitan area.

We drove from the airport through a gate in the old city walls into the city center. The walls were built by prisoners between 1370 and 1378 AD to provide protection from the always-marauding Mongols. Soldiers stationed in the four towers at the top of the walls kept watch and shot arrows down at endeavoring invaders. According to a sign at the South Gate, the dirt-filled brick walls run about 14 kilometers in circumference (about 9 miles) and measure between 12 and 18 meters (40-60 feet) wide at the base, tapering up 12 meters (40 feet) high to the top.


The walls still encircle the city center, making them the most complete remaining set of ancient city walls in China, although the original surrounding moat has been filled in. Bells were rung in the morning from the still-extant Bell Tower to announce the opening of the city gates. Drums were beaten from the still-extant Drum Tower to announce the evening closing of the gates. Both towers were also built in the fourteenth century.

Foreign visitors to Xi’an often complain that for an ancient city, it looks awfully modern. And it does. On the drive to the hotel I look up and down the street for landmarks as a part of my ongoing struggle not to get lost in each new city I visit. I note that there is a McDonald’s, a Kentucky Fried Chicken, and a Pizza Hut on the block with my hotel, thinking that they should make the street easy to identify again. My orienting efforts are not, as it later turned out, particularly helpful. There is a McDonald’s, a Kentucky Fried Chicken, and a Pizza Hut on most of the major streets in old downtown Xi’an.

Still, Xi’an is my favorite major Chinese city of all those that I have visited as a tourist so far, partly because it is the one where I get lost the least frequently. The distinctive Bell Tower sits smack in the center of the city. Building height restrictions mean that there are no tall buildings in the old city. If I lose my way, I just have to walk a few blocks until I see either the Bell Tower or the city walls, and I can find my bearings again. For a person who spends much of her time lost and wandering, it is liberating.

The first day I arrive I’m on my own after my guide and driver drop me at my hotel. I decide to visit the Bell Tower. It’s a three-block walk from my hotel. The traffic in Xi’an is the worst I have ever seen – worse even than the traffic in L.A., or Mexico City, or Rome, or Beijing, or Tangier -- not worse in the sense of heaviest, but worst in the sense of wildest. There are few street lights. Pedestrians wait at street corners until a space in the traffic opens up and then dash into the middle of the busy street, glancing wildly back and forth as cars race up, slowing just slightly to avoid crashing into the walkers. The only time I have been truly frightened on my trip to China is crossing the streets of Xi’an.

I find the Tower easily, but am stumped when I find myself looking at it from across the wide, circular avenue that rings the entire building. It’s “marooned on a traffic island,” as my guidebook puts it. No pedestrians are attempting to dart into the speeding circle of cars, buses, bicycles, and little mini-vehicles that fill out the Chinese traffic scenes. If it’s too dangerous for Xi’an pedestrians, then it must be truly deadly.


I have been in China long enough to know that if I don’t see a crowd of people waiting to cross a street, then there is an alternate way to cross. I look around until I spot the entrance to a tunnel leading under the street.


I walk down the stairs into the tunnel and follow the yellow arrows labeled “Bell Tower” around in a circle to a set of stairs.


I run up those stairs, excited for once to have found a tourist site on my own without getting lost, only to find myself back in the exact same place on the surface street where I had entered the tunnel.

(Well, duh. I should have expected that. The arrows had taken me around in a circle, after all.)

I’ve been tricked by yet another set of cunning Chinese arrows. There are arrows everywhere on the streets here, but they’re only helpful some of the time. Arrows on traffic signs and in buildings often point straight up or down when there’s nothing above or below. Do they mean left, right, north, or south, maybe? I have no idea. Other arrows point cheerfully in the wrong direction entirely. Maybe there’s a trickster going around China flipping all the signs around. More likely it’s some sort of cultural literacy that as a foreigner I lack.

Regardless, I go back into the tunnel, ignoring the arrows this time. I finally see a wall map which indicates the proper exit for the Bell Tower. I buy my ticket and climb the steps up to the old tower. It is a cavernous red building, built large to house the bells and to amplify their sound. Ornate carving and painting on the outside and inside of the building indicate that it is a government building with an official government purpose. There are excellent views of the city (and of the hair-raising street traffic) from the top floor.


Inside the main hall is a reproduction of the old bells that were once played there.


By chance I have arrived during a musical performance. Six musicians play Chinese folk songs on traditional Chinese instruments, including some bells. The music is clear and lively, and the setting is gorgeous.


Still smiling with the pleasure of the music, I leave the Bell Tower and enter the traffic tunnel again, this time emerging at the proper exit without incident. I walk across the old city center to the South Gate of the city walls. The original (but heavily renovated) guard houses and gates still stand in each of the four cardinal directions around the walls; the South Gate is the largest. I enter the gate and buy a ticket.


The ticket sales area is enormous, with several sales windows and long rails to guide long lines of tourists up to the gates. Today I’m the only person buying a ticket, though. In fact, the entire place is strangely devoid of the tourists who throng every other tourist site in the country.

I wander into the area behind the ticket windows. There’s a large, empty courtyard; a deserted café; and an empty museum describing the efforts of the Xi’an Ancient Walls Historical Society to preserve and renovate the walls.

I stop at the bathroom. It is the cleanest Asian squat toilet that I have yet seen in China.


Before I left for China, my son, who had done a much more thorough job of reading guidebooks and researching the trip than I had, took me aside one day and spoke to me in a serious tone: “Mom, I need to tell you about the Asian squat toilet. You won’t like it.”

He was right; I was rather put off by the first few I encountered, but by the time I had been in China for a week or so, I barely gave them a second thought. The thought has occurred to me that if I’m no longer afraid of the Asian squat toilet, then there’s not much left in life that I am afraid of. Chinese women, on the other hand, seem to strongly prefer the squat toilet to the Western-style commode. In a Beijing airport bathroom, there were eight stalls, four with pictures on the doors depicting squat toilets and four depicting commodes. As I stood in line, one of the commode stalls became unoccupied. The four women in front of me in line all shook their heads, one by one down the line, each determined to wait for an available squat toilet. I went ahead of them into the stall that no one else wanted. Most Asians consider the no-touch squat toilet to be cleaner than the sit version, and I can see their point. The floors around the squat toilets can be pretty messy, though. In truth, there’s probably no truly clean public toilet system.

I wander around the courtyard a bit more until I see stairs leading up to the top of the walls. I climb the stairs and walk out up top. The views of the city are even better up here than from the Bell Tower. The old city -- small, old buildings, traditional houses, as well as fancy hotel, shops, and restaurants catering to tourists -- is off to my right. The new city -- endless rows of high-rise apartment buildings and business skyscrapers -- is off to my left. There’s a bicycle rental shop up here. Occasionally two or three bikers pass by, riding singly or on tandem bikes. I decide to walk to take in the experience more slowly, more fully.


I soon realize why the walls are nearly deserted, except for the scattered bikers: it’s incredibly hot today. The heat climbs up to 102 degrees, and the humidity is thick. At 5:00 and even 6:00 in the late afternoon the sun is still high and hot in the sky. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) decreed in 1949 that the entire country would operate in the same time zone. This makes travel from one city to another easy, but it also means that those living in the West of the country eat breakfast in the dark, while those in the Eastern reaches dine in the dark.

With the heat keeping less intrepid travelers off of the unshaded walls, most of the time I am the only person I can see for long stretches of the road. It’s a glorious feeling to be alone after having been around crowds for most of the past three weeks. Rather than minding the heat, I luxuriate in it: it’s the heat that is enabling me to experience this beautiful afternoon all on my own. I walk along, gazing over the walls down at the ancient and modern city, listening to music on my headphones, my MP3 player set to shuffle. Bishop Allen’s “Chinatown Bus” comes on, the perfect song to accompany my walk, its lyrics painting vivid images of Shanghai and Tokyo. I walk the full circumference of the walls, all nine miles, in time to the music, singing loudly and off-key when no one else is within earshot. It is the most joyous experience of my entire time spent in China, and an afternoon I will never forget.




For dinner I head to the Muslim Quarter, the area in the old city where the Xi’an Muslim population once lived. Now it’s a popular outdoor dining and shopping area. Shops and carts selling dried fruits, nuts, and other Middle Eastern treats line the twisting streets. Bakers bake loaves in open street ovens. Noodle makers pull noodles from fat ropes of dough out in front of their restaurants, hoping to entice diners.



Fried foods are a street food cart specialty here, especially chicken and splayed open sea creatures, filleted and dipped into crunchy batters.


I have learned from weeks of eating out in China that the best food is often sold by street vendors. I dine on a large, circular, cumin-sprinkled bread loaf (excellent), fried tofu with a spicy sauce (OK, but not great), a cup of freshly-pressed pomegranate juice (a regional specialty), and half a box of walnut-shaped walnut cookies (very meta and very tasty).



I return to my hotel room after 10:00, late for me, as I have been staying in my hotel rooms in the evenings to try to reduce the amount of time I spend outside when the air pollution is the worst. Although Xi’an is the smallest of the four big cities I have visited in China, it seems to me to have the worst pollution. Located in a major coal-producing region, three large coal processing plants power the city, belching out black smoke that leaves the air gritty and grey. After having been in China for over three weeks now, I am having serious trouble seeing. The combination of allergies to a new climate, eye swelling from the air pollution, and eyes watering from the ever-present cigarette smoke (49% of Chinese males smoke) has magnified my already severe myopia. My vision has steadily deteriorated until I can’t even read metro station signs from inside the trains at station stops, even though they are painted in large English letters. Often on the trains there are recorded English announcements saying the names of each stop, but just as often the noise of the crowded trains makes the announcements inaudible. I have learned before getting on a train to count the number of stops so that I can travel around without being able to read the station signs.

I have come quickly to love the city of Xi’an; it makes me sad to see the thick pollution clogging up the sky and darkening the city. It reinforces the seriousness of the Chinese overpopulation issue. I can understand (but never support) the logic behind the government’s infamous one-child policy. Started in 1978 to combat population growth, just last year the PRC announced the end to the policy. It did quell the rate of population growth, but it also left the country with a top-heavy population – too many elderly and not enough young people to take care of them. Some of the younger people I have talked to are excited about the possibility of having more than one child, but most tell me that they still plan to have just one child, or no children at all. Competition for Chinese university spots is fierce, and private K-12 education increases the chance of securing a good university spot. Few people can afford to put two children through private schools, people tell me. “And two children seems like so much work! I could never do it,” adds a woman I chat with as she is being dragged down the street by an exuberant three-year-old.

These are unusual ideas to me, as an American who is accustomed to a two-child household average as a cultural norm. I am struck by the power and influence that a government policy can have on an entire nation. Had I grown up a Chinese citizen, my daughter, my second child, probably wouldn’t exist, a thought that jolts me awake right as I’m falling asleep in my hotel room that night. I realize how much we are products of our sociopolitical environments, not just in small ways, such as viewing a certain type of toilet as preferable, but in larger ways, too, such as determining how many children we have. When I see my daughter again at the end of the China leg of my trip, I will be sure to hug her extra tightly and to marvel at the fact that the random happenstance of my being born in the U.S. has resulted in her beautiful and precious existence.



Click here to read about my ignoble departure from Beijing Airport.

Click here to read about the changes to China’s One Child policy.

Click here to listen to Bishop Allen’s “Chinatown Bus.” Be sure to listen to the masterful lyrics.

Posted by dagosto 07:07 Comments (0)

On Leaving Beijing in a Most Undignified Manner

I very much enjoyed my time in Beijing. In addition to my afternoon at the National Museum of China and my walking explorations of Beijing neighborhoods and parks, I visited Tiananmen Square, the world’s largest public square, with Chairman Mao’s face watching thousands of tourists stream by each hour and uniformed officers and elevated surveillance cameras watching the crowds as well.



I walked around the grounds of the Temple of Heaven, the huge park and building complex where Chinese emperors performed sacred rites to pray for good weather and good harvests.



I wandered through the Forbidden City, home to two dynasties of Emperors and Empresses, concubines, government officers, military men, maids, and grounds keepers.






I toured the Summer Palace on foot and by boat. It was the luxurious summer retreat of the royal residents of the Forbidden Palace, built into the hills at the banks of shimmering Kunming Lake.






I climbed over and into the Ming Tombs, burial place for 13 of the Ming emperors, laid to rest between 1424 and 1627.




I hiked both crowded and deserted sections of the Great Wall of China. It was begun by the first Chinese emperor, Emperor Qin (260–210 BC), the powerful and violent visionary who first united the country as one. Today some parts of the Wall have been rebuilt. Others remain visible yet are crumbling. Still other parts have been lost forever, borrowed as building material or simply disintegrated into dust.




I strolled around Shichahai Lake, a popular leisure spot for the past thousand years, still popular today. It now serves, along with the surrounding hutongs (old alleyways), as one of the capital city’s top shopping, dining, and bar areas.






My head filled with so many sights and so much Chinese history, I left Beijing and bumbled my way toward the ancient city of Xi’an in my usual undignified manner. I came to China three weeks ago with one backpack and one duffle bag, each half-full to allow for the unavoidable accumulation of stuff that always happens on trips. It was a good plan, but like most of my plans it had one unforeseen crucial flaw: my underestimation of the number and size of gifts people would give me. I’ve traveled enough in the past (across five continents) to know that people often give international guests gifts. But administrators at three of the five libraries I had visited before reaching Beijing had presented me with heavy stacks of informational and commemorative books, and now my two sensible pieces of luggage were overstuffed, straining at the seams, and coming dangerously close to the 40 kilo domestic Chinese airline weight limit. My backpack alone was so heavy that when I first put it on that morning, it knocked me to my knees.

I couldn’t quite fit all of my clothing into my overstuffed bags, so I dressed in my longest, fullest skirt -- the piece of clothing that took up the most space -- for the plane ride. I had been washing my clothes in hotel sinks (with a couple of splurges on overpriced hotel laundry services) every few days and re-wearing the same four outfits day after day. Laundry in hot, humid Guangzhou had taken three days to dry fully in my breeze-less hotel room. The climate of Beijing was a lot drier. The early summer temperatures were higher in Beijing, climbing up near 100 each day; it took only one day for my laundry to dry in my Beijing hotel room, despite the still, closed hotel air.

As a part of my travel efficiency plan, I washed my laundry in my hotel room sink the day before I left Beijing so that I could arrive in Xi’an with a clean traveling wardrobe. Everything dried in time for me to leave for the airport, with the exception of my purple plaid flannel pajama shorts, which were still really wet. I must have forgotten to wring them out before hanging them up to dry. I was worried that the wet, heavy shorts might push my duffel bag over the checked baggage weight limit, so I pulled them on underneath my skirt. No one would see them.


I put my money belt, borrowed from a friend back in New Jersey, on top of the shorts. I had been paid my salary from the university in cash (?!?) and had yet to figure out what to do with all that paper Chinese money. With the cash and my emergency documents (photocopy of passport, health insurance cards, etc.) inside it, the money belt bulged two inches thick. With both the pajama bottoms and the money belt hidden under my skirt, I looked to be about five months pregnant.


I’d been having allergy issues due to the Beijing air pollution. I’d need some tissues on the plane. I couldn’t put them in the pockets of my now damp skirt – wet, crumbling tissues would be a mess. I tucked four tissues into my bra; after all, I had extra space there.

Serving about 90 million passengers a year, Beijing Airport is the world’s second busiest airport. I was soon to find it to have the toughest airline security -- or any kind of security -- I had ever experienced. I checked my duffle bag and walked toward the security lines.


A guard opened a side gate for me and motioned for me to join the security line behind it. The line was marked “Female,” apparently a separate security line for unaccompanied single female travelers. I removed my camera and laptop from my backpack, as shown in the pictures at the beginning of the conveyor belt, and walked through the x-ray gate as my items were scanned.

My backpack made it through the scanner as I walked on to the next security stage, the full-body pat-down. Before I could step up onto the wooden block for a pat-down, I heard: “Umbrella?” in English. The security guard at the end of the conveyor belt pointed to my backpack. I walked back and pulled out my umbrella. The guard picked up the umbrella and pack, groaning with the weight of the pack, walked the pack and umbrella back down the length of the conveyor belt to the beginning, and sent them through the x-ray machine for a second time.

The bag re-emerged. The guard frowned at me. “Battery?” she asked. I pulled the chargers for my laptop and cell phone out of the pack. She walked back to the beginning of the conveyor belt again and sent everything through the x-ray machine for a third time.

The bag emerged once more. The guard turned at glared at me: “Electronic?” she asked, clearly irked that I hadn’t known to take all of these items out of my backpack before sending it through the scanner. I pulled out my headphones and attached MP3 player. She sent the whole mess of items plus the backpack through the x-ray machine for a fourth time.

Meanwhile, the pat-down began. I stepped up onto the wooden box with my feet on the painted footprints. The guard began a most intimate pat-down, and I began to worry.

Uh-oh. She was going to wonder why my skirt was wet.

Uh-oh. She was going to find the concealed money belt.

Uh-oh. She was going to find the hidden tissues.

And she was not going to like any of it.

The guard patted around for a while until she hit the money belt. “Off,” she commanded. I lifted up my skirt, revealing the wet, purple pajama bottoms to all four guards standing nearby and to all of the passengers waiting in nearby security lines.

I pulled off the money belt. The x-ray scanner guard who had already sent my backpack through four times sighed loudly. She stomped over to me, grabbed the money belt from my hand, and sent it through the x-ray machine, along with my backpack yet again, scanning it for a possibly recording-breaking fifth time.

I was still holding up my skirt, waiting to replace the money belt. The pat-down guard stared at my odd pajama shorts. She started patting them and took a step backward in surprise (or revulsion) when she found that they were wet. She set her mouth in a grim line and kept patting, but noticeably more gingerly.

She moved her way upward. Now she hit the tissues. She looked confused. She turned and yelled something to another guard who was a few feet away. I don’t know what she said, but I’m pretty sure that if I could have understood it, I would have been even more embarrassed. The other guard opened her eyes wide with surprise and they both turned to stare at me.

I had little choice. I reached down the neck of my blouse and pulled out the tissues.

At this point I started to laugh. The guards didn’t laugh with me, unfortunately. (The world would be a much better place if we all laughed more often.) The pat down guard just shrugged and kept patting.

Finally satisfied that I wasn’t a threat to national security -- just deeply strange -- the pat-down guard gave me a curt nod, indicating that I was free to go. I put the money belt back on; straightened my skirt over my once-more bulging middle; replaced the tissues; packed my laptop, umbrella, power cords, MP3 player, and headphones back into my backpack; zipped it up; and hefted it back onto my back. Then I lifted my head as up high and honorably as I could, and I marched off to find the gate for my flight.

As I continue to travel around China, I’m finding the security measures becoming increasingly annoying, not just at Beijing Airport, but at tourist sites and public buildings as well. Most of the security checks are overseen by Chinese soldiers. Some of them have been friendly, but most just seemed bored. There are conveyor belts and x-ray scanners at libraries, subway stations, museums, historic sites, and public buildings. Except at the airport (and in Xi’an where, strangely, I would later find that most of the security conveyor belts were broken when I visited), people only put larger bags through to be scanned, holding onto purses, umbrellas, and cameras as they walk through the x-ray machines. I commented to one of the Chinese graduate students who was with me when I visited the Guangzhou Museum that security checks were more frequent in China than in the U.S. but more lax. “Do you think they have to be stricter in the U.S. because so many people there are carrying guns?” she asked.

My stomach sank as she said it. I don’t know the exact sociopolitical reasons for all of the U.S. security precautions. It must be at least partly latent September 11th fears that keep U.S. domestic security so high. But considering that the U.S. has nearly 23 TIMES THE NUMBER OF GUNS PER CAPITA as China, the student had a good point. Chinese security signs warn people that they can’t carry lighters, gasoline, or flammable liquids into overcrowded public spaces, which makes sense, as China has a surfeit of people. U.S. security signs warn against carrying concealed weapons, which makes sense, as we have a surfeit of guns.

With these sobering thoughts in mind, I sat at the gate awaiting my flight departure. I was anxious to board the plane and head to the ancient city of Xi’an where – if nothing else – at least no one had seen my embarrassing departure from Beijing Airport.



Click here to read about my adventures at the National Museum of China.

Click here to learn about some of the current efforts to reduce gun violence in the United States.

Posted by dagosto 05:52 Archived in China Comments (0)

On How I Accidently Snuck into the National Museum of China

I left Guangzhou last week and have spent the past four days in Beijing. My stint as a guest scholar at the university is over. Now I'm just a tourist -- another one of the tens of thousands of tourists who swarm the streets of Beijing every day. On the city streets and at the various tourist sites I hear Japanese, Korean, English, German, Italian and Spanish, but my Beijing tour guide -- who seems to have a catalogic knowledge of all things Beijing -- tells me that over 95% of the tourists who come to Beijing each year are Chinese citizens, most of whom come for long weekends in the big city. According to the statistics I found, there are nearly 150 million tourists here per year, with under 5 million coming from other countries.

I’ve been spending the mornings and early afternoons with the guide taking me to the major tourist areas and exploring on my own in the later afternoons and evenings. Today after lunch I had four hours alone to spend in the National Museum of China, which is best known for its history of China and Chinese ceramics collections.

The National Museum was formed in 2003 with the merger of the Museum of the Chinese Revolution and the National Museum of Chinese History. The museum building is an enormous rectangular stone (I think) building sitting on 16 acres of land. It sits directly across the street from Tiananmen Square, a short two-block walk from my hotel. The building is huge. Like most of the newish government-owned buildings that I have visited in China – the libraries, the museums, the government office buildings – it has obviously been designed to portray the wealth and power of the Chinese Republic.


I would later find that the themes of federal wealth and power are threaded throughout the exhibits as well.


I walked up to the front of the building. A sign said tickets were available around the corner on the West side of the building. I walked along the west side, looking for a ticket sales area. I saw a number of small doors leading into the building, but steel gates blocked off each one, with a soldier standing in front of each gate. I walked the length of the building twice, but couldn’t find anywhere to get tickets or any doors that weren’t blocked and guarded.

Literally eight million people visit the museum each year, and I couldn’t figure out how to get into the building.

I finally walked up to one of the soldiers and said in English, “Tickets?” He was standing in front of a closed, gated-off door marked “Special Ticket Holders” in English and Chinese. Surely he knew where I could get a ticket.

He bowed, opened the gate, and stood aside, motioning me toward a small exterior door. I thanked him and headed inside to get my ticket. Inside a uniformed museum employee bowed and motioned me up a flight of stairs to the next employee and next set of stairs, who motioned me on to another employee and more stairs, and so on, up and down four flights of stairs.

I found myself at the entrance to an exhibit of life-size wax figures. I walked inside, realizing that I’d skipped the ticket line somehow, and more importantly, considering that tickets to all government-owned museums in China are free, I’d skipped the security line. Later in the day I would look out from the museum and finally see the ticket line outside. (It was huge. How could I have missed it?) There were several hundred people in line, waiting to get tickets and then to go through a strict security check: bags x-rayed on conveyor belts, front and back full-body pat-downs, and anyone with a water bottle required to take a drink to prove, I’m guessing, that it did not contain flammable or explosive liquids.

When I was visiting Guangzhou libraries last week as an honored guest with special V.I.P. treatment from the top library administrators I was allowed to skip security, but I’ve gone through it everywhere else in China I’ve been where crowds gather, even the subway stations. It was obvious that the special ticket holder door guard, and all of the museum employees who had ushered me up and down stairs, thought I was some kind of V.I.P., when in actuality, I was just L.O.S.T.

The wax figures were beautiful and lifelike, but I had no idea who they were depicting, as there were no signs in English. I walked through the wax figure galleries and then left the exhibit still trying to figure out how to get into the main part of the museum. I wandered through a series of corridors until I emerged inside the main hall next to the security screening area. I expected one of the soldiers wearing riot armor to yell at me for walking right past security or at least to ask me to show a ticket, but no one paid me any attention. I again skipped the lines and walked right into the main part of the museum and spent the rest of my day at the exhibits.


I was happy to find that except for the wax figures exhibit, all of the exhibits had signs in comprehensible English, unlike the Guangzhou Museum, where there were English signs all over, but few of them made much sense. (As an aside, bad English translations abound in the tourist areas. In my hotel and in nearby restaurants I keep madly pulling at doors marked “Pull” when they should say “Push” and vice versa. The concept behind the signs is helpful, but the actual signs, not so much.)

I think the lesson of my accidently sneaking into the museum is that there are just so many tourists here that there’s not much point in worrying about one particularly confused foreigner. And we’re all taking pictures of everything, which means that for the most part, we’re really just taking pictures of each other. The sheer masses of bodies obscure the enormous national monuments and historic sites. (Selfies and selfie-sticks are also incredibly popular here, I have noticed. Half of the people keep accidently poking each other with their selfie sticks and parasol handles as they push and shove their way through the crowds.)

It is a world-class museum, definitely worth an afternoon’s visit. The Ancient China exhibit is especially notable, from gallery after gallery showcasing artifacts from prehistoric settlements across China to newer galleries showing off artistic and quotidian objects of modern Chinese peoples. The endless cases of breathtaking Chinese art are also outstanding.



Despite its embarrassing start, my afternoon at the National Museum was a highlight of my time in Beijing. At the museum and elsewhere I learned a lot about Chinese history from my visits to so many national historic sites: the Temple of Heaven, the Forbidden Palace, the Summer Palace, the tombs of the Ming Emperors, and more.

Sadly, though, I haven’t learned much about the local culture because I haven’t been out of the tourist areas that much. I much preferred my time in Guangzhou as a guest scholar. There I got to live and work with some of the residents, and I got to form meaningful relationships with several of the graduate students, who were interested in me as a scholar and as a person. Here I am just seen as dollar signs when I walk through the streets. Everywhere I go peddlers call out to me: “Hello, lady!” some so bold as to grab my arm and drag me over to view their wares, insisting that I must buy something. I have had to be downright rude to a few of them to get them to let go of me and have found that a firm “No” and a shake of the head is more effective when delivered in my terribly limited Chinese.

There’s more to Beijing than the tourist areas, of course. It’s a gigantic city, the second largest in China. I was surprised not to see one or more major downtown skyscraper areas as there are in Manhattan or Dallas, but rather tens of thousands of smaller buildings with the bigger buildings dotting the whole city grid, spread out across the city randomly here and there. It’s possible that I just haven’t seen the concentrated skyscraper areas because of the obliterating smog, which starts out grey but thin in the morning and builds to greyer and thicker by evening. Each day the air pollution index reaches the “hazardous” level by about dinner time, so I’ve been spending the evenings in my hotel room reading and editing my many hundreds of trip photos as a method of coping with the air quality situation.


As my days here have been filled with tourist site after tourist site, I’ve had few glimpses of real daily life in Beijing. However, I have seen men gambling or playing games on the street corners in the late afternoons.



I have also visited the neighborhood parks where the older people rest and socialize during the day and where the younger people play, engage in Chinese martial arts, or practice gymnastics.




And I have walked through some of the hidden hutongs (old alleyways), noncommercial areas where people have lived for many generations and where they still live today, often sharing traditional quadrangle-shaped buildings originally meant for one family but now housing four or five because of the real estate hyperinflation that has taken over Beijing during the past decade, with homes now costing tenfold what they did just ten or so years ago.



I have even seen some of the locals engage in small business with their hutong neighbors, selling vegetables out of the back of their cars or using their homes as wholesale soda or souvenir shops.


It is these little glimpses of Beijing that I have enjoyed the most, but they were too few. I was sad to leave Guangzhou. I felt that I wasn’t done learning about the local culture, and I wished I could have stayed longer. When I fly out of Beijing headed for Xi’an tomorrow I’ll feel no sense of loss, only the open-eyed curiosity of a detached tourist moving on to the next city on a long and continuing journey.


Click here to visit the website of the National Museum of China. Click here to see where the entrance is located [sigh].

Posted by dagosto 07:17 Archived in China Comments (0)

On Communicating without the Aid of Spoken Language

Working and traveling in a country where I can’t speak or read the language means learning new ways of communicating. Simple everyday activities like shopping or taking the bus become difficult without the use of words. A week or so ago I took the metro to a famous Guangzhou shopping district, the Beijing Road Pedestrian Mall. First established as a shopping area during the Song Dynasty (960 – 1279 A.D), today Beijing Road has nearly 200 stores of all sizes and types, from clothing stores, to tea shops, to barbecued meats and jerky shops, to handmade dumpling shops, to candy stores.


The number and variety of shops is particularly astounding considering that private commerce has only been allowed in the Chinese Republic since 1980. In just 36 short years, China has grown into the world’s first or second largest economy (depending on how you measure it). The streets of Guangzhou and of the capital city Beijing scream “buy, buy, buy” with advertisements plastered on every available surface—even the sides of ancient, historic buildings. This may be communist China, but it exudes a palpable mania for capitalism.


Like pretty much everywhere else in this enormous city, Beijing Road is almost always crowded. It’s especially crowded the day I visit. I hadn’t planned to buy much on my trip to Asia, but I did want to buy myself a dress, as I have a weakness for most things feminine—especially dresses.


I enter one store that has a large rack of dresses. The saleswoman rushes up to me speaking in rapid Chinese. She takes a step backwards and tips her head to one side, eyes narrowed as she stares at my torso, calculating my dress size. She pulls a dress off the rack and hands it to me. It’s marked XS: extra small. In U.S. dress sizes I do wear an extra small, but one glance at this dress and I know it will never fit over my Western hips. My figure is … er … curvier than the average Asian female figure. My waist is narrower than most Asian women of about my size, and my hips are much wider. I try to pantomime that the dress is too small, but the saleslady keeps holding it out to me and pushing me gently toward the little curtained dressing room at the back of the shop. I finally give up trying to nonverbally plead my case and step behind the curtain.

The space is so small I barely fit in. A pair of sequined high-heeled shoes rests on the middle of the floor, inviting customers to don them to lend the dresses a more glamourous air.

The dress is way too small. I put my own dress back on and hand the tiny one back to the saleslady. I pantomime trying to slide the dress up over my hips and getting stuck. She seems to understand and reaches for another dress. This one is marked XL: extra large. It’s clearly too big for me. Again the saleslady is so insistent that again I give in and try it on. I emerge from the dressing room with the dress hanging loosely around me. I walk back to the rack and flip through dress after dress looking for a medium or small, but every dress is marked either XS or XL, with a couple of XXXL’s as well.

The saleslady stands next to me shaking her head sadly as I slide the dresses across the rack. She finally pulls a piece of paper and a pen out from the cash register stand. She draws “XS” in large letters at the top of the page and “XL” at the bottom. Then she draws an arrow pointing to the space between. She points to me, to the arrow, back at me, and to the arrow again. She looks at the dress rack and shakes her head.

Her point is clear: She only carries extra small and extra large, but I need something in the middle.

I leave the shop empty-handed and walk into the next four little dress shops that I come to. It’s the same thing at each shop: only XS or XL, with an occasional XXXL in the mix.


By the sixth store I give up and decide to buy a skirt. I see a rack of shimmery embroidered skirts—lace and sequins and flounce. I find two size mediums, a red and black one and a green one. I put on the green one first. All four of the young salesgirls working in the shop stand on the other side of the dressing room curtain from me, waiting to see how it looks.

I emerge in the green skirt. “BEAUTIFUL!” yells one of the salesgirls so loudly in English that it makes me jump in surprise. I strike my best Madonna Vogue pose, and all four young women laugh. Because of my severe language debilitation here, I often find myself resorting to the international language of exaggerated physical humor. A fake grimace or an eyes-open-wide-fake-surprised look never fails to elicit a laugh.

After much arguing among themselves, the salesgirls decide that they like the green skirt better, but I buy the shimmery red and black one, partly because the particular shade of red looks Chinese to me, and partly because of the softly swirling feminine feeling of the lacey underskirts swishing against my legs as I walk.


(Plus, the washing instructions say “No chlarinebleaching. Do not tuble dry.” I will be very careful not to tuble dry my new skirt.)


I pay for the skirt, and the salesgirls start speaking to me in rapid Mandarin. Or maybe it’s Cantonese; I’m not sure. Both Mandarin and Cantonese are spoken here in the Guangdong Province, known more commonly to English speakers as “Canton.” Mandarin is the official language of the Chinese nation, used for all official government purposes and the official language of instruction in Chinese schools. Cantonese is the traditional language of the Canton region and is especially popular among the older residents, but most young residents speak it as well.

I smile apologetically, unable to converse with the eager salesgirls. They say “Bye-bye!” almost in chorus, and I leave the shop to go find something for lunch.

It’s frustrating not to be able to speak to people. My not being able to understand either of the predominant languages here renders me not just functionally illiterate but functionally mute, too. It also infantilizes me in the eyes of many people. When students and faculty realize that I can’t understand their Mandarin or Cantonese, most try to communicate with me in English, which I find endlessly impressive. Outside of the university campus most people react to my lack of comprehension by switching to that loud, sing-songy voice universally used to communicate with small children. It doesn’t help much. It may be louder, but it’s still Chinese.

Most people seem to think me helpless as well, even those who speak to me in English. When I strike up a conversation with the professor sitting next to me on the campus shuttle bus one morning and she asks how I’ve been spending my free time, she gasps in disbelief when I tell her that I’ve been taking the metro around the city to explore (hardly an impressive feat considering that I’m a longtime veteran of the New York, Philadelphia, and DC metro systems). “You did it by yourself?” she asks, much as one would ask a toddler if he put on his shoes all by himself.

Or, when I stop later on the Beijing Road to examine a set of purses a street seller is offering, the seller, a woman of about my age, or maybe even a few years younger, points out some wet yellow paint on my arm (I still don’t know where I picked it up.). She takes a tissue out of her bag and, clucking her tongue as she would to a messy toddler, wipes as much of the paint off as she can, then pats my shoulder consolingly and sends me on my way.

Perhaps it’s not my language disability that leads the seller to clean me up. Perhaps I’m misreading her typical behavior in a culture where people touch each other much more than I’m used to. A stranger on a crowded subway car here might rest her arm on my shoulder as we ride; two adult women walking down the street together might hold hands, not romantically, but as an expression of friendship; a man on a crowded bus might perch on another man’s knee to create a place to sit.

Maybe all this physical closeness comes from there being so many people in every part of this enormous city and in all parts of every other major Chinese city as well. There are lines to wait to get on the bus, lines to wait to use the public bathrooms, lines in front of the metro station escalators, lines for waiting in front of popular restaurants at lunchtime. Personal space is also much smaller here than I’m used to. People stand so close to each other in a crowd that strangers often touch. Strangers in lines behind me nudge me along, not to be rude, but to work their way toward the front of the line in a country where there will always, always, be another line.


With an estimated 44 million people in the Guangzhou metropolitan area and 1.4 billion across China, most living together in densely populated urban areas, it’s not just personal space that is reduced but communication barriers as well. Strangers talk openly to complete strangers, cheerfully (often forcefully) offering unsolicited advice, such as the best way to pack a grocery bag or how to flag down a cab on a busy street. Or after a Chinese airliner jumps in turbulence, the passengers nod and smile at one another, expressing their surprise at the jolt and acknowledging that they’re all sharing the same experience.

These reduced communication barriers lend a community feel to this huge city, and create a feeling of shared national experience that is fundamental to the Chinese identity, whether it’s two teenagers walking down the street, each holding one strap of an overstuffed duffle bag to distribute the weight, or it’s four well-coiffed salesladies in a tiny dress shop arguing over which skirt fits me the best. (And I still think it was the red one, even though they all liked the green one better.)


Click here to listen to samples of Mandarin and Cantonese and to see if you can learn to tell the difference.

Posted by dagosto 01:08 Comments (0)

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