Day number 3 of our Cathay Pacific China Experience began with a crazy early morning start calling for Dad and me to be down in the lobby of the hotel to meet Jessica, our Beijing guide, for a 5:30am pick-up. Still half asleep, we were dragged off to the impressive Beijing Capital International Airport where we would board our flight for our next destination – Xi’an.
Jessica, bless her, got us all checked in with little fuss, and escorted us all the way to the security area before leaving us to our own devices. We greased her palms with some well-earned tip money, said goodbye and headed for the distant Gate 44 as instructed by our boarding passes.
Arriving at Gate 44 in plenty of time, we found no evidence of any kind on any on the available video screens that we were where we needed to be. Some cool-headed discussion and strategising between Dad and me resulted in us retracing our steps through the terminal until we found ourselves a China Eastern information desk where we, through broken English, were able to find out that Gate 41 was where we actually needed to be.
By the time we got back to Gate 41, the video displays were finally being updated and some plain English boarding calls were starting to be made. With all of this going on, we eventually worked out that Gate 43 was where we actually needed to be after all, and before long we were strapped in on our China Eastern flight and zooming up and out of Beijing’s hanging layer of pollution!
Descending into Xi’an it become painfully aware that we were going to be dealing with rain, for today at least. Arrival and baggage collection (always a stress for me who has been left without luggage on a number of occasions following flights) were painless and we headed out into the arrivals lounge on the hunt for our guide, Andrew. There were no signs immediately visible with our names on them, so Dad and I kind of hovered which is why, I guess, a slimy and somewhat aggressive cab driver almost immediately pounced on us asking us where we were headed, as his equally slimy collective began to circle like vultures.
Thankfully Andrew found us, rescued us from the vultures (which they thought was a great joke), and whisked us away to our waiting vehicle and a 40 minute journey to our hotel. The journey gave me enough white-knuckle time to finally work out how such traffic chaos here seemingly works so well. I told you yesterday that I’d divulge my theory once I had finally worked it out, so here it is. Are you ready?
Chaotic Chinese Traffic Explained
The trick is to not drive too fast. Simple. There’s relatively few traffic lights to stop you in your journey from A to B, so with those delays eliminated, you can afford to drive at a slower, constant pace and still arrive at your destination on time. You are, of course, contending with a lack of respect for any kind for white paint on the roads, scores of scooters and bicycles, and of course an army of completely fearless (or stupid – depending on how you look at it I guess) pedestrians. That’s what you have a horn for. But horns aren’t used here in the traditionally aggressive way they are in the western world. Horns are used (often) to let the people and objects around you know where you are. When the bloke in front of you starts to drift into your lane looking like he’s going to take off your front left corner, a couple of friendly taps on the horn lets him know, “Hey buddy, I’m already over here before you make that move. Thanks.”
Combine this friendly alert procedure with the slower pace and you end up with this chaotic harmony that sees everyone just kind of slip and slide in, out and around one another in a way that is terrifying to watch… but it works.
So there it is.
Forest of Stone Steles Museum
A quick 20 minute check-in and turn around at the hotel and we were back in the car with Andrew and our driver, and heading off for our first sight seeing destination in Xi’an – the Forest of Stone Steles Museum, located near the south gate of Xi’an City Wall.
En route, Andrew attempted to throw a fair amount of the history of the steles our way, so with what I was able to understand and remember, here’s my attempt at a “complete history in a couple of paragraphs or less” for your convenience and reading pleasure.
The Forest of Stone Steles is a museum consisting of around 3,000 stone slabs engraved with Chinese characters that convey the knowledge, wisdom and history of China. These steles, primarily from the Tang Dynasty each record achievements in the development of the Chinese culture and reflect the historical facts of the cultural exchanges between China and other countries spanning over 900 years of history.
Due to the sheer number of steles in the collection, the museum was officially named as the Forest of Stone Steles Museum in 1992.
Got it? Good – let’s continue.
The museum consists of seven exhibition halls which are spread throughout a walled area of land dotted with beautiful gardens and walkways – plenty of excuses to take photos which is exactly what I did.
The popular souvenir item here seemed to be ink rubbings of the more popular or meaningful steles. As part of our tour however, Dad and me were lucky enough to have the VIP experience of creating our own rubbings from scratch and getting to take those home with us. Sweet.
The process was actually a lot of fun, and between Dad and I we managed to get enough photos to be able to provide you with a bit of a play-by-play on how it all comes together.
STEP ONE – Select your stone stele
Actually Dad and I didn’t get to choose our own steles… the little fella that was setting everything up for us had taken care of that potential conundrum for us. As it turned out, Dad’s stele was the verse of Dongpo by the calligrapher Ping Xuan from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911 AD).
I, on the other hand, completed my rubbing on a stele that was described in the following way on the accompanying plaque, “Composing verses on the occasion of the association of the same age”, (errm… ok) by the calligrapher Xu Yongjian from the Ming Dynasty (1576 AD).
STEP TWO -Apply the sheet of rice paper for the print
Again, our friend took care of this delicate step. A little water, some delicate hands and bingo – the canvas is ready!
STEP THREE – Prepare the canvas
Pretty much the last step completed by the man in blue before we were unleashed on our works of art. A little brushing to get the paper to drop nice and snug into the engravings on the stone followed by a little tapping with a rubber block here and there to push out any remaining air from under the surface of the paper.
Lastly, a bit of gentle fanning ensures that the paper is completely dry before you hit it (literally) with the ink.
STEP FOUR – Apply the ink
In a top-to-bottom, center to outwards motion, you gently tap on the surface of the rice paper with a material pad dipped in a type of ink that was smeared on a wooden paddle that you hold in your spare hand.
A couple of repeat passes and the paper reveals a striking white etched pattern against a black background. Magic!
STEP FIVE – Gently, gently, remove your masterpiece from the stele
I was convinced that I was going to screw this bit up and rip my paper at some point during this final hurdle… but to my relief it wasn’t the case and Dad and I were able to get a happy snap holding our creations. Fun times!
With our stone stele souvenirs stashed away safely, it was off to a different section of the museum grounds where we entered a low-lit hall filled with a number of large stone statues and other artifacts dating back hundreds of years to the Tang Dynasty – pretty amazing stuff. Thankfully, Andrew did his best to give us a good explanation as to the significance of a number of the pieces on display. The English translations of a lot of the descriptions were sporadic, sometimes really vague and other times non-existent.
By now, I was fairly famished after having received only a pretty ordinary “airline breakfast” while enroute from Beijing this morning. So next stop was a local restaurant that Andrew pretty much dropped us off at and ordered a huge 8 dish spread of some traditional dishes from the local area that consisted of rice, sweet & sour pork, sushi, an assortment of vege dishes and some type of cold, slimy mushroom soup kinda thing that Dad and I both politely pushed to the side after one sip. Nasty! Haha!
Every time we looked up at one another across the table with looks of, “I’m full, how do we get out of here…”, yet another dish would arrive at the table. How the heck do these little, average weight Chinese people eat like this every day? It’s madness… and yummy!
Shaanxi Archeological Research Institute
With lunchtime nourishment taken care of, it was back on the road for a short drive to a fairly inconspicuous building that housed the Shaanxi Archeological Research Institute – a high security Government laboratory where joint Chinese and German scientific talent work to painfully restore newly excavated relics found throughout the province.
Not open or available to be toured by the general public, this visit represented yet another of our Cathay Pacific China Experience VIP tours that Dad and I both felt pretty privileged to have experienced. Being able to wander through the Institute checking out many more amazingly detailed relics from a long distant Chinese past was pretty special in itself, but what made this part of the day REALLY cool was our chance to literally stand shoulder to shoulder with a couple of 2,200 year old Terracotta Warriors. This is certainly something that the hundreds, if not thousands of people we joined out at the Terracotta Warriors Museum the following day were not able to brag about to their friends and family.
Before taking off, Andrew led us into a couple of the restoration labs where we were able to see first-hand the intricate, laborious processes involved in cleaning and restoring the priceless excavated relics. I was told I could shoot one frame only while in these labs, so the one shot I did get is below along with a number of other shots we took from this part of the day.
A little weary after a long morning of historical exploration, Andrew dropped us back at the hotel around 3pm leaving us the rest of the evening to entertain ourselves. Considering pretty much every other day of this entire tour doesn’t allow for much free time at all, this was quite the luxury handed to us and we both took the opportunity to take a quick nap.
Once vertical again, we used the last couple of hours of smog dominated daylight to wander a few blocks from the hotel to a park that we had spied earlier in the day. Dad seemed a little nervous about making the one major road crossing we needed to make in order to get to the safety of the park, but we managed to find a solid looking light-controlled pedestrian crossing that a majority of cars, scooters and bikes appeared to be stopping at, so we took our chances.
The park itself lay in the shadow of Xi’an’s city wall and ran along the banks of the moat that lay between the wall and the outside world. Well presented in its appearance, the park gave us the opportunity to stretch our legs and get amongst some rare inner-city greenery, but there wasn’t a great deal around to hold our attention, so we eventually headed back to the hotel room where we freshened up, and started the monumental task of sorting through all the pics we took during the day.