Chinese Legends – The First Emperor and Shaolin Temple

As a child I have always been fascinated by stories of Marco Polo’s journeys and the Silk Route. The opportunity came in 2011 and we got to go on our own little Journey to the West. The first stop was Xi’an, the ancient capital of China and the resting place of the First Emperor of China, Qin Shihuang, and his army of terra cotta warriors. This city is also one of the stops along the ancient Silk Route. Unfortunately, the trip had already got off to a bad start with our flight to Beijing delayed due to bad weather. We ended up missing our connecting flight to Xi’an and had to fight tooth and nail together with a horde of angry Chinese travelers to secure transfer tickets for another flight. I do salute the Air China counter staff. These ladies can face down an angry and impatient horde of passengers and still dish out as good as they take.

Xi’an

Finally we arrived in Xi’an after a delay of 6 hours from our scheduled time. This meant that we weren’t able to do much sight seeing on our first day. Luckily, it was summer and days were longer which sort of compensated for the delay as we had more time to sight see.

View of the Drum Tower, as seen from the Bell Tower.
View of the Drum Tower, as seen from the Bell Tower.
The ancient bell is still here, and no, they won't let me ring it.
The ancient bell is still here, and no, they won’t let me ring it.
One of the city's main gates. You can imagine that in ancient times the cars would be replaced with horses and carts.
One of the city’s main gates. You can imagine that in ancient times the cars would be replaced with horses and carts.

The Bell Tower is located in the center of the city and roads lead to the North, South, East and West gates from here.

Xi’an also has a sizeable Muslim community and we walked over to Moslem Street where there are numerous shops and restaurants serving Muslim food.

Plenty of tourists along Moslem Street and beating the heat is done by rolling up your pants and shirts.
Plenty of tourists along Moslem Street and beating the heat is done by rolling up your pants and shirts.
The very prominent type of unleavened bread common in this region.
The very prominent type of unleavened bread common in this region.
We found this restaurant that was packed with people. Their specialty was lamb kebabs.
We found this restaurant that was packed with people. Their specialty was lamb kebabs.

Luckily for us, we bumped into a licensed tour guide who was dropping off his guests at our hotel. After negotiating with him, we got him to take us on a tour the next day.

The first stop was Banpo Museum. This is the site of an Neolithic village which is more than 6,000 years old. It’s important because it shows that long before Emperor Qin Shihuang came along there was already a civilization established here.

Not much left after more than 6 millennia.
Not much left after more than 6 millennia.
I know this is lost in translation, but it is nice to know that they had broadband 6,000 years ago.
I know this is lost in translation, but it is nice to know that they had broadband 6,000 years ago.

Finally, we got to the site of the terra cotta warriors. Being summer, the temperature was already 35°C and the tourist crowd was building up to immense proportions. The battalions of tourists must have numbered more than the terra cotta army.

One of the huge halls which covers the 1 of 4 archeological dig sites of the Terra Cotta Warriors.
One of the huge halls which covers the 1 of 4 archeological dig sites of the Terra Cotta Warriors.
You get to see close ups of the excavated terra cotta figures which range from soldiers to scribes to horses. The amount of craftsmanship that goes into each figure is incredible.
You get to see close ups of the excavated terra cotta figures which range from soldiers to scribes to horses. The amount of craftsmanship that goes into each figure is incredible. The horses for the royal carriage are so life like in this photograph.
Finally we get to enter the excavation site. The size of the hall is immense and this is just 1 of 4 sites. There are many more sites which have been discovered but not excavated.
Finally we got to enter the excavation site. The size of the hall is immense and this is just 1 of 4 sites. There are many more sites which have been discovered but not excavated.
Each terracotta warrior has its own unique facial features and expression. No two figures have the same face.
Each terracotta warrior has its own unique facial features and expression. No two figures have the same face.
Many of the terra cotta figures have been damaged over the thousands of years.
Many of the terra cotta figures have been damaged over the thousands of years.
The damaged figures are painstakingly reconstructed and put back into the pit where they were found.
The damaged figures are painstakingly reconstructed and put back into the pit where they were found.

Qin Shihuang is credited with being the man who unified China from many warring states into a large country, and also with building the Great Wall of China. Despite his accomplishments, he was also a brutal emperor who killed many of his countrymen by pressing them into slavery to build the Great Wall and also his tomb. He was also afraid of death and searched futilely for immortality pills and potions. Due to his great achievements and his weaknesses, he has become some sort of a legend, portrayed as a savior, or as a tyrant in many Chinese films depending on how the director wants to skew the plotline.

The actual tomb of the First Emperor, Qin Shihuang, is in a large mausoleum under a large mound where it is believed that he is entombed with more terra cotta armies. The terra cotta warriors that were discovered are just one of the many garrisons guarding the tomb. According to ancient texts, the Emperor’s tomb is laid out as a miniature map of China with flowing rivers and seas made of liquid mercury, and guarded by many traps. This really sounds like something out of an Indiana Jones or Tomb Raider movie. We might never know if ancient legends are true as the tomb has not been opened for fear of relic degradation once exposed to air. However, archaeologists have discovered that the soil around the tomb does contain unusually high concentrations of mercury, and ground scanning radar has revealed a large palace style tomb, so those ancient legends might be just true.

Just visiting these 2 places took the whole day. We came back to the hotel to cool off before making our way down to the Big Wild Goose Pagoda and musical fountain in the evening. This musical fountain claims to be the largest in Asia and covers 15,000 sq metres.

We came early to find a good vantage spot to watch the musical fountain.
We came early to find a good vantage spot to watch the musical fountain.
Despite having a good spot, I realized that everyone in the first few rows was getting a free bath every time the central jet shot water and the wind blew in our direction.
Despite having a good spot, I realized that everyone in the first few rows was getting a free bath every time the central jet shot water and the wind blew in our direction.
I decided to take a back seat after several baths. The crowd was more than happy to take over my place and get wet.
I decided to take a back seat after several baths. The crowd was more than happy to take over my place and get wet.

Luoyang

Luoyang is more than 500km away from Xi’an, but with the new high speed rail it took only 2 hrs for us to get here. This place is famous for the Longmen Grottoes and is also the stepping off point to visit Shaolin Temple. My dream of learning Shaolin kungfu was finally coming true. We had tried to get another guide for the visit but we only ended up with a driver and minivan.

The Chinese high speed rail at Luoyang station.
The Chinese high speed rail at Luoyang station.
Longmen Grottoes runs along the river and is a series of caves with Buddhist art carved into the cliff face.
Longmen Grottoes runs along the river and is a series of caves with Buddhist art carved into the cliff face dating back to 437AD.
The centerpiece of Longmen Grottoes are these gigantic statues carved into the cliff sides.
The centerpiece of Longmen Grottoes are these gigantic statues carved into the cliff sides.

 

After the tiring hike and climbing of numerous stairs, we decided to take the boat back to the starting point where our driver was waiting for us.
After the tiring hike and climbing of numerous stairs, we decided to take the boat back to the starting point where our driver was waiting for us.
Just a small section of the Longmen Grottoes.
Just a small section of the Longmen Grottoes.

From Longmen Grottoes it was another long drive to Shaolin Temple. Our anticipation was building up as we had seen and heard so much about this place from all the various kungfu movies.

The main gate of Shaolin which leads to the temple. We had to buy the entry tickets here. What do you mean we need to buy tickets to enter a temple?
The main gate of Shaolin which leads to the temple. We had to buy the entry tickets here. What do you mean we need to buy tickets to enter a temple?
So we bought the entry tickets and then paid again for tickets to board the electric tram that ferries tourists from the main gate to the temple.
So we bought the entry tickets and then paid again for tickets to board the electric tram that ferries tourists from the main gate to the temple.
This looks more like a scene from a kungfu movie.
This looks more like a scene from a kungfu movie.
The guide explained that these holes in the tree trunks were made by monks practicing the Shaolin Finger Punch. After many years and many students later, you get these holes.
The guide explained that these holes in the tree trunks were made by monks practicing the Shaolin Finger Punch. After many years and many students later, you get these holes.
The depressions in the floor are caused by the many monks who have trained by stamping their feet here. I think this was featured in the Shaolin kungfu movie starring Jet Li.
The depressions in the floor are caused by the many monks who have trained by stamping their feet here. This was featured in the Shaolin kungfu movie starring Jet Li.
What we came to see - some kungfu. Yes, we had to pay again to watch the show.
What we came to see – some kungfu. Yes, we had to pay again to watch the show.
The Pagoda Forest outside Shaolin. This was also featured in the Shaolin kungfu movie.
The Pagoda Forest outside Shaolin. This was also featured in the Shaolin kungfu movie.

I can’t help but get the feeling that Shaolin Temple has become a commercial enterprise capitalizing on its brand name. The visit to the temple felt like I was in some kind of kungfu theme park with monks taking the roles of park attendants collecting money. I guess purists would be disappointed but for the rest of us who just want a flavor of Shaolin, this would have to do.

Longmen Grottoes and Shaolin Temple can be accomplished in day trip from Xi’an but if you want to spend more time in each place then I recommend an overnight stay in Luoyang.

So there you have it, 2 of the greatest legends in Chinese history which can come to life. The next part of this blog will be on Xinjiang, the mysterious land in the West that is the stuff of legends.

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