OF POOLS AND PAGODAS (AND DUMPLINGS)
Xi’an was even more smoggy than Beijing. Views of its manmade structures were muted by the insidious haze. For the most part, China burns coal to produce its electricity. Xi’an has two such power stations running full out to fuel its remarkable night-lighting displays. Simultaneously, ever more vehicles spew combustion engine effluent into the soup. The high humidity of these parts seems to hold these pollutants in suspension. It must rain acid, yet the foliage seems surprisingly lush. We visitors each suffered upper respiratory irritations and burning eyes and wondered how the Chinese could breathe this stuff every day of their lives.
Back in the days of Lady Yang, for whom The Concubine's Garden was built, the Chinese liked their ladies dumpling plump. It seems a pity that I must waste my own dimpled, dumpling figure on an unappreciative period in history.
Doubtless this concubine’s retreat (also known as Huaqing Pools) would have been much more beautiful under a sunny sky that would reflect blue in the waters there, but the sky was a haze and the water was murky green, and the four staircase pools of hot mineral water for which this place was famous were dry on the day of our visit. Willows were the same colour as the water and winged temples marched up the green hills. They say the site is most beautiful in the spring when the peach trees are in blossom. At this time of year it was all yellow-green save for the goldfish which boiled to the surface by the thousands, begging to be fed each time a human shadow crossed the water’s surface.
Like all great and small places in China, the buildings and waterscapes and even the trees in Concubine’s Garden are oriented in accordance with the principles of Feng Shui. Literally translated as "wind and water," Feng Shui is the art and science of living in harmony with nature. Mumbo-jumbo to Western ears like mine, Feng Shui is another Chinese mystery. The energy of a place within certain time frame is studied to determine how dwellings, buildings and even cities should be oriented. (Oriented – does that word have an Oriental relationship?)
Chang Kai-shek was first arrested back in 1936 from his hideout in one of the hillside structures overlooking Concubine’s Garden. Another interest at this place was what seemed to be an on-site cemetery made up of a forest of inscribed stone stellae, like tombstones.
A concrete-slab walkway there was under repair. When I peered behind a screened-off area from which echoed a steady thudding, I saw how those repairs were done. There squatted a woman with a mallet and a chisel. She was ever slowly-but-surely breaking into pebbles a large slab of concrete so that it could be replaced with a new pouring. No jackhammers here and no division of labour — the women toil at manual tasks right alongside the men, or in place of them. She was building her little part of the nation the Chinese way--with patience, sweat, blisters and strained muscles.
Big Goose or Wild Goose or Great Wild Goose Pagoda – name changes with the teller--
was built in 652 AD during the golden liberalism of the Tang Dynasty to house the Buddhists texts by which a famous monk introduced this religion to China. During seventeen years in India, he learned of this religion and of this unique architectural style called pagoda. This type of building became associated with the religion and is considered to be a distinctly Buddhist style. The Goose Pagoda is a seven-story square-sided structure, and by whatever name, it is the elegant symbol of Xi’an. This structure is situated in a large treed park and hemmed with shops aplenty.
We were given the option to visit the Pagoda or to R & R for the evening’s activities – The Tang Dynasty show, preceded by a dumpling dinner. I confess that I chose to dream of those dumplings during a rest, and I therefore only caught the above glimpse of the pagoda in passing.