China Stories and Tips

Xian - Honor Thy Father

Terra Cotta Warriors Photo, China, Asia

It was early Sunday morning when I heard my wife gasp in the next room. She walked in, her hands to her mouth, obviously quite shaken, and then I knew. She didn’t have to say anything.

Before leaving on this trip, I had accepted the eventuality of this happening and considered what to do if it came to pass. Where would I be, what would I do, my plan of action never really accepted the possibility. Nevertheless, nothing ever prepares you. Last time we spoke, he sounded quite cheerful, asking where we were, where we were headed, what we were up to. This was our usual banter, and I again reminded him that we‘d be seeing him soon in September. He seemed happy, as he described his adjustment to life at the assisted living facility, the new friends he met, and the daily exercise routines to strengthen his body both physically and mentally.

He also enthused about returning home; to the place he spent the last 60+ years of his life. Our cozy house, where they raised seven wonderful children, with countless meals shared scrunched together in our tiny kitchen, our dear departed mother cranking out meal after meal on our impossibly small oven. For fifty-seven years, he picked up the phone and answered -‘hello Pfeffer’s’. Through the many years, a familiar and comforting voice wherever I happened to be.

From Dad I inherited diabetes, his energetic signature, and a penchant for sweets and second helpings. He loved his family, the Green Bay Packers, a good bratwurst, super sharp cheddar cheese, an occasional old-fashioned at Christmas, and Late’s hamburgers. Fondly, I have the same acquired tastes.

Now, I try to recollect that last time we talked. I so regret not having one last chat, to hang on his every word, to know it would be the last time we spoke, to say goodbye. Eighty-four years in this world, I only hope to be so lucky. Know now that he sits on my shoulders, unburdened from his unwilling body, seeing all the wonderful things we now see, all the while safely guiding us, as we move around this world.

Had not a farmer dug up pieces of a Terra Cotta Warrior rather than water, Xian would not be the major tourist stop that it is today. Undiscovered for centuries, full-scale excavation began in the 1980's, uncovering thousands of unique life sized warriors, intended to guard the emperor Qin Shi Huang on his journey into the next life. Nowadays, tourist buses from the railroad station efficiently whisk you to this impressive site in under an hour.

Consisting of three locations, the largest is the size of a football field, with trenches dug throughout, like a super sized ant farm. Within the trenches, thousands of stoic clay warriors, stacked shoulder to shoulder, stand in an everlasting and dutiful vigil. Just the many years of effort required to create these figures, with the conscription of thousands of workers, is quite an impressive feat to ponder. Marvelously engineered, a permanent structure spans the largest pit, somehow managing to cover the entire area with not a single column of support.

People are sometimes disappointed when entering the site. Kept away from the figures, it is actually more of an aerial view where you look down into the pits from concrete platforms above. Do not expect to stand next to them and have your picture taken, although certain souvenir shops, for a fee, will let you pose next to a replica warrior. For an authentic close-up, visit the Shaanxi History Museum, where many of the restored figures are on display. Here, you can get nose to nose to a patched together warrior and appreciate the effort that went into deciphering these ancient jumbled humpty dumpty puzzles.

As you leave the Terra Cotta Warrior grounds, you funnel past a bloated inventory of stores that sell cheap terra cotta warrior figurines in all shapes and sizes. In keeping with the misguided Chinese business plan of ‘if we build more stores we’ll sell more products’, recent construction of uninspiring concrete storefronts sit empty, soon to be filled by even more merchants hawking – you guessed it – cheap terra cotta warrior figurines in all shapes and sizes.

Xian, famous for its Terra Cotta Warriors, should also be famous for its heat, with temperatures reaching upwards of 108 degrees a few days we were in town (we were there in late June). As we circled around the six-mile perimeter of the ancient city walls, the sky opened up and we were caught in a torrential rainfall, with neither adequate cover nor an obvious escape route. Fortunately, a couple of local women generously lent us one of their umbrellas, and we huddled together as we continued to search out for a way out. After all, it was built to keep the invaders out, so why should it be easy for us to exit?

Other attractions in Xian include the Muslim Quarter, where you’ll wander through a market of merchandise and down lanes laden with street food. Splat! Just as a food vendor was cooking up my food, a gigantic bug landed in the frying pan. Without missing a beat, she flipped it out, shrugged, and went back to chopping onions. The Forest of Stelae Museum is impressive for its display of over a thousand inscribed stone tablets, while the Big Goose Pagoda is Xian’s most famous landmark. We went on an extremely hot day, and the nearby lake had a fountain show, with showers of water raining mercifully down on the parched visitors.

We had a few extra days to spend before taking the train to Beijing, and we decided to visit the mountain town of Hua Shan. Oddly, one of things about this town was the huge bathroom in our hotel room, where an entire wall was a picture window overlooking downtown and the distant mountain. Known as the most dangerous mountain in China, you are shocked with an initial steep ascent in a cable car to a ridge clogged full of tourists jostling their way along narrow walkways thousands of feet in the air, with sheer drop-offs on either side.

On the cable car ride up, I had a panic attack as my pulse quickened and my breathing became shallow, claustrophobic in a metal box swaying thousands of feet in the air. I have a fear of flying, so getting on a cable car required a real test of faith. Once on top the mountain, you scramble along the thin ridges as you make your way around the range of spires and visit the North, South, East, and West peaks, each affording spectacular views over the surrounding countryside. Both incredibly beautiful and scary, it rained during the day, making the granite steps even more treacherous. This mountain required constant caution, with many passages single file and dangerously steep.

That evening, while walking back to our hotel, we met a group of seventeen college bound students, who invited us to join them for dinner at a local restaurant. Although only four of them spoke English, we delightfully shared a dinner of hotpot, a delicacy where various meat and vegetable products are dipped in a boiling spicy brew until cooked, then dabbed in a spicy peanut/tofu sauce. Over many beers and broken conversation, we were welcomed as if we were old friends. When it came time to pay, they told us it was their treat!

It was really a magical evening after an exhaustive day of hiking, one of the most memorable evenings of our thirteen-month trip around the world. We also ran into a person we met on the bus, sat down, and proceeded to indulge in a few more local brews, engaging in conversations and enjoying the locals milling around the food stalls under balmy Chinese skies, the setting sun accenting the powerful mountain that loomed over the tiny town.

With 3 million people, Xian is a popular stopover on the Shanghai to Beijing route, and it certainly has sites to see beyond the world famous warriors. Littered with archeological sites, new ones are discovered and developed every year. We stayed seven days, and were delightfully entertained, despite the trying and sobering situation that developed during our visit.

Xian will always be a bittersweet destination on our trip, the place where we received the news that our father had passed away quite unexpectedly. You never really know when your last talk with a loved one will occur, far easier to take for granted that many more will follow, but nothing is so guaranteed. Delight in every conversation as the precious gift that it is, and appreciate every word and moment as though it may be the last. Carry on all aspects of your life to make your parents proud, remember to hug your loved ones whenever possible, and respect your mother. Most of all, honor thy father. Rest in peace Pops…

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