25 Apr 2003
FROM BEIJING TO XIAN
According to our Chinese guide, ‘If you are interested in five thousand years of Chinese history, go to Xian, for one thousand years of Chinese history, go to Beijing and for one hundred year history you go to Shanghai. Xian, pronounced sian (pop. 6.5million), was the ancient capital of China and is situated in the central part of the country. We boarded an evening train from Beijing for the 14 hour trip to Xian. There were four of us per compartment containing two double beds. For the one or two hours we travelled before darkness fell, I could see extensive fields of cereals along the countryside. We had dinner in the restaurant of the train before retiring into our beds for the long ride to Xian.
We arrived Xian the following morning and checked into the 293- room Orient hotel where a twin bedroom costs about 42,000cfa/night. Xian is a very modern city that is pregnant with antiquity. A document I came across described Xian as “an ancient site with layers of cities of different names beneath and around it” Part of Xian (the old city) is encircled by a rectangular wall 14 km long, 12 metres high and 13 metres wide at the top. The city dwellers use the top of the plus 500 year old wall for marathon race. A visit to the ‘Forest of Stone Steles Museum’ unveiled some wonders of early learning. This is a library with the heaviest books on earth. More than 2000 engraved stone tablets (some certainly weighing more than me) have writings on them dating back to 700 B.C. There was a stone plate with Nestorianism literature (branch of Christianity suppressed in China about 900 A.D) on it. There was no way we could read the stuff engraved on those stones as the writing was in Chinese characters.
Chinese towns are trying to outmatch one another in planting exotic flowers and trees in their packs and along their streets. In Xian we took a bus ride along such a beautifully decorated road to one of China’s best centres of attraction: the Qin army vaults that contains the Terracotta Warriors. This place has attracted people from all works of life and from all over the globe. I could see signed attendance registers with names ranging from Fidel Castro to Bill Clincton. Qin was the first emperor to unite the whole of China and he achieved this by being severe (with death penalty for the slightest crime-like being late for work!). The Terracotta Warriors (about 6,000 life size statues) are part of his elaborate mausoleum complex that took about 35 years to build starting around 246 B.C. These soldier statues were made to be buried near the emperor to protect him in the afterlife. A giant air-conditioned enclosure has been built to accommodate the unearthed statues in situ within an area equivalent to about 3 football fields. Excavation is still in progress and the work on the emperor’s mausoleum proper ( largest burial mound in the world) has not yet started.
(photo: Terracota warriors)
We next visited the Da Ci’en Buddhist temple where China’s famous pagodas ( sacred Buddhist towers) dating more than 1,300 years back are situated. I was shown an acacia tree of the same age in the premises. There were very talented artists here with lovely paintings and carvings. In there, you could visualize the 8000kg bell (most famous in the province) made in 1192 A.D. Our next port of call in Xian was the Muslim quarter to see the more than 1250 year old Great Mosque. Only about 25% of Chinese practice one religion or another. Taoism is indigenous to China, while Buddhism, Islam and Christianity are the imported religions. Majority of Chinese (including our tour guide) consider religion as superstition.
When we returned to the hotel that evening, dinner was arranged on the 20th floor (top of the hotel) on a rotating platform. It is a glass-walled mobile restaurant that moves slowly (for 360 degrees) to permit you observe all parts of the city while dining.
Suffice it to say our trip was not problem free. We had unfortunately transferred some of our bad habits to China. Our group had a chronic problem of not respecting time. Delays for appointments of over an hour were common. It was common for us to be moving in a group and some people will disappear into shops along the way. Our guide had to put in extra effort to be herding us as nursery school children! The African time mentality was clearly manifested during our flight from Xian to Shanghai. The plane (a Boeing 777-200) with almost full load had to delay take off for about 15 to 20 minutes just to wait for us. It was an embarrassing spectacle for us to file into a plane late while observing other people already seated and only waiting for us. Our Chinese guide was so taken aback by our attitude to time that he later inquired from me whether in Cameroon people go to work on time? My honest reply was that we do not respect time in Cameroon and indeed many parts of Africa- hence the connotation ‘African Time’.
Copyright ã 2003 by Njei Moses Timah
Njei Moses Timah [e-mail]