Central China – Beyond The Emperor’s Ghost Army!
Nothing but amazement – From the ancient walled city of Pingyao, the thousands of Buddha carvings at the Longmen Caves to the Terracotta army, it’s an incredible journey!
We left the comfort of our – now home base – Beijing, to venture into the heart of China. We started off with several days in the ancient walled city Pingyao, only a four hour high-speed train-ride away. With speeds of over 300km/h its been very different from our Trans-Siberian and Trans-Mongolian train experiences. This train was very modern and extremely comfortable, with clean toilets, hot water and a comfy chair. We arrived in the early evening at the Pingyao central station. From here we took a bus for about ten cents each to get to the gate of the city (Cars are not allowed into the town).
We stayed at the lovely family-run Hongyuyuan Guesthouse, and got the cutest and atmospheric room we have had so far! A tiny China-style studio room complete with a kang bed and a small courtyard with red lanterns on the porch. We were warmly welcomed with a cup of tea and lots of information about town, and really felt happy we added this town to our plan B (due to an earthquake our flight was cancelled and plans changed).
Pingyao is a mesmerizing town, completely surrounded by a beautifully preserved ten meter high wall. Within the wall lies the town, seemingly untouched by modernization but covered in tourists. We spend our days here strolling on its cobble-stone streets enjoying the lively atmosphere and admiring the ancient residences and temples. The oldest temple in town is the Confucius Temple, wich is almost a millennium old! Of course we also walked over the wall to get great views of the grey rooftops of the old homes below. We really enjoyed our time in this tiny town.
On Wednesday we left Pingyao by another fast train to get to Luoyang and the nearby Longmen Caves, where there are thousands of Buddha sculptures in the rock face. Luoyang was once the centre of the Chinese world, and functioned as its cultural and spiritual capital, however, today only few buildings remind of its history. For us, Luoyang was also the first place in China where nobody (nobody at all!) speaks any English, not even the lady from the hotel’s reception.
The following morning we took an early bus to the Longmen Caves. Recognized by UNESCO as a world heritage site, this place breathes spirituality. On the bank of the river, thousands of sculptures of once colorful buddhas ordinate the rock face. Many scuptures were destroyed or desecrated, and only few sculptures remain intact. Nonetheless the place is incredibly impressive and must have been an amazing sight in its hay-days. Most incredible is the untouched sixteen meter high giant Buddha carved on the west side of the river. We strolled next to both sides of the river, admiring the rock carvings and we visited a small temple halfway up the hill before returning to the hotel.
The next morning we got up very early to catch a bus to the Shaolin Monastery, the birthplace of Kungfu. As a fan, it was one of the places I just HAD to add to our itinerary!
The Shaolin Temple is where the origin lies of the animal based Shaolin Kongfu. This type of Kungfu became famous mainly because of movie stars such as Jet Li and Bruce Lee! Both are incredible martial arts actors. In the bus on our way there, we met two friendly Chinese travelers. We got talking through Google translate, and ended up spending the entire day with them. Even though it was hard to understand each other we still had loads of fun. In the temple itself, in the practise hall we were lucky enough to see a Kongfu student and his teacher practise their stances. There are actual indentations in the floor where they practice their stances. Pretty epic!! On our way to the exit we watched the Temple’s Shaolin Show, performed all around the world. They performed incredible skills only capable by experienced monks. An incredible experience. On the large courtyard in front of the hall there were thousands of students of all ages practising their Kongfu, proving that the art of Kongfu is very much alive. As we made our way back to the hotel, we said our goodbyes to our new Chinese friends and arrived just in time in the hotel to have a beer and watch local artists play guitar. A relaxing way to end our stay in Luoyang.
The following day we took a relaxing one hour train-ride to rainy Xi’An, famous around the world for an incredible archeological find, The Terracotta Army.
The next morning we decided, mainly because of the heavy rain, to visit the Jingdi Tomb, highly recommended in the Lonely Planet. This visit turned out to become one of the highlights of our visit to China.
After a half hour bus-ride from town we arrived at a seemingly deserted place in the middle of nowhere. We bought our tickets and went straight for the underground museum. As it was wet outside, we were asked to put on plastic shoes before we descended down into the tomb. Underground, beautifully displayed, are several excavated burial pits, showcasing archeological finds. Above the burial-pits they build glass walkways, where only the glass separates you from ancient history. Unlike so many other sites in China we had the entire place to ourselves and strolled around for hours. We viewed the terracotta life-like dolls, half-buried carriages, terracotta animals and so much more in its original surrounding. Although a bit creepy at times, the tomb gave us a real feel of its history. An incredible experience!
When we got back to the city the rain finally gave way and enabled us to head up the wall surrounding the centre of Xi’An. This wall, unlike the one in Pingyao, is massive and about fifteen meters wide. We rented a bike up-top and biked the entire city wall of Xi’An, enjoying the views of the busy modern city below. Huge contrast to the tiny town of Pingyao. We enjoyed the fourteen kilometer bike ride and completed the entire round. It was a fun way to see the city from above and was way faster than walking! We finished off our day with some complimentary beers in the Belgian bar at the back of the hostel. Good times! On our next rainy day we went to see the ancient Big Wild Goose Pagoda, arranged several souvenirs and went for an exotic dinner at Xi’ans lively Muslim Quarter.
The next morning we got up around 5am and caught the early bus to the Terracotta Army in the hope to avoid the crowds. We arrived half an hour before opening, and were the first people to get tickets, fifteen minutes before opening. We joined-up with a friendly German (Kai) in line, with whom we walked around the site. We ended up being the very first to get a glimpse of the impressive terracotta army. No other tourists arrived until twenty minutes later. An absolutely surreal experience to be the only people at such an epic world-famous site!
We strolled through time and got an incredible overview as to the sheer size of the site! It is simply impossible to explain just how thousands of terracotta warriors facing you feels like. Each and every terra-cotta warrior an individual with its own unique facial expressions, ready to protect their emperor in the after-life. I just couldn’t stop taking pictures of the continuously impressing warriors. Some partially excavated, some completely intact and some being put back together by archeologists in the back of the burial-pit. An impressive army, 7.000 strong, complete with deadly weapons and entire carriages with horses stand on display. As incredible as the Egyptian pyramids, this historical site gives us real tangible ancient history for the taking. The tomb of emperor Qin Shi Huang itself is still unexcavated but is said to be inlaid with gold and gems and replicate a map of China, complete with flowing mercury rivers. Scientists are still looking for ways to excavate it without damaging the tomb. When the time comes it will outshine the famous tomb of Tutanchamon. We walked for hours around the three burial-pits admiring the stunning views, and went over the history of the site and its emperor who was the first to conquer the whole of China. On the way out, I bargained and managed to pick-up my very own real terracotta warrior for less than 4 bucks!
We have had an amazing time these past weeks and enjoyed the old town of Pingyao, the Shaolin Kongfu Temple, biking the wall of Xi’An, getting down into a beautiful tomb and seeing the incredible Terra-cotta Army. We can’t wait to find out what China has in store for us next!