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Reflections on a Wandering Life.....

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Death. Cold, definite, and relentless. We try to put it out of our minds. We think of other things. We live our lives as mortals as if death will never come, yet we are so accustomed to the concept, that we never stop to realize how terribly unnatural it really is. Surely man was not created to die. Something must have gone terribly wrong.

But slowly, surely, it approaches. Dark. Unknown. History is full of man's efforts to nullify it's effects. One of the most astounding stories of one individual's attempts to conquer death is the story of the Qin Emperor. His name was Qin Shi Huang, and he lived in the third century before Christ. He was cold, calculating and ruthless. The tomb he ordered built for himself consumed the better part of four decades, and three quarters of a million laborers. It was discovered by farmers in 1974. The most dramatic part of this burial site is the presence of thousands of life-size warriors, arranged in full battle formation, set to guard the emperor in the afterlife. No one knows just how many there are. Rumor has it that he had himself buried in a sea of mercury. The actual tomb has never been excavated, so such wild stories cannot now be verified, but the mercury content of the soil around his tomb is very, very high, so there could be some truth to it.

Today I visited the site where the thousands of terracotta warriors are standing just as they have for two millennia. The site has been very well developed, and the tour can actually be done as a self-guided tour, because all the plaques contain well written explanations in English. I decided to take the youth hostel tour, because I lost a couple days in Urumqi, due to illness. I don't really have time to take a day to get oriented. As it was, it turned out to be a good decision, because there were others on the tour who had more knowledge than the young tour guide himself, most notably the art historian from Amsterdam (the guy who told me how good looking I was yesterday). The Terracotta Warriors display includes a "movie in the round" like at Disneyland. It's obviously designed for foreigners, because it is all in English, which makes me wonder what local people think of it.

This evening, I headed for the Muslim quarter. Compared to Kashgar, it is disappointing, because it is so completely commercialized. There is really no functioning Muslim life that I could see in Xi'an. But the Great Mosque is quite impressive. The mosque in Kashgar is much more Middle Eastern. It is a functioning mosque that is very much a part of the community. But the mosque here in Xi'an is impressive for another reason. It is just plain old. It was first set up in the Eighth Century. Surely it has been modified since then, but it still has to be the oldest wood structure I have ever seen. It is very, very Chinese. And the garden around the mosque exudes antiquity. When you go to the Mosque in Kashgar, you feel like you are visiting the main community center. When you go to mosque in Xi'an, you feel like you are going to a museum--and you are. They charge you 12 yuan just to look at it. Nevertheless, it is a very interesting piece of history.

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