No two neighbours are more unlike than India and China. We say tamatar, while they say fanqie; Bomday duck is a fish while Peking duck is actually a duck; and there is hardly a world sport where we are mutually competitive. No two neighbours are more alike than India and China. We are the only two countries where a million is a company and a billion is a crowd, only two countries whose names put together gives you a third region and we have the one thing that Trump digs and will never have - the biggest, grandest and most beautiful border wall of all, the Himalayas. And thanks to the Himalayas, what should otherwise have been a five hour hop became a seven hour haul as the flight from Delhi to Beijing skirts around the range instead of flying over it. As negotiating the Beijing traffic is an adventure sport, we didn't want to attempt it after a red-eye and hence hopped on an another flight and continued flying to the furthest point of our trip - Xi'an.
Xi'an is where my four months of slogging on DuoLingo was put to its first use. After surprising myself (more than anyone else) with sounds that I thought I was incapable of making, we managed to get onto the bus that was vaguely pointing in the direction of the Xi'an Railway Station. And an hour later, we were at the station with our hotel just a hop skip and jump away from it. Following morning, thanks to the newly vetted language skills, we got onto the local bus towards one of the most astonishing archaeological discoveries of all times - the Army of Terracotta Warriors. As the name suggests, an entire army, about 6000 strong, of life-sized warrior statues stand in a gigantic excavated pit, guarding over the tomb of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China. All of them face east, motionless, unflinching and staring back at them was another army. This one a complete opposite: undisciplined, chaotic, cacophonic bunch of camera wielding tourists all jostling for the one spot to capture THE perfect shot, likes of which can be bought for one yuan in the curiosity shop outside. There are two other pits that houses statues of higher ranking generals where the crowds are less and the quality of the workmanship superior. The piece-de-resistance of the place is, however, a pair of exquisitely sculpted bronze chariots, so elaborate that it comes with flexible reins and foldable umbrellas. All these terracotta figures were hidden from plain sight and humanity was blissfully unaware of it until as recently as 1974 when someone chanced upon them while digging an irrigation well. One astonishing discovery of a lifetime would satisfy any old city. But this is not any old city. This is Xi'an. And this was Chang'an. In 1981 when the torrential rains knocked off a pagoda in a temple 120 kms to its west, a trove of Tang era treasures were found hiding underneath. The temple, Famen to give its name, was built in the 2nd century AD to house a finger bone of Buddha donated four centuries earlier by Ashoka. The temple got royal patronage under the Tang and the royals showered it with expensive gifts, all of which were stashed underneath the pagoda. We spent the afternoon driving to and from the Famen temple to get a glimpse of the said treasures and gape at the impressive reconstructed pagoda.
Xi'an houses one of the greatest museums in China - the Shaanxi History Museum, a museum so famous that getting tickets is a herculean task. Getting there bright and early didn't help us make the daily quota. But there were a few expensive tickets available for a special exhibition which gave us access to the main museum as well. This was the first time we were coming face to face with the famed Zhou bronzes, the Han pottery, the Tang sancai glaze and the Ming funerary figurines. The museum need not have bothered with so many varieties, just one would have been enough to render us speechless. Rest of the day was spent going down the list of Xi'an's other must sees: craning our neck to see the 64 m tall Big Wild Goose Pagoda, being re-swept away by Tang pottery at the Xi'an Museum, trying to beat the traffic to get the best shot of the Bell Tower, wading through the narrow street to get to the Great Mosque and finally walking up and down the majestic 12 m tall Ming era walls, the best preserved one in all of China.
The plan for the next day was to check out one of the Five Great Mountains of China - Huashan. Usually shrouded in mist, there is hardly a picture of it without a blanket of clouds draping it. We were lucky to pick the one day of the year when the weather is crystal clear. But we were unlucky that, that day happened to be a Sunday. About the population of Uttar Pradesh descended on the mountain and dodging them and figuring out the myriad steps needed to get us to the top resulted in us being at the North Peak at 11 am. Three hours behind schedule and at the lowest of the five Huashan peaks. After trying valiantly for a couple of hours to make up for the lost time and elevation, we gave up and headed back to Xi'an. In order to salvage something from the day, we dropped in to say hello to Jingdi. Well, he is not there anymore and you can only meet him in spirit. He was the sixth emperor of the Western Han Dynasty who died a little before our times, in 141 BC. His tomb is one of the few in China that is open to the public. The Terracotta Army, if you remember, was not the actual tomb of the first emperor - that is just a side gig. The main grand tomb of Qin Shi Huang is yet to be excavated.
An hour on a 350 kmph high speed rail brought us to Luoyang the following morning. Luoyang is where the capital of China shifted to in 493 AD from Datong. It remained as the capital or at least an important city till the fall of the Northern Song in 1127 AD. Before we can go any further with the history, we had to come to the present and find a way to stash our luggage for the day. Well, this is China. A solution presented itself. A non-official taxi-walah offered to drive us around for the day while the luggage would remain safely ensconced in the boot. We took the bait and headed off to our first stop - Shaolin Monastery. It needs no introduction. Hollywood has done it enough and more times. The monastery was established in the 5th century and had been razed to the ground several times as they often get on the wrong side of the ruling class. Although most of what we ended up seeing was about half our age, the fact that it was the Shaolin monastery was enough to give us goosebumps. The next stop: White Horse Temple. Built in 68 AD by the emperor Ming of Han, this is the oldest Buddhist temple in all of China. Most of the buildings, however, only date from the Yuan dynasty onwards. The final stop of the day was at one of the greatest rock cut temples on the planet - Longmen Grottoes. Hewn between 493 AD and 1127 AD, the place is exploding with thousands of grottoes of all sizes. Unfortunately, anything that is small enough to be looted by a couple of bandits already have been and only the big ones, which needs superhuman strength to dislodge, remain. The highlight is the Fengxian cave where a 17 m tall Buddha has been serenely mediating since the 670s when the statue was commissioned by the only woman emperor of China, Wu Zetian. The distinctly feminine feature of the Buddha is thanks to the deliberate effort to model it after Wu Zetian herself. Three more hours at 350 kmph brought us to Beijing and we reached the hotel way past our usual bedtime and crawled into our beds and called it a night.
The following morning, to our horror, we discovered that the government had shut down the city centre (Forbidden City, the National Museum including), in preparation for the grand gala that was planned for the following week, the 70th birthday of the Party and the Republic. I would pen a scathing paragraph on how modern over-sized tanks and choreographed marches are no match to the Hall of Supreme Harmony, but then I would like to come back here in the future and don't want to end up in a Laogai. Thankfully, this is Beijing and it has been the capital of China for over seven centuries. So there are enough must-see sites far from the city centre. The best of the rest was the Temple of Heaven, a vast temple complex used by the Ming and Qing emperors to conduct religious ceremonies. The disappointment of the closures was more than made up by the stroke of luck we had with the weather. We had five continuous clear days (surely a Vatican certified miracle), and between seeing the Forbidden City peeking through an ugly smog and photographing perfectly rotund temples in a spotless blue background, I would easily and always pick the latter. Behind the Forbidden City, there is an artificial hill that was formed by dumping the earth that was gathered from excavating the moat. That hill, let's call it Jingshan, has been a park since the era of Yongle. Since that park was open, we did what foreigners of the past couldn't do - climb the hill and peer into the city that they are forbidden from entering. After filling up a couple of memory cards, thanks to a 400 mm bazooka that aided in the said peering, we headed to another park - Beihai. This sprawling park houses some important historic buildings, the pick of which were the Xiaoxitian, the largest square pavilion in China and one (and the best preserved) of the three Nine-Dragon Screens in the country. Before we ended the day, we still had time to squeeze in the pair of Bell and Drum towers - the former built by the Yongle Emperor to house a gigantic bell and the latter built by Kublai Khan as the centre point of the newly founded Beijing city. From atop either buildings, one can enjoy the best view of the Beijing downtown skyline which, on a clear day like this day, was a keeper.
Whilst China's southern border needed no wall, its northern definitely needed one. The first emperor joined together several of the walls from the Warring States period to create the first version of the Great Wall. The succeeding dynasties enhanced and elongated it to make it the longest man made structure on the planet. Many sections of the wall are now restored and opened to public. We picked the Mutianyu, the second most popular section, which helped us avoid the marauding crowd at Badaling (the most popular section), while still giving us most of the postcard views. We took longer than expected in fighting off the goosebumps of having visited one of the most recognised landmarks of the world, and that left us having to choose between Changling (the most impressive) and Dingling (the one where you can visit the underground burial chamber) among the Ming Tombs. We chose the former and we don't know if that was a wise one as we did not visit the other. Thankfully, we did not miss out on the highlight of the Ming Tombs area - the Sacred Way: a long winding path with Ming era sculptures on either side. The path is lined with drooping Weeping Willows giving the whole place quite an ethereal look.
In the 18th century, the Qianlong Emperor enlarged the Kunming Lake (located at the north east corner of Beijing) and constructed several royal buildings. The resulting Summer Palace complex is now one of the top sites in Beijing. The picturesque bridges crisscrossing the Kunming, the opulent Grand Theatre, the gleaming Tower of Buddhist Incense and Cixi's infamous Marble Boat occupied the first couple of hours of our Thursday. Since we had budgeted three, we could do a quick dekko into the nearby Botanical Gardens, which frankly, was a drab compared to the Ming-Qing era ones that we had been visiting on this trip. We then headed to the Old Summer Palace, a gigantic palace-cum-garden where once stood some of the best Chinese architecture on the planet, all burned to the ground in the 1860s during the Second Opium War. Qianlong had commissioned the Jesuits to build European style villas at the north-east corner of the park and thanks to them being made of stone, they survive today, at least as ruins instead of as ashes. After adding the picture of the Great Fountain Ruins to our travel collection, we headed to the most recognised sporting arena in the world - The Bird's Nest. We ended the day at the twin temples of Lama and Confucius. The former started as the residence of the court eunuchs during the Ming and got converted into a Tibetan monastery of the Gelug school during the Qing. The latter is the second largest Confucius temple on the planet after the one in Qufu and it houses the entire collection of the thirteen Confucian Classics.
As Beijing summers were too hot for the Qing royalty (they were Jurchens, you know), they built themselves a sumptuous Mountain Resort in Chengde to escape the sweltering weather. It took them a couple of weeks to move the entire entourage one-way to Chengde. Today, the tourists can go up and down in a single day and have enough time to check out the highlights. We decided to do just that on our Friday. The Mountain Resort, yet another Chinese style gardens, stand out as the best among the many gardens we had glimpsed on our week long traipsing in China. The majestic Yongyousi pagoda and the picture perfect reflection of the Tower of Mist and Rain would stay with us forever. Qianlong Emperor, the longest resident in Chengde, built a series of eight temples around the Mountain Resort and three of these are a must-see. The first, Puning, houses the world's largest wooden statue of Avalokiteshwara. It is housed in a building that can barely fit it and the only view of the statue is one where you stand at its feet and look straight up the 22 metre tall giant sculpture. The second, Putuo Zongcheng, is an exact copy of the Potala Palace and is the largest of the eight temples. From its highest point, Wanfaguiyi Hall, one can enjoy the best views of the surrounding hills. The last and the third must-see temple is the Xumi Fushou which is a copy of the Samye Monastery and houses an eye-catching seven story tall Liuli-Wanshou pagoda.
Now, we come to the last day of the trip, the day we were agenda less, thanks to the closure of the Beijing city centre. The only thing left to do in the city was the Capital Museum which wasn't enough to occupy us for an entire day. A quick Google image search (which, by the way, works fine if you have an international SIM with roaming), got us hooked on the Eastern Qing Tombs. Located about 125 kilometers east of Beijing are the majestic tombs of the Qing emperors, the largest and best preserved mausoleum complex in the country. Unlike the Ming Tombs, the Qing ones are not shrouded in vegetation and overrun by tourists and hence, are a delight to photograph. The big three in the area are those of Qianlong, Kangxi and Dowager Cixi. The entire place was a symphony in symmetry with not a single brush stroke of paint that was off-place. With rolling hills in the backdrop and deep blue skies above, the setting was as breathtaking as the architecture. It was no wonder that emperors were dying to get here. But it is indeed a wonder that we could extricate ourselves from here to get on a flight where the seats were as cramped as a mouse trap and the food as insipid as a large tank in Tiananmen Square.
Click here for more photos from Xian.
Click here for more photos from Luoyang, Huashan, and Chengde.
Click here for more photos from Beijing.
Click here for more photos from the Great Wall and Ming and Qing Tombs.