I was only 16 years old when I made my first trip to China. I was nervous, but alive with the anticipation of seeing a place that had been so alien to me for so many years. We were on a school trip, a 10 day tour that started in Beijing and ended in Xi’an. The first few days were a blur of fresh sounds, tempting smells, the cry of peddlers, and the magnificence of ancient buildings that were unlike anything I’d ever seen. I have vivid memories of being introduced to a man’s prize fighting cricket in one of Beijing’s many Hutongs and of running up the steps of the Great Wall, full of vigour and wonder.
By the time we boarded the overnight train to Xi’an, I thought the dream was over. In my naïve opinion, nowhere could be as gloriously enchanting as Beijing. So, as the train approached the station, I already had my reservations about the city of Xi’an. Stepping out of the train, I noticed immediately that the atmosphere of the city was vastly different. The pace of life was still as fast, though perhaps not as frantic as Beijing, but the city seemed to have a more rustic feel. People moved deliberately, rather than recklessly, and the population appeared to be older than that of Beijing’s.
Bizarrely enough, perhaps my most memorable meal of the trip happened in Xi’an. I’d tried the sumptuously crispy Peking duck, I’d sampled a platter of plump Beijing dumplings, yet it was the plate of biángbiáng noodles I had in Xi’an, in a restaurant barely the size of my living room, that I remember most vividly. The restaurant itself was above a bustling local market and the sound of bartering was almost deafening. The rooms had an unnerving smell to them and what little tableware we had was clearly still dirty. When the food finally arrived, the thick strips of noodles looked like belts slumped on the plate, soaked in a brownish sauce that smelled acidic and unappetizing. Yet rather than feeling deterred, I remember feeling somehow at ease. A wave of happiness washed over me as I realised that, lovely though Beijing was, this was the real China. This was the place I had longed to visit for so long, and I finally felt at home. I tucked into the noodles with hungry fervour and found them to be so delicious that words failed me. I just sat there, a thick white ribbon of noodle hanging from my mouth, in sheer ecstasy.
The following day, we were to visit the mausoleum of Qin Shi Huang, a man I had never heard of nor had any particular interest in, and I was still certain there would be nothing there for me. After all, no structure could inspire me with as much awe as the Marble Boat in the Summer Palace. In fact, to this day I still dream of Empress Dowager Cixi, stood still in time, languid on her immovable boat.
From a young age, I had been vaguely aware of the existence of the Terracotta Army, but had no real idea who they were or what they looked like. To me they were the stuff of legend, as mythical as the soldiers hidden inside the Trojan Horse. So, as I set foot in the first pit of the mausoleum complex, I had no idea what to expect. The air was still and, from where I was standing, the pit was hidden from view. Slowly I crept towards the ledge and, as I looked down, I felt as though the wind had been knocked out of me. I remember recoiling, both in horror and awe, at what I had seen. There, just a few feet below me, were perfectly formed lines of officers, foot soldiers, archers and horses, all holding position, all ready to attack. They went back as far as my eye could see, all of them staring out at me with unique faces, each one representing a life that had long since perished. Individually they looked calm, but together they created an atmosphere of tension, somehow intimidating in spite of their lifelessness. For one horrible moment, I had thought they were alive.
For the rest of the day, I was almost completely silent. I wandered through the other three pits, through the museum and the gift shop, in a catatonic state, unable to process what I had experienced. I knew that I had to grasp this opportunity, to try and capture these feelings in some meaningful way. In the gift shop, I found a tiny set of terracotta warriors that had been forged in the same way as the originals. They were a common souvenir, consisting of one officer, one foot soldier, one archer and a horse, but I had to have them. In a strange way, I had to know that what I had seen was real, I had to have proof. To this day, there are no words to describe precisely the impact those soldiers had on me. Yet as I look over at those four little figures still silently guarding my windowsill, I am overwhelmed with the desire to try.