In the middle of Middle Country

Posted on 2019-11-28

In Lanzhou, we had consigned our bicycles to Baoji, where we had a Couchsurfing host waiting for us. However, we ourselves didn't go directly to Baoji, but made a stop on the way to visit the Maijishan Grottoes, one of the four major Buddhist grottoes in China. We took an early morning high speed train to Tianshui, and then a direct bus to the site, where we quickly checked into a nearby guesthouse and then got stuck having lunch - the sister of the guesthouse owner was having her wedding reception there and we were offered so much good food (for free)!

After lunch, we finally went to see the famous grottoes. The grottoes consist of 194 caves cut into a cliff face, containing more than 7200 Buddhist sculptures and over 1000sqm of murals, all accessible via a network of stairways. Impressive as they were, it was less the statues that fascinated us, but more the whole setting of the place, with the stairways and corridors jutting out of the vertical cliff face of a steep hill popping out of the scenic landscape. Climbing the stairways to view the grottoes took one to fear-inducing heights. It's easy to see why the monks chose this site for the grottoes, but hard to imagine how they actually built them, 1600 years ago.

Maijishan Grottoes. This 15.7m high Buddha, attended on both sides by Bodhisattvas, is the largest statue in Maijishan. Built in the Sui Dynasty (581-618 AD) and rebuilt in the Song Dynasty.

Maijishan Grottoes. This 15.7m high Buddha, attended on both sides by Bodhisattvas, is the largest statue in Maijishan. Built in the Sui Dynasty (581-618 AD) and rebuilt in the Song Dynasty.

Maijishan Grottoes. Crazy walkways built into the side of the cliff. Even crazier to imagine how these grottoes were built 1600 years ago!

Maijishan Grottoes. Crazy walkways built into the side of the cliff. Even crazier to imagine how these grottoes were built 1600 years ago!

Maijishan (麦积山), which translates literally to "wheat stack mountain", rises suddenly out of the lush surroundings of the Qinling mountains and is quite the remarkable landform

Maijishan (麦积山), which translates literally to "wheat stack mountain", rises suddenly out of the lush surroundings of the Qinling mountains and is quite the remarkable landform

The next day, we chose to take a regular train to Baoji instead of the much faster high-speed train, as the high-speed train would have travelled almost entirely underground and we wouldn't have seen anything of the landscape. The regular trains only offer tickets in the "hard seat" class, which is really quite hard and just okay for the 2-3 hour rides we would take on them. The contrast between the two types of trains was stark: in the high-speed trains, people generally behave in a more civilized manner, while things tended to be noisier and dirtier on the regular trains, though we are not sure how much this can be attributed to the people themselves (there being generally more "city" people on the more expensive high-speed trains and "rural" people on the regular trains), and how much to the much nicer environment inside the new high-speed trains. We are nevertheless very impressed with the high-speed train network here, which, being almost always elevated or underground, runs like a massive country-wide metro system.

In Baoji, we picked up our bicycles and then stayed with our first Couchsurfing hosts in China - or rather their parents, since our hosts themselves were travelling around China and Laos by motorbike. The parents took care of us like their own children and we felt very much at home there, even though they didn't speak English and Hannah had to translate for Heiko all the time. We didn't think there was anything to see in Baoji, and originally only wanted to use Baoji as a base to store our bicycles and some luggage while visiting Xi'an, after which we would return to pick everything up and continue cycling south. However, our hosts' apartment had an amazing view of a huge temple complex nearby, so we decided to visit it on our return.

But first, we took another regular train to Xi'an. We had some hours before our Couchsurfing host there could meet us, so we walked all across the city centre, which is still enclosed by a massive, rectangular city wall. Xi'an (formerly known as Chang'an) has been a cultural and political centre of China for more than 3000 years, and is the oldest of the Four Great Ancient Capitals, having served as the capital on and off under several of the most important dynasties, including the Qin, Han, and Tang Dynasties. Today, the city still has a number of very old buildings in its historic core, as well as many new, modern buildings built in old style. There is also an active, lively Muslim quarter in the middle of the city, where we visited the Great Mosque of Xi'an, that dates from the Ming Dynasty and looks just like a Chinese temple.

Yizhen Pavillion of the Great Mosque of Xi'an

Yizhen Pavillion of the Great Mosque of Xi'an

Pedestrian street in Xi'an, next to the Drum Tower

Pedestrian street in Xi'an, next to the Drum Tower

Bell Tower of Xi'an

Bell Tower of Xi'an

The next day, we spent most of the day nerding out in the Shaanxi History Museum (Shaanxi is the province in which Xi'an is located). Due to the rich history of Xi'an, the museum has a vast and extremely interesting collection of precious artefacts on display. What completely surprised us was the popularity of the museum - free tickets are limited to 6,000 a day and were already gone by the time we checked online, so we bought the cheapest tickets available, which also included an extra exhibition on treasures of the Tang Dynasty. When we arrived, we found by far the most crowded history museum we have ever seen, mostly with Chinese tourists. With the exhibits organised in chronological order according to dynasties, the few hours we spent there felt like a short lesson in Chinese history.

Remnants of Baqiao paper, from the Han Dynasty (202 BC - 220 AD), the earliest plant-fiber paper ever found in the world, in the Shaanxi History Museum in Xi'an

Remnants of Baqiao paper, from the Han Dynasty (202 BC - 220 AD), the earliest plant-fiber paper ever found in the world, in the Shaanxi History Museum in Xi'an

Of course, any visit to Xi'an is not complete without a visit to the Terracotta Army, undoubtedly one of the most famous and popular tourist attractions in China. With tickets limited to 65,000 a day, we expected crowds of people and a lot of pushing and shoving, but it actually wasn't as bad as we expected. The terracotta army was built on the orders of Qin Shi Huang, the First Emperor of China, to protect him in his afterlife. The figures are arranged in three pits about 1.5km east of the emperor's burial mound, which itself has not yet been opened by archaeologists. Over the last 2200 years, the wooden ceilings of the pits have collapsed and the pits have filled with earth, and many of the figures have thus been crushed. We were surprised to see that the pits are still active excavation sites, and significant parts are still buried or only partially unearthed. Reassembling the figures requires solving a huge puzzle, and it apparently takes one restoration expert about a whole year to restore just one figure, so they probably still have a few thousand work-years ahead of them. Nevertheless, we found it really interesting to see the different stages of excavation and restoration in the pits. We also didn't know that the terracotta figures were all individuals, incredibly detailed and originally realistically painted, just that it is extremely difficult to preserve the coloured coating during excavation.

The Terracotta Army in Pit 1 (the largest pit) of the Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor

The Terracotta Army in Pit 1 (the largest pit) of the Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor

Partial excavation of terracotta soldiers in Pit 2 of the Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor

Partial excavation of terracotta soldiers in Pit 2 of the Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor

Cavalry warrior with his horse, displayed in a small museum section in Pit 2 of the Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor

Cavalry warrior with his horse, displayed in a small museum section in Pit 2 of the Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor

After visiting the three pits, we continued on to the large park around the burial mound, where a few more small pits have been opened to tourists. In these pits, terracotta officials and entertainers, bronze chariots, and various other supplies for the emperor's afterlife have been unearthed. Although we couldn't see the burial mound itself due to the rain and fog, walking around the site made us realise just how big it is, and we can only wonder what treasures lie below.

Pit 9901 in the area surrounding the tomb mound of the Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor, where terracotta figures of entertainers such as acrobats and strongmen were found

Pit 9901 in the area surrounding the tomb mound of the Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor, where terracotta figures of entertainers such as acrobats and strongmen were found

After an intense few days in Xi'an, we returned to Baoji, where we finally visited the big Taoist temple complex on the hill next to our hosts' place. According to legend, Zhang Sanfeng, the creator of Taichi, invented this internal (i.e. focused on mental instead of physical exercise) martial art while touring around the nearby mountains and founded the temple as a place for practice. Nowadays, Taichi groups still practice next to the temple. As luck would have it, a temple festival was happening on the day we visited, so we could not only enter for free, but also observe the temple at its busiest.

Jintai Guan (金台观) in Baoji, originally built by Zhang Sanfeng, the inventor of Taichi, as a place for practice. It is said that it was here in Baoji that he created the concept of Taichi.

Jintai Guan (金台观) in Baoji, originally built by Zhang Sanfeng, the inventor of Taichi, as a place for practice. It is said that it was here in Baoji that he created the concept of Taichi.

Taoist temple inside Jintai Guan (金台观) in Baoji. It is said that Zhang Sanfeng, the inventor of Taichi, created the concept here in Baoji, and built Jintai Guan as a place for practice.

Taoist temple inside Jintai Guan (金台观) in Baoji. It is said that Zhang Sanfeng, the inventor of Taichi, created the concept here in Baoji, and built Jintai Guan as a place for practice.

Finally, it was time to start cycling again. Just south of Xi'an and Baoji lies the Qinling mountain range, that traditionally divides northern and southern China. The main differences we noticed are that north of the divide, the trees are deciduous (i.e. the leaves change color and fall off in winter) and the main staple food is noodles, while south of the divide, the trees are evergreen and the main staple food is rice. There are only a few passes across the Qinling mountains, and we chose the lowest one, that still involved a steep 1468m climb to our first night's stop, Taibai. This would have been nearly impossible for us with our original luggage, but now, with just two panniers each, it became quite doable.

Temple in the mountains on the way up from Baoji to Taibai

Temple in the mountains on the way up from Baoji to Taibai

We had booked a hotel in advance that was listed as accepting foreigners, but when we arrived, the owner told us otherwise. He allowed us to stay anyway (without police registration, like so often), but we were additionally told to keep a low profile when going out for food and not to walk up and down the main street. We were not particularly concerned about this, until another man in the restaurant we went to told us (in a friendly chat) that foreigners were not allowed to stay anywhere in the city. This got us a bit worried, as we had read stories of foreigners being kicked out of their hotel rooms at night, but luckily nothing happened to us that night. The next day though, when we stopped for lunch on the way down, the restaurant owner told us that in fact, the whole top of the pass is off limits to foreigners due to a military base up there, and we should have already been stopped on our way up! Fortunately, this didn't happen, and after another unregistered night in a small village guesthouse, we rolled down into the Hanzhong basin.

The expressway flying through the Bao river valley on the way down from Taibai to Hanzhong

The expressway flying through the Bao river valley on the way down from Taibai to Hanzhong

View of the fertile Hanzhong basin on our way to Mianxian

View of the fertile Hanzhong basin on our way to Mianxian

Hanzhong is another historically important place: The Han dynasty was named after the city, where its first emperor was from, and the prestige and prominence of the Han dynasty influenced the ancient Chinese people to begin identifying themselves as the "people of Han" (汉人), a name that has been carried down to this day. The city was also at the centre of various political and military events during the Three Kingdoms period, when China split into three rivaling kingdoms after the Han dynasty fell apart. The era was one of the bloodiest in Chinese history, but has been greatly romanticised.

We stayed in Mianxian, a smaller city west of Hanzhong, as it fit better with our daily distances. Here, we finally obtained our first hotel registration in 12 days, much to our relief. We also visited the nearby ancient town built around a temple dedicated to Zhuge Liang, a famous chancellor and regent of one of the Three Kingdoms, the Shu Han state. In what felt more like a theme park, the ancient town contained reconstructed buildings from the time and life of Zhuge Liang, whose tomb is just across the Han river from here. We then continued on towards Chengdu, encountering even more Three Kingdoms history on the way.

Lake in Wuhou Ancient Town, where two battle scenes from the Three Kingdoms period have been recreated: the Battle of Red Cliffs (赤壁) on the left, and Borrowing Arrows with Straw Boats (草船借箭) on the right. The ancient town is filled with reconstructed buildings from the time and life of Zhuge Liang, a famous chancellor and regent of one of the Three Kingdoms, the Shu Han state. He was conferred the title of Wuhou ("Marquis of Wu") by the Shu Emperor for his devotion and service.

Lake in Wuhou Ancient Town, where two battle scenes from the Three Kingdoms period have been recreated: the Battle of Red Cliffs (赤壁) on the left, and Borrowing Arrows with Straw Boats (草船借箭) on the right. The ancient town is filled with reconstructed buildings from the time and life of Zhuge Liang, a famous chancellor and regent of one of the Three Kingdoms, the Shu Han state. He was conferred the title of Wuhou ("Marquis of Wu") by the Shu Emperor for his devotion and service.

Street in Wuhou Ancient Town. The ancient town is filled with reconstructed buildings from the time and life of Zhuge Liang, a famous chancellor and regent of one of the Three Kingdoms, the Shu Han state. He was conferred the title of Wuhou ("Marquis of Wu") by the Shu Emperor for his devotion and service.

Street in Wuhou Ancient Town. The ancient town is filled with reconstructed buildings from the time and life of Zhuge Liang, a famous chancellor and regent of one of the Three Kingdoms, the Shu Han state. He was conferred the title of Wuhou ("Marquis of Wu") by the Shu Emperor for his devotion and service.