CAROLINE HURRY gets caught between a wok and a hard place
The traffic light is red but my taxi driver’s foot remains glued to the accelerator. Brakes screech and glass tinkles on the tar as an oncoming truck clips our tail light, but my driver doesn’t flinch. Neither does he speak English.
Crouched in the back seat, I squeal in the universal language of fright. He shoots a withering look at me in his rearview mirror. Another hysterical ‘big nose’ I hear him thinking. Yup, it’s what Chinese people call us Westerners, sadly not an inaccurate description in my case.
“Don’t you stop for red lights?” I shriek. Hell no. Why would he? Already we have missed a turning, reversed up the pavement, knocked the coolie-hat off a watermelon hawker and avoided a head-on collision by a hair; my driver SMSing, changing the CD and lighting a cigarette all the while.
I’m planning my funeral – no flowers, donations to Friends of the Cat – but then I realise I’ve left my passport in my hotel so if I get tossed out on the side of the road no one will know what became of me.
I like anonymity but being a foreigner in Tongchuan, Shaanxi province, means I have to flex my mime muscles daily. What might Marcel Marceaux have done with “where the hell is my laundry?”
My best efforts that morning had produced only a nervous titter from behind the receptionist’s dainty hand while the manager and his cohorts had openly wept with mirth – but still no reunion with any of my clean clothes.
‘I’m lonely, lonely, low-un-lee,’ warbles a demented voice from the CD player. The driver turns up the volume. It’s bizarre how many surreal moments are set to an appropriate song. At breakfast, I’d listened to Auld Lang Syne sung in a Mandarin dialect as I chewed on a cake with all the colour and consistency of volcanic lava.
The only other option was the thousand-year-old eggs that looked their age. The lava seemed the lesser of two evils.
My taxi driver’s blithe disregard for Chinese traffic regulations – now there’s an oxymoron – was increasing the churn in my stomach. Like St Helena, I was about to erupt and not in a good way, but somehow we arrived alive at the Shengwei cement factory where my husband was toiling on contract. He took one look at my pea-green complexion and warned me not to go anywhere near the toilets. “You’ll die,” he said cheerfully.
I fled behind some bushes instead and, if you’ll pardon a Danish euphemism, “had a long chat to Ulrich”.
It was a conversation I was doomed to repeat several times. Truth is you need a strong stomach to experience the real China. And all too often, mine wasn’t up to the task. Not when it came to the lavatories (OMG!) nor when it came to the labyrinthine alleys where lobsters clacked and fish flapped alongside fake designer sunglasses. Also on sale were rats – their scaly tails dangling down the side of the communal soup bowl – dried frogs, scorpions and crickets. A wire cage crammed with dogs awaiting the butcher’s knife broke my heart.
All that fly-infested rotting meat – the revolting innards of some hapless creature – and the eau d’urine hanging in the sultry air made for a most effective emetic. Later in a restaurant, with an instrumental version of How Much is that Doggie in the Window tinkling in the background, I gloomily contemplated the communal spread. It looked repulsive. A steamed frog perched atop a pile of noodles had a cocktail cherry in its mouth and the roast chicken’s head was still attached. This failed to whet my appetite.
I stared hard at the selection. Everything stared back. Beads of sweat formed on my forehead. Finally, I selected something that looked like grilled tarantula with all the consistency of a fisherman’s jockstrap but another pressing chat with Ulrich ensured not a mouthful made it past my gullet.
In Tongchuan the food’s ghastly but the locals are lovely. A woman pressed a scented hanky into my hand, before I passed out from some indescribable stench near the market. Our cabbie’s wife on a bicycle returned a valuable camera we had left in a taxi to us when we’d given it up for lost. People are poor but honest.
Xi’an, 103 km south of Tongchuan, has all the ugly skyscrapers and developments that blight so many cities in China but some character has been preserved such as the ancient city wall and bell tower.
Kites filled the skies at the Big Wild Goose Pagoda, built in 652 during the reign of Emperor Gaozong of the Tang Dynasty (618-907) to house Buddhist paraphernalia taken from India by a prince called Xuanzang. He set off along the Silk Road traversing 100 countries over 17 years to find Buddha relics. Xuanzang translated all the Sanskrit sutras into Chinese and wrote a book called Pilgrimage to the West. Today his statue stands outside the 64.5 metre high temple.
Most people visit Xi’an to see the Terracotta Warriors, outside the nearby town of Lintong. Not content with hosting the eighth wonder of the world, the authorities have built a Vegas-style pyramid and sphinx. This is overkill.
Three Shaanxi peasants digging a well in 1974 struck the tomb of Qin Shi Huang (259-210 BC), China’s first emperor, who made Pol Pot look like a pussycat. Ascending the throne aged 13 in 246 BC, he built the Great Wall and united six warring kingdoms into one nation, setting himself up as the first emperor of the Dynasty of Qin, pronounced ‘chin’ – from which China derives its name. He established the Chinese script and a unified weight system, instituted agricultural reform, built more than 9,660 km of roads and created the Terracotta army to protect his tomb – which took 41 years to complete – murdering more than 700 000 labourers as he went.
To protect its secrets – candles made from the “fat of mermaids” and ceilings adorned with images of the Milky Way – Qin Shi Huang ordered the architects, workers and hundred of his concubines to be buried alive inside.
A gigantic mound of earth covers his tomb, which has yet to be excavated. Since its discovery, three pits have been uncovered.
After the Emperor Qin died, a rebellion broke out and part of the site was burnt. Then the collapse of wooden roof covered by earth crushed the remaining army statues. After restoration, the warriors were placed in their original location but only some have been restored.
Each life-size statue has a distinctive expression and hairstyle, according to rank. Some gaze about or bow their heads in meditation. Many have crossbows under their arms and arrow quivers slung over their shoulders. The detail is breathtaking, down to the textured soles of their ceramic boots.
China’s impenetrable mysteries beg further exploration. If you get a chance to see the terracotta army, take it! If you can stomach the journey, that is.