A Bulletin from the Bullet Train.
5.30pm, Friday 21st November
I’m on the bullet train. They don’t call it that here, I just thought it would make a snappy title. The north of England is getting transport like this in another sixteen years or so, if the planners are to be believed. The train picks-up pace through the inner suburbs of Zhengzhou. It is sleek, and very well-appointed inside. Television screens display advertisements that are hard to avoid, and there is technology everywhere. The driver presses some kind of ‘turbocharge’ button, and we ease into warp-factor-five. Every comfort and need is catered for, except for the fact that you are still cannot put used toilet paper down the lavatory (or so-says the tannoy, in English). Perhaps that’s the final frontier yet-to-be conquered by the Chinese – toilets you can actually flush loo-roll down.
We have not yet left the City limits. It’s nearly dark outside, except that it’s not going to get dark in this City. On snowy nights in England, the glare of the orange street-lights is reflected upwards from the ground. Well, it’s the same here, except that it’s not snow……………………………it’s dust.
A panel at the front of the carriage displays the current speed. 153kph. I can just-about see electricity pylons and fields now. Already 212 kph…………… and it’s less than sixty-seconds since I typed that ‘153’ figure. Once again I do not exaggerate, for there is simply no need. This is now the fastest I’ve ever travelled without leaving the surface of the planet. We are heading for Xi An, permanent residence of the terracotta–regimental-regatta. There are three uniformed train officials in my own carriage-alone. You’re lucky to get three staff on an entire ‘Master Cutler’ from Sheffield to St Pancras. We appear to have stabilised at 300kph (not-far-shy of 200mph). Warp-factor nine………pity I can no longer see anything out of the window, but the return journey on Sunday will be in the daylight. Crikey, my ears have just popped……………….this is one good bit of railway-kit.
We have now stopped in Gong-Yi-Nan station, which is a surprise, only because there was never any sensation of braking or decelerating in our meander down to 0kph. Then just as effortlessly, we are back to 300kph cruise-control.
On the train, exactly as-planned, I meet two other teachers working for the same Institution as myself. Adam (from Tamworth) and Ben (Aberystwyth) are both here to teach Art, but they are based at a campus in Zhu-Ma-Dian, around 400km away from my base (a mere stones- throw in Chinese terms). We are all booked into the Bell Tower Hotel in Xi’An. This City is pretty-much in the geographic centre of China, and with a population of only 2.7 million it’s a bit of a hamlet compared to my teaching base. But I’ve been told it’s well-worth a look, and not just for the pottery-boys.
Saturday 22nd November
Once again, our Institutions corporate hospitality does not disappoint – all three of us sleep well and enjoy the breakfast of Lords, complete with Heinz beans – well you can’t get more-lordly than that, can you? We are comparing the various travel-possibilities to and from the Terracotta Army, but heavy rain makes our decision for us. It’s a taxi there, and back, for around £45, pre-agreed.
5 p.m………………………….same day
Come judgement day, today will surely prove one of the more memorable days of my life. And it included a trip to see what the Chinese are calling the eighth wonder of the world, undiscovered until 1974 (a chance-find by farmers drilling a well for water).
Yet whereas the pottery-warriors were the highlight of the morning, it was only the warm-up act for that which followed (in my opinion, at least). But first, to retrace our steps in-order………
It’s cold, grey, foggy (genuine fog this time, not Zhengzhou smog) but above all, wet. The Chinese like to build roads, but drainage is not their strong-suit, and the spray kicks-up vigorously from behind each rear tyre. An unremarkable and tedious taxi journey along yet-another bland toll road ended with agreement that the driver should meet us in the same spot two hours henceforth.
The approaches to our chosen tourist-trap are predictably tacky for a country which has levelled so many of its historic buildings to make space for concrete monoliths. For starters, the street-traders are (of course) here in force with their dazzling array of ‘warrior’ merchandise. This being a chill-winter day, there are also stalls selling fox-furs – real, not ‘faux’, complete with feet and claws. Many local women stand in front of visitors in attempt to sell single pomegranates from hand-held baskets. There is even a KFC.
People with many different ID badges all offer their services as ‘official’ tour guides. In the end, we choose none. The hustling stops as soon as we proceed inside through first set of turnstiles (and the inevitable metal-detector doorways). Thereafter, the sanctity, dignity and status of this place is respected as it should be. There is a long, wooded walk from outer-turnstile to inner-turnstile and we finally reach ‘Pit 1’.
Pit 1 is huge, and stunning. It’s covered by a modern roof, under which could have been housed several large Zeppelins. When lyric-writing for The Mikado, W.S.Gilbert gave us: “Our warriors, in serried-ranks assembled”. Although he was referencing ancient Japan, the line seems tailor-made for that which stands before me. These mighty troops would be enough to make any ‘nation tremble’.
As with all-things-Chinese, it’s the sheer scale that impresses-most. That, plus the volume of labour-hours that went into it. But this is no mere mass production, it’s so much more than that. No standard template was used here – each warrior has its own face and there is variation in the patterns of armour-plate and in other detail. There are infantrymen, archers, horses and chariots, field commanders and standard-bearers. I couldn’t find two alike. It’s a grand sight indeed.
After this, Pits 2 and 3 were (frankly) disappointing but it didn’t matter, as I had already got the money-shot, as they say in the porn-industry. A small number of traders had either vaulted the perimeter wall or bribed one of the security guards in order to peddle their wares inside the ‘pits’, but generally there was a great deal of decorum about proceedings.
And then, on the way back to Xi’An city-centre, my day really kicked-off. Unfortunately I haven’t yet had time to write it up, as I have an exam to write for Monday.
Copyright Jody Redmires, 2014