Blessed to be a witness

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Friday, 4th March

Souvenir warriors

The terracotta soldiers are absolutely astonishing. Two hundred years BC, this emperor dude, Qin Shi Huang, was the first Chinese emperor to attempt to unite the country. He also instigated the building of the Great Wall. Alas enormous - some might say entirely bonkers - projects such as these gave old Emperor Qin a bit of an ego. So much so that before he copped it, he commissioned loads of artisans and artists to build him a massive grave, with all these thousands upon thousands of life-sized terracotta warriors to accompany him into battle in the afterlife.

Sure enough, he pegged it, and was buried along with his army, at the foot of the mountains near Xi'an. Unfortunately for his wishes, the same people who had been drafted in on low pay to build this absurd votive offering, which took more than six years, rebelled against the forced labour they had had to endure, and after he died they desecrated his tomb.

Thankfully for us modern people, they weren't particularly thorough in their wrecking endeavours, and a large number of the soldiers survived, turning up one day in the 1970s when a farmer digging a well pulled up a terracotta head in a bucket. Excavations proceeded, and three vast pits were found, one of which had 6,000 of the warriors in it, standing in rows.

One warrior would be astonishing enough: they're amazingly well crafted, and they were carved by hand in huge production lines. The removable heads are staggeringly realistic, and each is unique. More than two thousand years old, they are a testament to the incredibly advanced society that existed in China in 221BC, in my opinion rivalling that of Egypt.

I wish I could say the same for the tour we took to see them, which was an almost total waste of a day, and a reminder of why we usually eschew organised tours. Instead of taking us there, letting us look, then taking us back, we were herded into a factory shop, ostensibly to show us how they're made; alas we were actually shown how they're made today for the tourists, not how they were made twenty-two centuries ago. And the factory owner could do us a really good price and arrange shipping! Wow!

The warriors were indeed as amazing as I had hoped, though they were very far away down in their pit, and the museum complex that surrounded them was as good as any I've seen in China.

I had been a bit disappointed on our arrival to find that the souvenir hawkers, whose persistence is world famous, were sort of lazing around. Happily for me, on our departure, and just as I was commenting that they'd let things slide a bit, they appeared like vultures. "Be careful what you wish for," said M. But with all the ranks of warriors, horsemen and generals, I was in the mood for battle.

"You how muchee?" said a man bearing a box of little terracotta replicas. "Yee kwai," I replied: 1 yuan, or ten euro cents. Laugh laugh laugh we both went, and he said twenty. "No you best price," and I persisted with one yuan. Eventually he appeared to capitulate, and I gave him one yuan, which he pocketed, and then proceeded to give me one little replica rather than the whole box. I protested and returned the figure, and asked for my money back, which he refused to do, suddenly saying the box would cost me 65 yuan - even though there were only five one-yuan figures in it. Still he refused to return my yuan, so I stuck my hand in his pocket and took it back. I expected to get thumped, but he just laughed. As we left the complex, his business rival ran after me and offered me an entire box for three yuan. I said no, two, and eventually he cursed me and left. A pyrrhic bargaining victory for me. Good job I didn't actually want the damn things.

Then our charmless and largely incomprehensible 'guide', 'Michelle', dragged us to an overpriced restaurant, pressured us into getting tons of food - albeit mostly delicious - that we didn't want nor couldn't finish, for a price we weren't really prepared to pay. While the delightful little ratbag sat at another table eating a tiny dish of cheap food. Then to a dusty Buddhist museum in which nobody was particularly interested, though it did have yet more relics from the amazing exploding Sakyamuni Buddha. Michelle, however, presented the Buddha himself as "famous Chinese philosopher like Confucius', which was an interesting take on the matter. The meal; the pointless museum; the fact that when the bus driver took a wrong turning through a fascinating-looking peasant festival Michelle didn't deign to comment; when the driver, lost, did a U-turn by a power station that she portrayed as part of the trip: "Chinese government providing many good project for peasants. Here we see power factory."; all of this persuaded us not to book another organised trip anywhere. Except maybe in Tibet where the going is going to be lot harder.

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