Photos by Dolly Estevez, (University of North Carolina) Student Correspondent, CET Beijing: Internship, Fall 2016
While in China, the adventures do not stop at just the Great Wall, Tiananmen Square, or the many open markets – they extend outside of Beijing! Last week, due to the national holiday and because my too adventurous soul wanted to branch out of Beijing, and friend and I decided to visit the famous Terracotta Warriors in the beautiful city of Xian. Over the period of the week, not only was I able to learn more about China’s extensive and interesting history through historical sites, but I was also able to realize the importance of traveling – not just for one’s own self, but for other people as well.
The journey to Xian began on a Monday afternoon, battling through the thousands of people attempting to return home by means of high speed trains. Just like their traffic, Beijing’s train station is chaotic but orderly at the same time, with people knowing where to walk as if the route was engraved on the back of their hands (I’m serious about this piece of advice; when in doubt, follow the masses of people! It hasn’t failed me yet!). Even when labeled as Class 2 on the train, the equivalent of a plane’s economy class, the six hour train ride was rather a pleasant experience with plenty of leg room and wide windows to keep the mind entertained along with headphones. Arriving at the hotel was also rather easy after finding clear directions that involved the ever so convenient subway; which by the way, was rather an eye opening to see Xian only having a maximum of two subway lines, while Beijing has more than fourteen!
Covering the historical routes through Xian, my travel companion and I managed to visit the Terracotta Warriors, the Tang Dynasty Palace, Banpo Museum, Xian’s City Wall, the Great Mosque, Xian’s Bell Tower, and the ever so famous Muslim Street – all in the span of three full travel days! Xian is often described as China’s living history book, as its historical significance is still recognizable throughout everyday modern life in the up and coming city. Once called Changan, or the eternal city, it is the birthplace of ancient Chinese civilization and an important terminal to the famous Silk Road trade route. Xian’s City Wall not only is a beautiful attractive to visit and bike at night, but it’s origin is also rather interesting; it is said that the first Emperor of the Ming Dynasty was ordered by a hermit to build high walls, store supplies for his city, and to take time to become an Emperor. Following the advice to the best of his ability, the Emperor was able to enlarge the wall that was originally constructed by the previous Tang Dynasty, creating what is now the most completed city wall in all of China and one of the largest ancient military systems in the world. This same Emperor was also responsible for building Xian’s Zhong Lou, or their Bell Tower. This tower marks the geographical center of the city and it is the largest, best preserved building of its kind in China despite being built in 1384. The biggest head-turner of the trip, however, was the massive hall of impressively preserved Terracotta Army. Labeled as the most significant archeological excavation of the 20th century, there is in fact archaeological work still being performed at this site. Spanning over 16,000 square meters and three ’pits’ of unearthed statues, the site presents over a thousand original warriors and artifact restored to their former grandeur. As someone who thoroughly enjoys museums exploring the historical magnificence of places around the world, Xian definitely provide a marvelous experience to my overall adventures in China. What was even grander, however, was the personal imprint I was able to leave behind with the locals.
Through my blood and appearance runs my Cuban heritage, while my travel companion on my trip to Xian is African American. How is this relevant? Upon arriving at Xian’s train station, nearly every single head turned our way with amazement and wonder in their eyes; we were the first foreigners many of the locals had been able to personally meet. This trend only followed us among our adventures around the city, even with what my friend and I affectionately called a mini photoshoot that spontaneously occurred by the Bell Tower’s open square once one brave local finally asked us for permission for a photo. Without exaggerating, lines began to form of locals frantically looking for their cellphones to take pictures with us. While this part of the experience was initially strange and later amusing for us, it was something that I was later able to digest and ponder over its deeper significance; we were no longer just simple overexcited tourists traveling to some of the world’s most famous historical sites, we were representing multiple labels at one time. We were representing American foreigners, American university students, and to some locals, even our differing races. My companion was asked multiple times if it was alright to touch her skin and hair, for the locals were curious if the color of her skin would wash off, as well as how different the braids in her hair felt in comparison to their own. Not only did realizing this put into perspective how privileged I am in multiple aspects (some examples include the opportunity to see diversity in my daily surroundings, to understand the diversity without batting much of an eye, even traveling to different parts of the world to personally meet people for different races and walks of life), but how important it was to be knowledgeable to cultural differences. Knowing there are different people in the world is not enough to appreciate our differences; one must truly comprehend cultural differences and practice tolerance. It would have been unfair to laugh at the locals or mock them for their amazement in our appearance; just because my daily life in America includes the opportunity experience great diversity in multiple realms like race and culture and ethnicity, that does not make me any better than the locals in Xian. Because there was no harm or ill-intentions in their curiosity, it was my responsibility to represent the label of foreigner well and be as friendly and cordial to them as I possibly could. Having tolerance and answering all of their honest inquiries allowed not only myself to be more informed of Chinese culture, but it also allowed the locals to be informed of our culture. Therefore, the beautiful eternal city of Xian, I thank you not only for providing me with wonderful memories of all the historical charms encased in your walls, but also for building a little piece of who I am today.