Xi’an China: Terracotta & Walled City

Qin Shi Huang’s Army for the Afterlife 

After spending 3 days in the capital Beijing, we took a high-speed train to the city of Xi’an, located in central China. It is famous for the 8,000 terracotta warriors buried with one of the emperors in 200 BC.

The warriors were amazing! It is like seeing a video or photographs from over 2000 years ago. You really got a sense of what they looked like and how they dressed. Each one was an individual, so there were all different kinds of soldiers, some fat, some skinny, tall, short, etc.

“Man Bun” circa 200 BC

The emperor had three regiments of soldiers, horses, chariots, etc. lined in deep ravines of hardened clay. Archaeologists believe they were built to protect the emperor in the afterlife. It is crazy that something this big was forgotten over time, but I guess 2000 years is a long time. The warriors were discovered in 1974 by a farmer digging a well. The site of his well is preserved.

I thought the statues were found intact, and some were, but most were in pieces. Archeologists carefully reassembled the statues and put them in their original places so people could get an idea of how they were arranged. Many of the statues remain buried, being preserved for future studies. Sadly, they were painted when they were made and when exposed to the air after so many years, the mineral paint faded within minutes when exposed to the air. The tourism infrastructure that has grown up around the site is a bit off-putting, but educationally, it is such an incredible piece of history that it doesn’t matter. It is worth the time to go out to the site.

Riding the City Walls of Xi’an

Xi’an is about the size of New York, and as many cities in China, I never heard about it before coming here. City officials went crazy over decorative lights and it is very entertaining to see so many lights.

On our last day in the city, we rented bicycles and rode the almost 14 kilometers of ancient city walls, surrounding the old center of Xian. The wall was perfectly preserved, as most city walls are only preserved in fragments, but in Xi’an, the entire wall is intact, with a moat on the outside. There is a marathon on it next month that I would love to have run. Riding the entire length of the walls gave me a good perspective of the old China inside the walls, which were temples and small, Socialist-style apartments. It contrasted from the new China, huge, glass and steel apartment towers on the outside of the wall.

The Contrast of Old and New China



Beijing – Global City

The kids with Nadia and Cathy in front of Kunming Lake (Summer Palace)

We spent a day visiting the UNESCO World Heritage sites in Beijing. I always wanted to go to the infamous Tiananmen Square, site of the 1989 protests where government soldiers killed several thousand (numbers vary) citizens, and the Forbidden City. I didn’t know former dynasties also made a huge Summer Palace and a Temple of Heaven. Those four sites plus the old city of Beijing took up an entire day. My big take-away from the experience was the emperors were very narcissistic. The amount of manpower that it must have taken complete these massive palaces is amazing.

The family at Tiananmen Square

Security getting to the square and inside the Forbidden City was tight. We had to go through a couple different checkpoints. There were huge number of tourists (averages 16 million visitors per year), mostly Chinese visiting the palace, so it took us about 30 minutes to get to the front gate of the palace. There was a Communist party meeting taking place, this being just after President Xi Jinping was named to another term, and some of the square was blocked off. As with everything in China, the square is huge, covering 109 acres.

One of the many Chinese tour groups passing through a gate in the Forbidden City.

The name Forbidden City makes it sound more exotic than what is really is. Forbidden is a translation that refers to the fact that people could only enter and leave with the emperor’s permission. Once again, the place is just massive. There are thirteen enormous decorative gates that separate vast plazas. There are 980 buildings on the 180-acre site.

These warmers on motorcycles are a good idea!

The summer palace is basically a man-made reservoir (Kunming Lake) which workers built a large hill (Longevity Hill) from the earth and rock where the lake was excavated. We walked along most of the lake and I was most impressed with the 786 meter “Long Corridor” that featured exquisite art work on every beam and panel.

The Temple of Heaven was the place of worship for the emperors. Today there are beautiful gardens and temples. It was funny when Oliver stood on the spot where the emperor talked to the gods. It was a round, stone platform. The color schemes of dark red, blue, gold and green continued throughout all of the palaces.

Oliver’s blonde hair and vivacious nature made him a hit with the locals.

We also took a rickshaw ride through the narrow streets of the old city. The distinctive grey bricks of the buildings combined with the red lantern decorations and Chinese flags, gave it a cool look. The alleyways (hutongs) are protected but with the growing economy, some areas are being gentrified and it is feared the entire area will be redeveloped. Below is a video I shot with Oliver in the rickshaw.

We also visited the Beijing Zoo. Most of the animals are in small, depressing cages and cells. The exception are the headlining Chinese Pandas. They are in a beautifully done living areas. It was fascinating to watch them strip bamboo. They would run it through their teeth and collect the leaves in the side of their mouth. They then put the leaves in their paw and chew them.

Breakfast at the Beijing Zoo

Finally, we went to eat several nights at the APM mall, one of the many shopping districts of the “new” China. They made a nice European style walking street. Most of the places were typical Western luxury stores.

New Beijing – the APM Mall 


Beijing & the Great Wall of China

Chinese Flag Soaring over the Tianshou Mountains and the Great Wall

I am catching up with my blog posts during our trip to China last week. The internet connection at the hotels was not very good.

I was very excited to see China. Because it is so large (3 times the population of the USA) and growing economically so fast (estimated that it will pass the USA as the world’s largest economy in 2028) the influence China has and will have on the earth is huge. All of us should understand the country.

We stayed inside the second ring in the center of Beijing at the Prime Hotel, located near the APM mall and walking street shopping district. It was a 4-star hotel and with Chinese management,  was very Chinese and is still learning how to cater to foreign tourists. It was nice to walk to the mall and see all the expensive store fronts and electronic billboards. Our first night we took the kids to Pizza Hut after an almost 4 hour-flight from Osaka.

Reunited with Uncle Jack at Pizza Hut Beijing! 

My uncle arranged a tour guide to show us around the city for three days. We first visited the National Stone Palace and watched the craftsmen cut jade into jewelry and large and small statues. The ancient Chinese valued jade, believing it brought fortune and health. There was a patio set (table and chairs) for $45,000 and statues for sale over $65,000. We bought a bracelet for Ocean and a series of carved spheres within spheres which represents good fortune through the generations.

We then visited the Ming Dynasty Tombs (1368-1644), a huge cemetery complex covering 80 square kilometers, one of the many UNESCO world heritage sites near the city. After visiting the tombs, the Forbidden City and Summer Palace during our stay, the power, wealth and egos of the rulers is truly awe-inspiring. The tombs are at the foot of Tianshou Mountains and we drove through them after leaving to visit the Great Wall of China.

Ocean and Nadia Climb the Great Wall of China

China has a very long history and the country grew and shrank, depending on the strength and unity of its rulers. At times, warlords were fighting each other and chaos followed. Other times, a family was able to seize control of the country and make it strong. At the time the wall was built (approximately 700-200 BC), the Mongolians, who ruled China for a long time were driven out and the wall was built to keep them out. We walked a long section of the wall called Mutianyu. It is about 70 kilometers outside of the city in a rugged mountainous area.  It was a beautiful, sunny and cool day and perfect for walking up and down the wall. It is one of the great iconic sites of the world and being there was unbelievable.


The amount of work that went into the fortifications is amazing. Much 8,000 kilometer wall is in ruins. It would be an interesting hike to walk the entire wall, which I am sure someone has done. There are some shorter hikes (2-4 hours) people can do and if I ever get back, I will try to do some of them. Every 500 meters or kilometer there were fortification towers to house soldiers. I wonder if the wall was effective in keeping out the invaders from the northwest. Modern times and tourism infrastructure have come and there was a sort of bobsled run you could take on the way down to the entrance to complex which was quite fun for the kids.

We finished the day by seeing the 2008 Olympic village, stadium (bird’s nest) and torch. China is an immense nation and the Olympic architecture matched it.


Macau: A Tale of Two Cities

The Venetian Casino at Night

I spent an absorbing 5 days in Macau over the holiday, not only because of the International Baccalaureate education conference I attended, but also because of the city-state itself.

Let me explain the title of the blog post. The main part of Macau is a peninsula jutting out into the South China Sea. It is separated from mainland China by a river. I stayed on a hill that was a park amidst a sea of apartment buildings and traffic.I think the hotel was a former convent because its name, Posado de las Monjas (Lodging of the Nuns), which is today a hospitality and tourism university. The university runs a small hotel and nice restaurant, and I highly recommend both. I thought it funny that the Chinese taxi drivers only recognized it as Mung-ho and not the original Portuguese of monjas. Macau is the most densely populated country in the world and I really felt it, despite being in the middle of a park. As you can see from the view from the top of the hill, there is a lot of humanity packed into a small space. The peninsula is where most citizens live and it was generally run down, chaotic but people were friendly and no one bothered me. The historic center is quite nice, with typical Iberian main plaza, a cobblestone shopping street and beautiful facade of an old cathedral. The rest of the peninsula was old dingy apartment buildings and colonial buildings that have seen better days.

Macau also has two islands, now one island because of land reclamation. This is the casino tourism part of the city-state and totally different from the old city in the peninsula. I have not been to Las Vegas in 20 years but the size of the casinos and connected shopping malls, restaurants and night clubs reminded me of my time there. The size of the casinos are immense and it is hard to capture the scale. The conference was held at the Sheraton, the world’s biggest, and walking between the meeting and exhibition rooms took a long time. I went for a walk across the street via covered walkway and went into the Venetian casino’s shopping mall, which was a replica of Italy, with canals, gondolas and even St. Mark’s Square. There was also an events arena attached to the mall.

Tourists take a ride in the gondola in the mall

I sensed that the Chinese with their new found wealth really wanted to spend it. This part of Macau was a capitalism/consumerism amusement park. It had all of the brand name stores, Dolce & Gabbana, Rolex, etc. I didn’t see much of the reported slowdown of tourists, in fact, there were 4 massive construction projects. Thousands of workers and tens of huge cranes could be seen as I walked around the island between meetings. I don’t see the appeal of a casino vacation, and the idea of a family resort destination had not reached Macau yet. The vibe of the place is captured in this David Beckham ad for the Venetian casino. He does an incredible acting performance by the way!

This is one place I could never live. The opportunity for outdoor pursuits, like biking or jogging were extremely limited. There were some pathways along the water front and in the parks, but only short distances. I also was intrigued by the pollution. Although my app said the air quality of the city was fine, I never did see the sun or blue sky. It was a constant haze as seen from the window of the taxi I took across one of the three bridges to the casino island.

It will be interesting to see how Macau develops as the Chinese economy matures and takes over the city-state in 2049. I am also curious now to visit Hong Kong, and compare and contrast it to Macau. I talked to a taxi driver from Macau and he didn’t care about being taken over by China. He didn’t like the government trying to control the number of mainland tourists who were coming to the city, but he argued that the city was already Chinese and he was just concerned about making a living and providing for his two children.

The historical center of Macau

It would take an extremely generous salary and benefit package for me to work in China. I’ll wait to visit Shanghai and Beijing before making a firm judgment, but I was relieved leave Macau and come back to the quiet and refined system of Japan.