Xi’an, May 14th— On the train to Xi’an, I study a population density map of the world. Bands of differing widths stretch from one pole to the other. The idea is that within each band lives 50 million people. Thin bands represent densely populated regions. Wide bands, less so. In this corridor, which includes Chengdu to Xi’an, the band is as thin as an atom. Where there is a chance for density, cities have seized it. Even narrow valleys have towns stuffed in at their bottoms like lint in pockets. In flat parts, monumental works of suburban construction encroach upon broad fields of crops. Mountains assume protection by their altitude and all rivers are polluted.
At Xi’an’s train station, we try to unburden ourselves of a future errand: picking up train tickets to Shanghai. I bought them online three days ago, but at the pick-up window the agent says, “Passport wrong, no ticket.”
“Here’s the purchase confirmation,” I say, “My credit card was charged. I have a seat.”
Her English is wonderful. “No, transaction was canceled because the passport number was put in wrong.”
“I was never told that.”
“The system would’t tell you.”
“Okay, then I’ll just re-buy the seat using the correct passport number.”
“Impossible, the train is sold out.”
“But…I have a seat. It’s here on my confirmation email. And I was charged.
“System takes payment, gives you seat, then cancels later.”
Frustrated by the complications and malfeasance that snowballed from a rather benign and fixable error, the experience brings me back to my lawyer days working with China’s aviation authority, which had perfected a similarly maddening process of layered bullshittery.
We resolve to leave Xi’an by plane. Mom will get a refund, and we’ll leave three days from now.
May 15th—Museums are questions more than they are answers. Think on the crude stone tools in those less-visited rooms. Stones with blades notched by other stones. Had you not been directed to see them, had they been on a wild path and not behind glass, would you have seen them? If I’d been tasked finding these artifacts on the banks of Kenyan lakes, the Smithsonian would have fewer stone tool specimens and far more rocks shaped like butt cheeks. Who knew their value at discovery? Do they come from pointed and systematic exploration or by chance? What chain of custody does an artifact go through on its way to extinction, legend, and then discovery?
Take what happened here, outside Xi’an in Shaanxi Providence, on a swath of countryside known for its underwater ways and chasms. Farmers used to dig here to bury their dead. While digging, they often unearthed earthenware pots and jugs. Considering these finds valueless, the farmers used them to buttress burial plots. Utilizing the ceramics this way, the farmers were closer to meeting their purpose than they realized.
In 1974, while drilling a well, farmers found a substantial heap of not just broken jars and bowls, but forms. Chipping away the compacted soil, what they found augured the arrival of archaeologists.
It was a discovery that was front-page news worldwide.
Excavating Qin Shi Huan’s Army is terribly slow and dreadfully tedious. Pit 1 is the corps of the funeral army: some 6,000 figures, each an individual with unique characteristics. A cadre of chariots and generals is nearby in a different pit. Qin Shi Huan is supposedly housed in a tomb, though the tomb remains unopened. These pits are housed in massive warehouses, hastily erected to protect the new discovery from dissolution in Shaanxi’s climate. Two great endeavors are thus stored. One, the obvious. The other, not as often recognized.
I was surprised when I learned that excavation is not complete. Many warriors remain buried, and where they are buried they are shattered. At the far end of the warehouse over Pit 1, recently dug fragments are arrayed like at a crime scene: on tables, on broad white sheets and marked with placards and surrounded by cameras on tripods and spotlight lamps. The artisans of 210 BCE etched serial numbers into the various parts and appendages that would be assembled into a complete figure. Today, archaeologists follow the instructions of their progenitor puzzlers. It took forty years to create the army new. 2014 was the forty year mark of the discovery, and the assembly continues.
I’ve conceived this idea that certain practices in China are best explained if you think of profit as the ultimate motive. That helps account for the difficulty in leaving Terracotta. The route in is you park, pay for admission, and either walk the few kilometers to the entrance/exit gate or take a shuttle that picks up at admission and drops off at the entrance/exit. Basic sense would lead you to expect that on exiting, you can board a just emptied shuttle as it prepares to u-turn and return to the spot where you paid and parked. Not the case. Shuttles return empty. Security guards force you along a road of over a thousand meters that passes by stores and more stores. You get your steps in and a final chance to buy small terra-cotta figurines. It is an exit out of the gift shop road.
Our driver to and from the warriors was pulled over by a squad of military personnel. On the shoulder, one officer holds the driver’s ID card next to the driver’s face while the officer’s comrade aims a magnificent Canon. The shutter clicks and the driver is waved away. The driver is nonplussed. “Common,” he remarks.