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Rice paddy terraces

Past Lives and the Merry-Go-Round

As you already know, we began our time in Xi’an with a Tandem bike adventure atop the city walls. Later that night, in addition to our delicious Xi’an meal of noodles galore, we explored the Muslim Quarter night market. Imagine a bright, loud, chaotic, and vibrant scene: locals and (mostly) tourists alike drawn in and slightly overwhelmed by neon lights and exotic foods (fried squid on a stick, mooncakes, Hawthorne, and various Chinese pastries). We swerved and clung to each other, so as not to get run over by honking mopeds or crash into hanging carcasses that were strung from push carts. Every other vendor sold the fruit of the underworld – oddly colored, but mostly normal-tasting pomegranates. If you take a moment to look down dark alley ways, you’ll see an impossible maze of vendors with overflowing tables. In seconds, you will be corralled by women and young children whose talents include bargaining, bargaining, and more bargaining. A surplus of fake designer wear and fallen-off-the-back-of-the-truck goods were strewn meticulously in full view.

After our exciting evening escapade, we had yet another 5 am wake-up – yes, we did this to ourselves. This began our first full day of what Dragons calls x-phase. Granted, this was a mini x-phase, but it meant we had full reign of our agenda. Stop number one of the day was the infamous Terra-Cotta Warrior Museum. We started the first of what we thought would be five city bus transfers, but just before the second, a stout woman ran off of a moving bus waving money at us, offering a direct ride to the museum – God send? Maybe. A necessary but expensive endeavor, the museum offered three interesting warehouses filled with horses, soldiers, and the remnants of chariots. We were more intrigued by the history than the headless pottery in front of us. Mind-blowing fact of the day: not ONE person wrote or drew any account of this bizarre and profound undertaking the emperor took to protect his body in the after-life. As we left, we passed hordes of people pouring into the museum grounds and knew our early wake-up had paid off.

NB: never have your first intro to Burger King chicken nuggets in a foreign country, you will be unpleasantly surprised.

Our next excursion of the day was a 2.5-hour public transportation adventure to the Shaanxi National Museum (SNM). After lunch and our first encounter with puff pastries since our arrival in China, we entered the crowded museum. We chose SNM over the Xi’an Museum because of our instructor, Gong. There was an exhibit here that had traveled around the world and had finally settled back home – Gong knew its history well. The exhibit showcased a discovery by a farmer (sound familiar? see Terra-Cotta warriors) that included three clay pots filled with gold, silver, shiny jewelry, jade belts, and TINY GOLD DRAGONS. We all enjoyed the museum and had a better understanding of the Chinese dynasties, especially the Tang dynasty and its impact on other cultures social and architectural history (i.e. Japan).

The group dispersed early on and somehow, we (Sam and Liv) fell back and had our lovely tour guide to ourselves. Gong is one-of-a-kind. To properly understand him, you have to recognize who he is at his core: immensely spiritual, wise, pensive, and practical. We have developed a theory that he is so connected with his spirituality, that he has access to his past lives and can relay stories from ancient times so vividly you question whether he was actually there. His moral code is defined by a beautiful patchwork of philosophies and religions that he has studied intimately (like meditating for 3 weeks in a monastery alongside monks without eating). Out of all of the religions he has studied, Gong told us he feels a close personal connection to the teachings of Daoism. We understand it to be a somewhat nomadic religion that relies on self-exploration and no worship of higher powers – good, evil, or godly.

In our hours of discussion, we focused on many things, but especially on the concept of time. He described it to us as a merry-go-round, where the past spun inwards towards the center, experiencing less nagging from the passing of time. The present day revolves closer to the edge of the merry-go-round feeling a constant weight of this human-built concept: living with the constant fear of spinning out of control. We talked about the hindrance of the blind following of religion and how each of us felt it was important to take responsibility for our actions, disregarding concepts of sin and merit and relying more on the study of nature and nurture. Stemming from a conversation about evolution, we discussed dualism vs. monism, different types of material wealth, and our current dependency on technology compared to our natural capabilities. There was more, ask us when we come back. J

Overall, we had an incredible time in Xi’an and were happy to return after a brief excursion into the mountains – it will definitely be a highlight of the trip.