The underground tomb


Close to the terracotta warriors of Xi’an is another major archaeological site: the underground tomb of the first emperor Qin Shih Huang. Old Chinese records talk of a huge tomb with terracotta representations of his capital and the nearby rivers recreated with mercury. The hillock in the photo above is where the tomb is supposed to lie. All around it excavations have exposed not only the terracotta army, but also terracotta representations of acrobats and entertainers. In one pit we saw the skeletons of real horses with terracotta charioteers. We read accounts which say that mercury levels measured near the hill are off the scale. Everyone believes that the tomb really is here.

But when you visit, there is nothing to see. All around the supposed tomb is a garden, where busloads of Chinese tourists come on guided tours. We followed a tour guide and his entourage in the mistaken belief that we had missed the entrance. There is no entrance.

There has been no digging. It was mysterious to us. A kind young man (there are so many people in China who are so very kind to foreigners) who spoke very good English told us that it is bad luck to dig up the tomb, so the government is not doing it.

There it was again. Luck. Does belief in it really play a role in determining minor government policy like this? Or perhaps even major ones? In India there are rumours of various prime ministers having consulted astrologers on policy. Does the notion of luck play the same role in China?



In the last couple of decades doggerel verses in English have erupted on road signs all over India. It probably started with “Cold beer sold here” but has become longer over the years. Now the disease seems to have crossed the Himalayas and arrived in China. Will it be long before this innocuous disease spreads all over China?

The grand mosque of Xi’an

A city which has been a capital for centuries tends to accrete interesting monuments. This is true of Rome, Kyoto, and Paris. A city which has been an imperial capital for long also has cross-cultural monuments. Delhi is the pre-eminent among these, but Xi’an, at one end of the Silk Route, is also very interesting. Among these, the most interesting has to be the Grand Mosque of Xi’an.

It stands in a warren of streets behind the Drum Tower of Xi’an, its location indicated by a small road sign in English which you can easily miss. If you follow the sign you enter a bazaar full of tourist tat. Walk past them, and after some time you are near the East Gate of the mosque.


The mosque was first built during the T’ang dynasty (around 750 AD) and is strongly influenced by Chinese culture and aesthetics. This makes it different from anything I have seen before. The first difference was that we had to pay to enter. I have never had to pay an entry fee to a mosque, so I guess this counts as a Chinese cultural influence. You enter a courtyard and have to cross two more before you come to the last courtyard with westward facing prayer hall. The buildings all have the tiled roofs with upturned corners of traditional Chinese architecture. There are miniature pagodas and gardens. In most mosques elsewhere in the world you find decorative motifs with flowers and vines only. This has dragons, and turtles at the base of columns.

Perhaps the most disconcerting visual aspect of the mosque is not in the dragons or the tiled roofs, but in the images of plants and leaves. In India, and in most of the rest of the world, decorative figures in Islamic architecture capture symmetries. For example, one marvels at the interleaving of octagonal and hexagonal symmetries of vines and leaves in the friezes of Fatehpur Sikri. In the grand mosque the trees and vines that are depicted follow the asymmetric aesthetic norms of China (see the photo above).

The calligraphy is a mixture of Chinese and Arabic. In the first couple of courtyards I had to search to find the Arabic script. The arches and steles were full of elegant Chinese calligraphy. Only from the third courtyard does one start to see the Arabic script more often. The prayer hall (pictured below) has lovely Arabic calligraphy. To my untrained eye, it seems that there is an attempt here to bind the Chinese calligraphic style within the Arabic.


At first sight the prayer hall seemed like it could belong to any mosque anywhere in the world, but then I saw in places where there would be verses from the Quran there was Chinese calligraphy. Clearly the Quran has been transcribed into Chinese, another cultural innovation which has not recurred in Islam.

The Silk Route shuttled goods, technology and ideas across the known world of its time. I wonder whether it brought Arabs and their Islam to settle in the imperial capital of China, or whether the Chinese converted to Islam elsewhere and brought back the customs of a foreign religion. The architecture of the mosque, and the food habits of the region, a lack of pork and the prevalence of halal meat, could be used to argue for either. However, the range of sweets available in Xi’an seems to indicate an Arabic tradition. Perhaps the persistence of Arabic also points in the same direction. It needs experts to pin this down. I am happy to marvel at the syncretic end product.

No middle men in China?


In China we keep seeing artisans selling their own work. This lady was sitting near the Bell Tower of Xi’an making these lovely pieces with rope. The work looks very similar to the corresponding Indian work. I suppose she must be making a reasonable living. What strikes me most about this is the difference with India, where the artisans usually work in the village and there is a long chain of middlemen between us and them. The market for handicrafts in India has started changing in recent years with cooperatives and direct sales, although I think the volumes involved in this newer market is still much smaller than in the older system. I guess a worker’s cooperative could work somewhat differently in China.

Street food in Xi’an: octopus


Street food in Xi’an is exciting. In a street full of different kinds of stalls I found this guy selling octopus fritters. I’ve had a toasted octopus while strolling on the Avenue of Stars in Hong Kong, but the fritters are new to me. I saw people eating them in Shanghai, and now again in Xi’an. Unfortunately I see them after I’ve already eaten. I hope Beijing has them too, because I really want to taste them.

The rest of the donkey


The Family continues to make unkind jokes about my eclectic dining habits. In Xi’an we saw this newly uncovered horse which has still not been pieced together. The Family said "This must be the rest of the donkey you ate for lunch".

The other warriors of Xi’an


Over the last two decades everyone with any interest in travel has become aware of the terracotta army of Xi’an. It is estimated that about 6000 life-size figures were buried, and about 2000 are on display in various places. What I didn’t realize before going to see them is how difficult the process of unearthing them has been. Above is a photo of one group which is being slowly disinterred. Some time between their construction in 250 BC and their discovery in 1974, the roof beams had collapsed and mud flowed into the pits. Today the pits are being dug out very slowly, so that the army is not further damaged while being disinterred.


You can see places where the work has progressed further: a jigsaw of body parts lie together in a jumble, waiting to be pieced together. I guess each figure must lead to the thesis work of an archeology student doing his Ph.D. When you see the numbers of statues in various stages of being pieced together, you realize that there must be an army of archaeologists at work, along with students and post-doctoral fellows. This must be a really thriving branch of modern Chinese archaeology.


You can see some statues which are almost at the last stages of being pieced together. A careful look reveals the painstaking solution to a massive jigsaw puzzle. I wonder what happens at the last stage, where one goes from this cracked piece of pottery to the lifelike figures which are most familiar to the world at large.

Whatever the process, I think these archaeologists are the new warriors of Xi’an. And they have a task no other army has ever done before: to bring back to life a forgotten and buried army.

Fast trains

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Train numbers in China tell you how fast they are. The fastest trains are the G-class (photo above), which means that the train number will start with a G. We took a G train from Shanghai to Hangzhou, but this distance is so short that we did not feel this was one of the world’s fastest trains.

2015-05-15 19.48.33Today we took a G train from Beijing to Xi’an and were really impressed. The distance between these two cities is 1122 Kms, a shade less than the distance between Mumbai and Delhi (which is 1421 Kms). The fastest train connection between Mumbai and Delhi takes 16 hours. We took 5 hours from Beijing to Xi’an! The train made four stops in between, and its top speed was 306 Km/hr. If we had trains like this in India then we could go from Mumbai to Delhi in six and a half hours, less than half the time it now takes. If G-trains ran in India, Ahmedabad would be a little over 2 hours from Mumbai, making it a commutable distance.

Other fast trains which I’ve travelled by are the TGV from Paris to Marseilles, the German ICE 4 from Cologne to Berlin, and Japan’s Shinkansen between Hiroshima and Tokyo. They are all pretty impressive, but the Chinese Harmony beats them all in the smoothness of travel. I could walk along the train without feeling any sway or jerk. The train would accelerate into and out of stations smoothly. When I looked down to read, there was no haptic clue that I was on a train. My plastic bottle of water stayed firmly on its tray even after it was empty. This is what trains of the future will feel like.

A long lunch

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China is going through an anti-corruption drive. One of the ways it manifests itself is that the large official lunches are no longer paid for. Instead you pay for your own lunch; as one of my colleagues said, "no free lunch". This does not mean that the meal is substantially smaller. In the photos alongside you can see some of the things that we had one day. The incomplete description refers to chicken. Through whatsapp The Family has already told my cousins and hers about the donkey that I ate for lunch. The nicest comment to come back was "he is brave". The slices of donkey meat were served cold in a soya sauce, and did not taste very exotic.

The unfortunate outcome of the new government policy is that you no longer have lunch with your youngest colleagues because they prefer to go to a corner noodle shop, where the price of lunch is about half of what we pay. Maybe we should start doing that just for the pleasure of getting to know everyone at work.

No coffee in Olympus


When we emerged from the subway to the promenade of the Olympic Green, I wanted some coffee. There were a couple of convenience stores near the exit, but no hot coffee. We walked further: a ticket office with cold drinks, but no coffee. The promenade was lined with kiosks selling cold drinks and sausages, but no coffee. Eventually we settled on the most popular drink in the place, which was yogurt out of a pot (see the photo).

We saw many families out together: parents, child, and one or two grandparents. Often one of the adults could be seen carrying a big bag of food. The drinks would come from the kiosks.

Over the next few days we discovered that this was one of the differences between Shanghai and Beijing. Shanghai has coffee everywhere, but the main tourist spots in Beijing have no coffee. In this Beijing is more representative of China. Coffee is largely imported, and costs much more than tea.