Today was certainly one of the activities everyone had been waiting for- the infamous Terracotta Warriors. It was one of the hottest days yet so I took the opportunity to purchase an extremely uncool hat with panda ears, setting me back a whole £1.50, but providing my scalp with much needed protection!
The soldiers were discovered by a farmer who was digging a well in 1974 and excavation has continued ever since. Currently there are three excavation pits open to the public, with pit 1 being the iconic area displaying hundreds of perfectly formed warriors. The army was created as Chinese people believe that you are reincarnated following natural death and will need resources in the next life to sustain you: the emperor decided at a young age that he would need his army in the next life to maintain his power, so hundreds of thousands of men took on the almighty task of producing this life size army out of stone over 40 years.
Every single soldier is different in some way, and the excavation has even unearthed life-size chariots and horses. Over the thousands of years (they were estimated to have been built around 200bc) there has been significant damage to some of the army, and some parts of it are simply too challenging for archaeologists to excavate properly. One particular vault had been sealed with mercury, and any attempts to open it have resulted in death. I can’t help but wonder if they will ever have the technology or skills to see the full extent of the Warriors, estimated to be over 2 km in area hidden beneath the outer parts of Xi’an; if they ever do reveal the secrets of the Warriors I’m almost certain it won’t be in my lifetime and maybe even not in my children’s life times. I can see why it’s known as one of the wonders of the world- it’s not so much what you CAN see that’s exciting, it’s almost the extent of what we can’t see that enthuses me most.
It was extremely exciting to meet the actual farmer who discovered the Warriors in a bookshop nearby. The man (who must be around 50 now) spends his days signing autographs and taking photographs with tourists under the backdrop of images of him with some of the most famous people in modern history: Bill Clinton, The Queen, Nelson Mandela just to name a few. He was such a smiley and friendly man, and although the staff wanted to charge a small fortune for a photo, he was more than willing to shake hands, blow kisses and grin from ear to ear- I can hardly blame him seeing as the alternative if he hadn’t stumbled upon the Warriors would have been a life of hard manual labour.
On our return I hurried out to visit a local orphanage for disabled children and teenagers. We wondered around some of the poorest parts of Xi’an and saw some incredibly troubled people, particularly in the Muslim quarter. In Xi’an there is a significant divide between the Buddhist Chinese community and the Muslim Chinese community and the two groups do not mix. The Muslim quarter spans over one quarter of the city and our guide advised us that non Muslim Chinese people were not very welcome in the area.
However, the poorer part of the Muslim quarter was absolutely wild with tourists from across China, most of which were not Muslim: people were chatting to Muslim shop keepers, enjoying Muslim foods, and in fact were a fine representation of two very different cultures working together. I couldn’t help but realise that some of the divides in communities can be based on the perception of the ‘other’ and, in fact, it only takes an opportunity to arise for people to become united. It did really sadden me though to see yet another country where the Muslim community are marginalised and isolated- it seems that Islamaphobia isn’t something that has just infiltrated the West in recent times, but in fact has been apparent all over.
In the midst of this poor area, we turned up some dusty back streets that opened out into a car park. Our guide started waving and shouting ‘hello’, and I presumed she had bumped into someone that she knew. In fact, she was greeting the orphans- this car park found behind the dingy alleyways of Xi’an was a make shift playground for about 12 orphans, each of them abandoned by their parents due to their specific needs. They all wore lovely turquoise polo t shirts, which helped to identify who were the orphans and who were the volunteers- the ages of the young people varied from about 11 to around 17, so some of those being cared for were easy to confuse for grown men.
The language barrier was a challenge as I’ve never attempted to ‘break the ice’ with children that have absolutely no concept of English at all. I smiled a lot, but the rest of the volunteers who had joined me were really looking to me to get things going as the only person present with any real experience with young people, and by far the only person with experience of disabilities. I started by getting some clapping games going: I didn’t think it would go down too well, as I can only imagine the look on the faces of our 14 year olds if I played a clapping game with them, but it turns out that when you don’t have any games and your careers don’t have much time to play with you as they’re so stretched already, clapping games are simply the most fun thing in the world. The tallest and most grown up of the boys particularly loved ’round and round the garden’, the only difficult being that ‘tickly under there’ section where he didn’t really know his own strength! Shortly after we got started there was a queue of other children wanting to play too.
One of my favourite things about the orphanage was how our skin colour didn’t surprise the children; everywhere we had been in China we had been the subject of people’s fascination- I have been in hundreds of photographs, caught several startled babies in mid air, and had my white skin poked by shocked locals daily- however, to these children I was just a friend, and that in itself was moving.
My next stroke of inspiration came from the good old Hokey Cokey which really rallied the troops and all of the children were doing their best to join in- the volunteer careers were trying to learn too as the children were having such a good time. There was lots of laughter, particularly as the children discovered how fun it is to be inside the circle as everyone runs in for the ”ooooo the hokey cokey’ part. Some children struggled with the co ordination or couldn’t walk so well, but it didn’t matter, it was great- people in the surrounding apartments were watching out of their windows and cheering the children on- it was a very special time and something that will stay with me forever.
One of the oldest children became my shadow, and was showing me their rather sorry looking library. It took me a minute to realise that this young man wanted me to read to him. He was head and shoulders taller than me and well on his way to adulthood but I chose Winnie the Pooh, an old favourite, and sat with him pointing to the pictures as I read. He didn’t understand the words, and he probably will never learn English properly or maybe even how to write in his own language, but he followed and smiled and loved having someone to spend time with. It was a privilege to read to this young man and reminded me of some of my favourite moments as a teacher- there’s this magical moment that only happens sometimes when a class catches a novel and sits silently, gripped to the drama of the story. Or at least I thought it was the story that gripped them: it turns out that being read to is a pleasure that transcends the conventions of language, and instead it’s the intimacy of those words and sounds from a page being shared together that mesmerises young people. I did feel a little sad remembering the hundreds of conversations I’ve had with parents desperately wanting their children to read more, having purchased book after book, when the children I met at the orphanage want nothing more than to read or have an adult to invest in their lives.
Some of the children were telling me (through our translator) that their fathers would be coming to fetch them later, but I knew that wouldn’t be happening. One of the older boys told me that his parents had taken him there because they didn’t want him. I didn’t know what to do but give him a hug and tell him that it was okay because I wanted to spend time with him, so I found a selection of music on my phone and we had a little dance together and I showed him some of the popular music in the UK at the moment which he seemed to like. The thought that they’ve been unwanted must go through their minds daily- my little bit of laughter with them could never make up for that, but I hope it helped a little.
The orphanage is run largely by volunteers and is fully dependant on donations of resources and time. The government does not subsidise this at all, and I dread to think what will happen to these challenged young people when they can no longer be housed with the kind lady who has dedicated her life to caring for them. Leaving was a happy event for the children- they all wanted photographs and hugs and their teacher wanted us to share the pictures of the children’s happy faces in the hope that others may want to be involved with independent organisations like this, so here they are (or at least those of them who hadn’t wandered off). My heart broke a little as I walked away, back to my clean hostel and plentiful food. We took snacks and treats for the children, but I know that they won’t last long.