|The Barn Swallow Project||
Xi’an has been our favorite city in China so far (this post is late and we’ve now been to Beijing, so that’s saying something). Changsha, Zhengzhou, and Nanning all felt so new and so similar it’s like they were recently airlifted in from a big city factory somewhere, all pre-fabricated and ready to go. Xi’an, by contrast, has some history to it, some weight. The central part of the city is still surrounded by massive Ming-era walls, there are old Drum and Bell towers in the highway medians, and mosques and temples built in Chinese pagoda style tucked down side streets, and a touristified but still cool Muslim Quarter. There are twisty markets and nice parks and great food, and the big streets are clean and leafy and modern without the harried, grimy uniformity of the other cities. And, of course, there’s a pretty big historical and cultural draw nearby in the Terracotta Army.
Our first day in Xi’an we followed our SOP for swallow searching: we asked the hotel clerks and taxi drivers about locations of old neighborhoods and markets. We stayed at a hostel in the old part of the city (which we were very excited about because hostels invariably have good coffee), and set off from there, tourist map in hand. We started in the Muslim Quarter, which is one of the oldest parts of the city. Xi’an has a pretty big Muslim population, and the neighborhood around the pagoda-esque Grand Mosque has been converted into a tourist draw. The leafy, pedestrian (and motorbike)-only streets are lined with trinket shops and food stalls specializing in Xi’an’s “wheaten products:” breads, noodles, and a famous lamb and bread stew that Caroline declared “the best thing we’ve eaten in China.” It was cool, but there were no swallows.
We spent most of the day wandering the city. We found a park with a big pond and foraging swallows, but couldn’t find their nests. We found the Bird Market, which catered to a particularly cruel Chinese tradition: keeping tiny wooden cages filled with wild birds as pets. These were hung outside shops and homes all over the city, and the songs of frantic forest birds coming from alleyways was disorienting and sad for us as ornithologists.
The only swallow nests we managed to find in Xi’an city were in another old Muslim neighborhood, far from the tourist melee. Here, old courtyard-style houses had not yet been bulldozed and turned into high rises, and a few birds were flying around. Unfortunately, the design of these houses makes nests hard to find: the doors are closed to the street but there’s an open, inner courtyard, which is how the birds access their nests. Catching birds there would have meant knocking on every door, asking if there was a nest inside, and getting permission to come back at night to catch the birds- not tractable. We talked to a few old men sitting on a corner, who told us the same story we’ve heard throughout China: there used to be lots of swallows around, but they don’t like the new buildings. These were the only old houses left in Xi’an, as far as they knew. We gave up for the day and headed back to our hostel.
The next day, our luck changed significantly. Liu Yu had talked to one of his friends from the area, who suggested a village outside of town. After he looked it up, he discovered its nickname was “swallow village.” This proved to be apt- after 40 minutes in a taxi, we arrived in a small, neat village surrounded by vegetable fields, with dozens of swallows swooping around- a nest in nearly every house. These were also courtyard-style houses, but the birds nested both inside and outside the long doorways, meaning we could catch them at night without waking up the people inside. We spent the morning getting permission to catch the birds and posing for photographs with villagers, and then returned in the evening. It was the easiest netting we’d done yet: all we had to do was block the nest by quietly holding up a net across the doorway, and then poke the birds with a pole to wake them up. They flew directly into the nets- it took less than 5 minutes per nest. The village was asleep by 9pm, and for the first time in China we banded birds in silence, without a crowd of curious onlookers.
We needed two nights to catch enough birds in Swallow Village, so we the next day we went to see the Terracotta Warriors. We booked a tour through our hostel, and found ourselves in the company of other foreigners for the first time in China. Our cheerful guide was named Zhsa Zhsa (“my nickname: Lady Zhsa Zhsa”), and most of the rest of the tour group was American college students who were teaching first-grade English in Guangzhou. Zhsa Zhsa sat on the bus rapidly spouting Xi’an history and stories about the megalomaniacal emperor who united China and built the Terracotta Army, which he secretly buried in huge pits around his tomb so that he would be prepared to conquer the afterlife. Zhsa Zhsa punctuated each new string of facts with an emphatic “that’s Xi’an! That’s…Xi’an.”
Still, all the history did not quite prepare us for the site itself. The Terracotta Army is staggering. Over 8000 individual warriors in three different pits have been discovered, and more pits are believed to exist around the emperor’s tomb. The army is arranged in regiments, with cavalry, archers, and officers. At least 8000 different molds were made to make all those soldiers, since each warrior has a unique face. Some believe they bear the faces of the sculptors who made them, making the warriors both remarkable and tragic: after completing his army, the emperor purportedly killed the artisans so they would not be able to share its secrets, leaving behind an epic monument to the scope of both human ambition and human cruelty.
We spent a few hours checking out the pits, which are housed under huge, climate-controlled domes to protect them from the elements and facilitate excavation. The soldiers are being painstakingly restored by teams of archaeologists- in the last 20 years, 2000 have been restored, with a mere 6000 to go. Afterwards, we went to see the emperor’s tomb, which is just a big grassy hill. The tomb hasn’t yet been excavated, for two reasons. The first is that no one is sure how to open it without destroying it. The second is that there are extremely high levels of mercury in the soil. Ironically, the emperor is said to have drank mercury in the hopes of prolonging his life, and legend says that his underground tomb includes pagodas, treasure, and a river of mercury, along with the requisite slaughtered concubines.
We stopped for lunch before heading back to Xi’an, and our group sat around the table eating and discussing the warriors. Although everyone had liked them, feelings about just how impressive the army was were mixed. “I don’t know,” a couple people, including Liu Yu, said. “I sort of thought it would be bigger, or there would be more of them.” The poor emperor must have rolled in his mercury- and blood-soaked grave.
We finished up at swallow village with a solid sample size from Xi’an. Our last dose of Xi’an’s culture was an afternoon back in the Muslim Quarter, where Caroline and I tried one of everything from the food stalls. Then it was an overnight train to Yinchuan, to the borders of the northern mountains and deserts, far from the legacy of any Chinese emperor and into the land of the Mongols.