Saturday, November 7, 2009

Meatballs and Terra Cotta Soldiers

The Great Wall. My husband and I roamed through China in 1989.

By Pat Browning

Making meatballs, thinking about Xi’an. Not that there’s a connection, although the old Silk Road traders probably roasted bits of yak over open fires. They didn’t have grinders to make yak meatballs. Or maybe they did. People were surprisingly clever 2,000 years ago.

National Geographic will exhibit several of Xi’an’s terra cotta soldiers in Washington, D. C. from November through March 31. They’re worth seeing. Aside from their historical value, they are simply beautiful. From The Washington Post:

The discovery of the Terra Cotta Warriors sent thrills through the archaeology community and the complex where they were found is a World Heritage Site, protected forever.

It was in 1974 that a group of farmers, digging a well outside the town of Xi'an in central China, discovered the tomb of Qin Shihuangdi, who ruled the country from 221 to 210 B.C. It had been underground for more than 2,000 years. As they excavated, Chinese archaeologists discovered a vault with thousands of figures, including 2,000 soldiers, 100 chariots, 400 horses and 300 cavalry horses. It is estimated that 700,000 workers participated in building the underground complex, an effort that lasted more than 36 years. The warrior sculptures were lined up in formation, arranged to protect the emperor in the afterlife.

You can read the story and watch a video of the soldiers being unpacked at

This was no dinky project. There’s also the story that those thousands of life-sized soldiers and horses were to fool and discourage any spies who might be snooping from a distance. Probably both stories are true – protection in this world and the next.

Xi'an's terra cotta soldiers, on guard for more than 2,000 years.

So, farmers digging a well in 1974 discovered them. I came along with a tour group 25 years later and saw them in the excavation pits. I was the only one of my tour group to visit the pits. Everyone else was back at the hotel, sick in bed. China is a tough trip.

My husband didn’t stir from bed all day. That night, the front desk sent up two doctors who didn’t speak English. When body language couldn’t make them understand that the patient needed a laxative and was allergic to penicillin, the hotel manager was called to translate. He was from Hong Kong, so he had no problem with English. The tab for consultation and medication was about $26.

By the time we got to Wuxi three days later, several group members went straight to bed. An English-speaking doctor made the rounds, giving injections about every six hours at $5 a pop. According to the doctor, the medicine was “western” for younger patients, and “eastern,” meaning herbs, for older ones.

Whatever it was, it got everyone up and about for three days in Shanghai and the flight home, but just barely. Some of our people were sick for weeks afterward. My only problem was that I smelled that wretched red Chinese sauce all the way from Shanghai to Los Angeles. Other than its famous, or infamous, red sauce, I loved Shanghai.

But Xi’an was the place that captured my imagination. I had a few déjà vu moments. I like to think in another life, Xi’an was my jumping off place for a trip on the old Silk Road. I’m the wandering type. The old Silk Road would have been just my cup of tea. Or yak milk.

Old city wall of Xi'an

As if reading my mind, Google took me to the American Museum of Natural History web site. AMNH recently announced a “Traveling the Silk Road” exhibition Nov. 14-Aug.15, 2010. From the press release:

“This intriguing exhibition brings to life one of the greatest trading routes in human history, showcasing the goods, cultures, and technologies from four representative cities: Xi’an, China’s Tang Dynasty capital; Turfan, a verdant oasis and trading outpost; Samarkand, home of prosperous merchants who thrived on the caravan trade; and Baghdad, a fertile hub of commerce and scholarship that became the intellectual center of the era.”

Ah, Xi’an. I could write a book just on the Jianguo Hotel in Xi’an. It’s doing beautifully now. Its listing on the Internet says:

“Each of the 800 rooms at this 4-star hotel have all the comforts and conveniences of home. Hair dryer, air conditioning, in-room movies, tea/coffeemaker, minibar are among the amenities guests will find in every room. In addition, this property in Xian has cocktail lounge, dry cleaning and laundry, conference rooms, business center, restaurants. For the enjoyment of guests interested in sports or leisure, there are sauna, massage, indoor pool, fitness center on the grounds. Guests seeking that perfect blend of attentive care and modern convenience will find it at this lovely hotel.”

I don’t doubt a word of it, but when we checked in that Easter Sunday of 1989 we waited in the lobby for four hours while they finished our rooms. I use the word “finished” loosely. Upstairs, we found hot water but no electricity. Some toilets didn’t flush. In one room the window had no pane. During our 2-night stay the hammering in our wing seldom stopped. Even so, we loved the hotel because the service was superb. Translation: they waited on us hand and foot.

China is so old, so historic, and so cultured, it sometimes seems as if everything began there. I’ve always wondered about the origin of the American Indian. I lean toward the theory that they came from China, across an ice bridge to the American continent.

But then there’s a language study that has early East Coast Indians speaking with a Portuguese accent. Well, why not? The Portuguese were formidable wayfarers once upon a time. And there are those who believe American Indians are descended from the Lost Tribe of Israel. Will we ever know?

Closer to home tonight, the baked meatballs are delicious. I ate a couple for a bedtime snack, and put the rest in the freezer.


Jean Henry Mead said...

Fascinating subject, Pat. I'm inclined to believe that native Americans came across the land bridge from Asia, but as you said, "Who really knows?"

Anonymous said...

No, no, no, Jean, Native Americans were born in North or South America.

When you're tempted to be PC by using that NA term, just remember Tony Hillerman's anecdote about the Indian who said he was just glad Columbus didn't think he discovered Turkey. (-:

Indians have a great sense of humor. They just keep it to themselves.

And they got the last laugh when they got permission to build casinos. Oklahoma's Indians are doing great things with their wealth -- clinics, scholarships, etc.

I get basic health care and most of my prescriptions through a free Indian clinic. I'm part Creek, but the clinic takes all tribes.

A couple of my nieces have been helped through college and nurse's training by very generous Chickasaw scholarships.

So, I'm still wondering -- where did the American Indian come from?

Pat Browning