Friday, February 27, 2009

Dem Bones, Dem Bones, Dem Dry Bones

Yesterday we went east so today we headed west and the theme of the day was bones. Our journey took us 110kms from the city, and with yet another change in the weather (it was a bit warmer and we even saw the sun for a few minutes) the kids were lively and chattering away. Our first stop was the Famen Buddhist Temple, located at a site along the route of the Silk Road. The Temple is best known for having one of Buddha’s finger bones, a holy relic much revered by Buddhists. Emperors came to the Temple to worship and Buddhism persists as the most popular religion in China today, followed by Islam and then Christianity. The Temple includes an impressive 13 tier pagoda. The current pagoda is the most recent in a long line of pagodas, with the previous ones destroyed by fires or earthquakes. Underneath each was a hidden underground palace where the holy relics were hidden for 13 centuries, before being rediscovered in the 1980’s during the construction of the current pagoda. The kids got a great introduction to Buddhism as they witnessed practicing Buddhists praying before the statues of Buddha, and they seemed particularly drawn to the urns of burning incense.
Next came a trip to a Tang Dynasty tomb complex. The most impressive tomb was the dual tomb of Emperor Tang Gaozong and Empress Wu Zetian. Empress Wu was a former concubine to two Emperors, and claimed the throne herself after both had died. She was the only female monarch ever to rule China, and apparently she ruled with a combination of shrewd political savvy and ruthless intolerance of those who opposed her, including her own flesh and blood. Among the unfortunate to cross Empress Wu was her granddaughter, Princess Yongtai, who by some accounts was executed by the Empress at age 17 for criticizing some court favorites. Now that is a strict disciplinary system. We visited the Princess’s tomb, one of the few that have been excavated in China, for lunch and tour. It was so frequently invaded by tomb raiders that the government figured it should just go ahead and open it up. When they did, the only bones they found were of a raider. The theory, based on the fact that the skull and skeleton were separated and an axe head lay nearby, is that he was double-crossed by his partner for his share of the loot. Of course this got everyone’s attention, and the kids were keen to finish our descent into the tomb. They had lots of questions for our guide and learned a fair bit about the Tangs, tombs, and looting.
We finished our day at the much grander main tomb mentioned earlier. Since this tomb has never been opened, there was no opportunity to go in. So, some settled for a quick climb up the mountain, while the rest took a leisurely stroll down the Spirit Way, under the watchful eyes of 36 stone guardians.

Then it was back to Xi’an, and the talk on the return trip was about plans for the weekend. All seem to have connected well with their hosts and are looking forward to whatever the weekend may bring. At least some are gathering to wish Evan a happy birthday on Sunday. We look forward to hearing the stories come Monday, but for now it is time for some peace and quiet as we each go our separate ways for a couple of days.

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