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The wonder of China

An army of clay
After three days in Beijing, our group flew to Xi’an, a city in central China that is most known for the army of clay soldiers buried in a field on its outskirts. Discovered in the 1970s, the Terra Cotta Warriors have become one of China’s most popular historic attractions.

Emperor Qin Shihuang ruled China beginning around 220 B.C. and was responsible for the Great Wall and the unification of the country. During his reign, Xi’an was the capital of China, and the emperor picked a spot outside the city to be the site of his massive tomb complex. Some 6,000 terra-cotta figures were formed and buried to accompany the emperor into the afterlife.

“Each of them is unique,” said our local guide, Albert. “They could have been made after their real-life counterparts. Their faces and expressions look different.”

Today, the site is a large museum, with terra-cotta figures visible in three different pits. The largest exhibition of the Terra Cotta Army Museum features thousands of soldiers, lined up in rows, with earthworks built up alongside them.

So far, some 3,000 soldiers, archers, horses and chariots have been uncovered. The excavation of the site continues, and during our visit, we saw an area where archaeologists dig and work to reconstruct the figures, which were shattered into dozens of pieces by tomb raiders. Each statue takes about three months to restore.

This large still-life army is a striking sight. Even more striking, though, is what it says about Qin and the ancient Chinese attitudes. Hundreds of thousands of workers toiled for nearly 40 years to create this terra-cotta army to escort Qin to his afterlife.

The soul of Shanghai
Our tour ended in Shanghai, a city as modern as Beijing is historic. Twenty-two million people make their home in this city, which compares in architecture and wealth with any of the great cities of the West.

“Shanghai is the most westernized city in China,” said our local guide, Joanna. “Things have changed dramatically here in the last 20 years. Once you come here, you realize that our national bird is a steel crane. There’s construction everywhere.”

In Shanghai, we enjoyed a brand-new Sheraton hotel, the unforgettable architecture of the Bund riverfront district and the traditional shops and local foods of “Chinatown in China.”

But the most memorable experience was a visit to the Shanghai Museum, an institution that preserves some of the best Chinese art from throughout the ages. Beautiful art is among China’s greatest contributions to the world, and the exhibits at this museum follow the development of various media from prehistory to modern times.

One large gallery traces jade carving in China, from simple 3,000-year-old ceremonial tools to elaborately carved jewelry worn by royalty in the early 20th century.

Among my favorites were the painting and calligraphy galleries. Masters of calligraphy are considered artists in China, and their best works are presented on long scrolls in the museum’s display cases. The porcelain gallery explains how Chinese crafters created a new kind of pottery that grew to become a world-famous art form.

Walking from gallery to gallery in this museum felt like traversing centuries of Chinese culture and history with every step. And although I had experienced so much in 10 days, I knew I had only begun to discover the wonders of this country.