WE HAD THE GREAT WALL TO OURSELVES
There were no restaurants along our route. And definitely no vendors braving the cold. Our guides had prepared by bringing picnic boxes to be eaten as we bounced along in our bus. We had no idea of what we might find inside those boxes. What could possibly be the Chinese version of a picnic? Well it wasn’t really unlike something you might find in a Western lunch box. Four slices of thick white bread, slices of assorted meats and chicken, a delicious pickle, an orange, cookies, two hard boiled eggs (the eggs were small but they had huge bright yellow yokes). And of course they included toothpicks. Using toothpicks was as common to the Chinese at that time as was the disgusting habit of continually spitting on the streets, floors of theatres and stores, or into the brass spittoons that were found everywhere indoors.
We’d barely finished our picnic when the “Spirit Road” appeared. A spirit road was the avenue of huge carved stone animals and figures that lined the approach to ancient tombs. The Chinese funerary tradition is said to have started in the first century A.D. and was carried on until the fall of the last imperial dynasty in 1911. The monumental carved figures were there to represent the honor guard of real live men who would have lined the route for important occasions. The very large highly dramatic carvings of noblemen and warriors looked like escapees from classical Chinese opera. The carved animals were in place to guard the tomb against evil, and offer any help needed by the spirit of the deceased on its unknown journey to the other world.
We were heading down a paved road, following carts pulled by donkeys with owners sleeping on the cargo, bundled into sheepskin coats and fur hats with ear flaps, passing between monumental stone animals staring down on us. Some figures were mystical, such as the popular Chinese beast the qilin, and some were more recognizable elephants, camels and horses. The pairs of familiar animals offered the female of each species seated and the male standing. The four elephants on the route are each cut from one block of stone and are 13 feet high and 14 feet long.
We were allowed a picture stop here. Other requests en route had fallen on unsympathetic ears. We had a schedule to stick to. We’d had frustratingly few photo opportunities so far on this trip.
The trees beyond the stone figures were all quite young. The lush avenues of full aged trees found in old photographs had long ago been reduced to daily fuel by local peasants. But in springtime the young trees must have presented a pretty green backdrop for the stone menagerie.
“It’s just a short jaunt to the tomb,” our guide announced. “Two short jaunts make one sojourn,” Steve muttered. —to be continued
Kathleen Fetner, Technical Advisor and Friend