Dust to Dust, Fez to Xi’an

We rented a taxi van for the day at the Xi’an airport, along with a Danish couple we met there, to take us directly to the terracotta statues before going to Xian proper.  We had only a day here, and wanted to make the most of it.

The rows of warriors were truly staggering in scope.  Apparently some 600 sites have been discovered, according to the guide we hired.  Qín Shǐhuáng líng, the man who united China in 221 BCE, believed his soul would return to the clay, so he created not just legions of soldiers to serve him in the afterlife, but an entire army infrastructure, including a command and control center and camp followers.  I was reminded of Ozymandius’ two-fold message, and of the Pharoahs.  But he scale here is more vast.

But the driver turned out to be another Fez… he drove us not to our hotel afterward, but detoured to a silk factory… so we could get him a commission.  Then he futzed around taking us to our hotels, with the end result that M and I were too late to see the museum we’d planned on.  We raised a little Cain, and he relented and took us to another site, the Big Goose Pagoda, and got us a guide there.  I was thrilled to find there a shrine to the monk Xuánzàng, the real-life inspiration behind the novel I’m reading, Monkey (an abridged version of Journey to the West, I found out).

We also missed walking on the wall of Xi’an.  But we did get to see the very cool Muslim quarter and the bizarre Chinese mosque there.  The streets of the bazaar outside were so much like Morocco that we’d have found it hard to believe we were in China.  What an odd confluence of events.

Flight Delayed

We’d planned on flying to Xi’an today, but we didn’t realize that in order to pay for tickets with the reservation site we’re using (CTrip.com), we had to pay 24 hours in advance to use a foreign (US) credit card.  So we saw some local sites, got oil massages, and fly out tomorrow.  We had to make a snap decision about how long to stay there, so we will fly the next morning to Guilin.

Walking the Wall

Today, M and I hiked along the Great Wall.  We hired the same driver several other conventioneers had found, and he dropped us off at Jinshanling, driving to Simatai to wait for us there.  We walked and clambered and climbed the Wall for about 14 kilometers, past or through about 35 beacon towers (spaced, apparently, such that no space in between was out of bow range).  The Wall was crumbled in places, and breath-takingly steep in others… but that didn’t stop the hordes of locals who greeted us regularly along the way with trinkets, postcards, t-shirts, and drinks; clustered in twos and threes, they cajoled and even followed us.  They had a network of secret paths they used to get to and between towers, and they seemed to work together to some extent (“Coke? Beer? Postcard? You buy later…”).  We did buy a few things (normally water), more out of sympathy and admiration than need.  China is amazingly, aggressively capitalist.  The invaders of ages past now make their living from the Wall itself.

The Great Wall itself is impressive, snaking (or rather, dragon-ing) across the mountains, clawing up and down the foothills.  While not as old as I had thought (this section was built between 18 and 33 generations ago), it was nonetheless an impressive sight.

Shiny Happy People

My initial frame of reference for Chinese culture was my travel in Japan.  I’ve been there 3 or 4 times (twice for a couple weeks at a time, traveling around), have some Japanese friends, and know a bit about their pop culture, so it was by far the Asian country I was most familiar with.  Coming to China, I was struck almost immediately by the difference.

The Chinese are really friendly.

The Japanese are often more polite, but rather more reserved.  The Chinese may not be as polite, but they seem more genuinely approachable and gregarious.  Strikingly so.  It seems to me that they are both more polite and more friendly than Americans in general, too.  They are helpful and just seem to smile more, and the kids especially are quick to shyly say “hello”.  The parents also seem very indulgent of their kids, for what that’s worth, but they kids seem well-behaved nonetheless.

They are also rather taken with M, no doubt because of her fair skin, height, and (if I may say so) beauty.  They want to take pictures of her, and with her, quite frequently.

A slightly less wholesome side of this lightness of spirit is the ease with which I’ve seen people here slip into defense or praise of their government, and what might be a complacence about political matters.  The propaganda in China, in tourist papers and on TV (and especially regarding the Olympics), is as thick as the air; I need a knife and fork to breathe here sometimes.

Time and The Forbidden City

On our first day since M arrived, we set out to the Forbidden City, one of the must-sees of Beijing.  In front of the hotel, we bumped into a woman who works for Microsoft in the area of accessibility, and we shared a taxi, then decided to hang out the rest of the day.  She and I had a surprising amount in common, and bored M silly with talk of standards and accessible graphics.  We walked around Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, and then took a bicycle rickshaw to the hip lake district for dinner and souvenir shopping.

In the Forbidden City, I rented an audio-tour player, and relayed tidbits to them along the way.  I learned about various measurement devices there (such as a sundial) which were not merely the official standard for the empire (e.g. for time); one of the roles of the Emperor, was as supreme –even divine– authority of Heaven’s standards on Earth.  Perhaps that’s taking it a bit far, but it does emphasize the importance of standards (even arbitrary ones) in making a collection of disparate entities work together, be they formerly independent kingdoms or browsers.  It’s worth noting that even today, despite China’s breadth, it has not four or five time zones, but only one.

Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom

I’m in Beijing, presenting at the WWW2008 conference.  Last night, we attended a banquet at the Great Hall of the People, which (ironically) is hard for most Chinese people to get into.  On the long bus ride there, I was rather surprised to see a young man driving a trailer-bike with an anarchy flag flying from a pole.

I’d have loved to grab a picture of this, but we were warned that the security wouldn’t let us in with any camera bigger than a mobile phone.  Foolishly, I took them at their word; others brought in SLRs, so it’s clear it wasn’t that serious a matter.  One of my colleagues refused to attend, even though he had a ticket, because he didn’t approve of the security screening; I admire his principles.

The banquet was great, with good food and several performances by singers, dancers, musicians, and even a truncated opera.  Tim Berners-Lee gave the keynote, and he spoke about the size and rate of growth of the Internet, comparing it in size to the number of neurons and connections in the human brain.  He also opined about social networks, urging them to adopt privacy policies that respect the users, with the expectation that that would lead to open systems with open data.  He discussed challenges and opportunities in the standards process, pointing out that the very factors that build cohesion and camaraderie in groups serve as bricks in the wall that divides that group from the larger community.  Finally, when asked to speculate about how the world would change because of the Web, he was quick to point out that the Web was built by people, by the larger community, and that this distributed effort will allow humanity to experiment with new models of economy, of cooperation, of government, and with science itself; that we could “let a thousand flowers bloom”, and pick the best path forward in all our endeavors.