Monday, April 21, 2008

Cold days and cave dwellings

I am sure everyone in our group would say that the highlight of our day was visiting a peasant cave house in the mountains near Xi’an. This morning, we headed northwest of the city to visit the tomb of Wu Zetian, the only empress in China’s feudal history. Known for her cruelty and thirst for power, she imprisoned or killed those who stood in her way and claimed the throne for herself in 690 during the Tang Dynasty. In the hills about an hour outside of Xi’an, one can find Wu Zetian’s tomb as well as 17 other satellite tombs (which likely belonged to family members). Of the 20 emperors of the Tang Dynasty, only 18 tombs have ever been found. Of those 18, the tomb of Wu Zetian is the only one that has not been disturbed by tomb raiders. We visited the site of the tomb and also entered one of the subsidiary tombs, which was open to the public for viewing.

It was near freezing at the tomb site, which took us all by surprise. We hadn’t experienced cold like this since arriving in China and we were all underdressed. While at the tomb site, we were told that our tour guide Richard had arranged for us to visit the cave home of a local peasant farm worker. We jumped at the chance, since many of us had observed these cave homes from the train window when rolling into town a few days earlier, and we had many questions about what these homes were like. Many teachers teach their students in the U.S. about cave homes and were eager to see one in person.

We huddled together against the wind and hiked down into a valley where the cave home was located. Our host led us down some precarious mud steps to a small complex of caves inhabited by her, her husband, her parents, and her three children. We were welcomed into one of their bedrooms and were offered tea to warm up. The room was simply furnished with two armchairs, a table, and a bed. The bed was a concrete slab covered with a woven reed mat, some cotton padding, and a top sheet. Under the bed was a small oven that could be lit for warmth.

We toured the home, which included a small communal kitchen, a horse stable, and two more bedrooms. We were struck by the ingenuity of the home’s structure and the similarities between this home and others. The cave home stays cool in the summer and holds its warmth in the winter, making it a practical dwelling. You could see relatively modern furniture, a TV, and other basic appliances, which surprised many of us who were expecting to see more rugged living conditions. It was clear that these farmers had created a home that was a part of the earth and in line with their living needs. Our hosts also showed us the newly made coffins for their parents. It is tradition to build coffins for parents before their deaths, creating peace of mind.

After a brief stay at the home, we returned to Xi’an to enjoy some free time in the rainy city. The weather is finally supposed to turn tomorrow, when we will visit a wild animal preserve (in search of pandas).

Today’s Interesting Tidbit: Legend has it that grave robbers went to Wu Zetian’s tomb to raid it of its riches. It is said that a torrential rain arrived that day, causing the army of raiders to retreat, leaving the tomb untouched. Present-day archeologists have evidence to suggest that in fact, the tomb was extremely well-built and solid, making it difficult to disturb.

Photos: 1. Arial view of the cave home complex, 2. Teachers visiting the kitchen, 3. A view of the work shed.

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