Lea Salonga’s Backstory: The intentional tourist

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Here’s Ms. Lea Salonga having the time of her life as a tourist in Xi’an (China) and discovering the roots of her husband. And she takes good pictures such as below. 🙂


Backstory
The intentional tourist

By Lea Salonga
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted Online 20:56:00 09/17/2008; On Paper 9/18/2008

MANILA, Philippines—By choice, perhaps, or circumstance, I refrain from engaging in tourist-type activities when I’m working in a show.

Last year I was in one of the more popular tourist cities in the world, New York, and not once did I visit the Empire State Building or the Statue of Liberty. The only place I frequented was Times Square, and only because it was part of my daily walk to work, and only a stone’s throw away from where “Les Misérables” was running at the time, the Broadhurst Theatre (where Daniel Radcliffe will make his Broadway debut this fall in “Equus”).

For all the times I lived in New York, tourist sites were not much of a priority. Suffice to say, I was just never a tourist whenever I was working. I wanted this time, however, to be different. My visit to China has afforded me a wonderful opportunity to be what I haven’t been in a long, long time: an actual red-blooded tourist.

On Monday, Sept. 15, my day off from “Cinderella’s” run in Xi’an, I visited two attractions that I was really looking forward to seeing: the Terra-Cotta Warriors and Horses Museum and the Huaqing Hot Springs, both in the city of Lintong. I was with Charlie Parker (Fairy Godmother), Willow Toner Grey (Ensemble), Sheilla Habab (my dresser and personal assistant), and Lynn Zhang (my interpreter). We had our own tour guide, Penny Wang, through the kindness of Henry Lee, general manager of Shangri-La Hotel Xi’an (Henry was the No. 2 guy at Shangri-La Mactan for three years, and at Traders Hotel in Manila for another three years).

History lesson

We all met at the lobby of the Shangri-La. Charlie and Willow had a near nightmarish cab ride from their hotel to mine—the driver took the “scenic” route, costing them RMB 70 (or 70 yuan, roughly US$10). We all piled into a waiting minivan.

In the car, Penny began telling us about Lin Tong—the pomegranates and persimmons, corn and wheat, the jade that was native to the area, and finally a brief history lesson on the Qin Dynasty (221 BC – 206 BC) and its first emperor, Qin Shi Huang (259 BC – 210 BC). Emperor Qin ascended the throne at age 13, and died from heart disease (or drinking too much immortality “elixirs” that contained mercury) at age 49. The construction of his mausoleum, along with a staggering number of terra cotta warriors, took almost his entire reign, and even then, it was never completed.

Delicate display

We arrived at the museum at around noon. From the ticket booths to the actual pits, there was a beautiful paved winding walk (long, but very pretty) lined with wildflowers and fruit trees. At the end of the walk was a gate where our bags went through an X-ray conveyor belt, like those at the airport. Clearing that gate, we came to an open area that led to the Bronze Chariot display, Pits 1, 2 and 3, and a cinema that showed a film dramatizing the unification of China by Emperor Qin, as well as the construction and discovery of the warriors.

At the Bronze Chariot display area, we presented our tickets for one last time. A Unicef logo proclaimed the mausoleum as a World Heritage site (the China list includes the Great Wall and the Forbidden City). The display room itself is dimly lit, the better to protect the very delicate items in the glass cases. But this didn’t stop the tourists from taking flash photos. I adjusted my camera settings so I could take pictures in low light.

There were two bronze chariots. The first was likened by our guide to a lead car driven by a security detail; the second was for “the soul of the emperor.” Penny said the Chinese at the time believed the soul to be quite small—the chariots and horses reflected this, being quite tiny, especially compared to what still lay ahead on this tour. We saw bronze birds, weapons, crossbow arrows (some with sharp heads for combat, some without—for practice), horsewhips and sticks (combined, the Chinese names of these two items form a word that means “motivation”… how appropriate), and water and wine containers, as well as bronze “face towels” for the chariot drivers.

Online research

The “lead chariot” had an umbrella that could be turned in any direction to ensure that the driver was always in the shade, while the “main chariot” had a turtle shell-shaped roof (the turtle is a symbol of long life) and windows for ventilation. On the walls were photographs showing the state the chariots at the time of their excavation, as well as the progress of the restoration.

I thought that display amazing enough, but we had three more massive pits to see.

Truth be told, I was excited to be seeing this museum. I had read as much as I could online, examined pictures and recalled my history professor’s lectures from eons ago. But none of these helped quell my feelings as we entered Pit No. 2.

What initially struck me was its depth and size. Portions of the pit were in different stages of excavation (Penny said there would be no further digging in this particular pit); thus we saw the remains of many clay soldiers. After the warriors were placed in the pits and buried under timber logs and packed earth, Penny said, a sprawling palace was built on top. During the Han Dynasty, the palace was burned down—it was so big that it took three months before the fires died out. The pits were looted, weapons stolen for reuse. As the timber burned, the pits caved in. There is still evidence of ashes from that fire.

On one side of this pit was a more organized museum, with a few of the soldiers encased in glass to preserve their color and form. There was a standing archer, a general with a robust belly, a lower ranking officer, a soldier and Mongolian pony, and the only warrior found intact—a kneeling archer. The official logo of this complex is based on that archer, and replicas in every size are all over this city.

(The warriors were not originally the color of clay; they were very vividly and intricately painted. However, exposure to air made the colors very quickly oxidize and fade. One part of a pit had to be reburied quickly to preserve the color of the remaining warriors.)

After a brief “pit stop” in the ladies room, we headed for Pit No. 3, the smallest in the complex. It is U-shaped and believed to have been sort of a central control room on account of the rank of the soldiers in there. A lot of them were headless because, we were told, the heads were badly damaged at the time of their excavation. There was a section here (as in every pit we saw) that showed the state of the soldiers upon their unearthing: parts of warriors all over the brick floor, thousands of pieces of clay without rhyme or reason. This huge jigsaw puzzle will take hundreds of years to complete.

Souvernir [or Souvenir?] store

Finally, on to Pit No. 1, the largest. We entered through the back, as if to hold the suspense. First we saw soldiers being restored, rows and rows newly put together. Then we saw the excavation sites with, again, pieces of clay strewn about. Finally, rows and rows of soldiers facing away from the Emperor’s tomb—a staggering display. It took our breath away. I made sure to take loads of photographs.

At the end of our visit we went to the on-site store that sold souvenirs and replicas. Yes, I bought myself a set of soldiers in a smaller size, made this same clay using the same process. It came with a certificate saying these were official reproductions, and that all the proceeds would go back to the museum, to fund further excavations and restorations. I also bought a DVD and a guidebook autographed at purchase by one of the farmers that discovered the site. The autograph was in beautiful calligraphy, apparently the only characters that this farmer knew. After watching the short dramatization film, I picked up my nicely wrapped soldiers and headed out. Penny led us through shortcuts to the exit, for which we were grateful. Our feet were hurting!

The day wasn’t quite over, though. There was one short stop I had to make.

Rob’s great grandpa

The Huaqing Hot Springs were not too far from the Terra Cotta Warrior Museum. It was the location of the Xi’an Incident of December 12, 1936, when Chiang Kai-shek, Generalissimo of the Koumintang, was kidnapped by two of his men. My interest was not in Chiang Kai-shek, but in one of his generals, Qian Dajun, or Chien Ta-chun. The surname should be a giveaway; the late General Qian is my husband’s great-grandfather. (A bit of family trivia: when Rob was born, General Qian, now living in Taiwan, flew to the US just to see him. Rob was his first great-grandson.)

Charlie and Lynn opted to sit this tour out, while Penny, Sheilla, Willow and I kept on. The complex was peaceful, green and romantic. It was a winter palace for one of the Tang Dynasty emperors and his concubine, Yang, supposedly the most beautiful woman in China at the time. Chiang Kai-shek had offices here; Penny knew exactly where they were.

I looked around and found Chiang’s living quarters, office and meeting rooms. A historical account on the wall talked about the two generals that turned on him.

Day well-spent

Penny read the caption beneath one blurry black and white photograph. “Qian Dajun?” I jumped up and down, exclaiming, “That’s him!” He cut quite a robust figure in that photo.

I found Qian’s office around the corner, labeled “Office of Head Bodyguards.” I guess that meant he was the head of Chiang’s security detail here. There was a bed in the corner—with a folded blanket and a hat that I presumed belonged to him—a desk in front of it, and a bullet hole through one of the windows. There were more rooms for more bodyguards.

I took more photographs, with my cell phone this time, since my camera battery had died. I meant to send them to my family.

The car ride back to Xi’an was the culmination of a wonderful day, when we came face to face with the past. I hope to bring my husband and daughter here someday to experience, as I did, precious bits of this country’s history. After all, in their own way, they are a part of it.

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