My First Trip To Xian In 1986

Mentioning Xian brings different images to different people. For many, it is associated with the Silk Road, the key trade route between East and West that ran for more than 6400 km (4000 miles), and during which Xian, in its heyday, was one of the most populous cities in the world. To other people, it is the place where the world-famous Terracotta Warriors were un-earthed 40 years ago, while people keen on Chinese history remember Xian as the seat of more than 13 feudal dynasties ending with the Tang Dynasty’s fall in 907.

Therefore, on my first visit in 1986, my expectations were very high. Flying to Xian, my imagination was running wild with visions of beautiful palaces, stunning pieces of art, priceless artifacts and the unique Tang Dynasty sculptures (ladies in long flowing robes) that I have always found extraordinarily elegant.

Reality struck me upon arrival. The airport was small, messy and its location in the city made landing tricky and uncomfortable. The roads were dirty and dusty turning into deep mud whenever it rained (and it rained almost daily during this particular trip). Taxis were run-down and drivers notorious to go by the “scenic route” with foreigners so the cab fares ended up much higher. The stern buildings also reminded me of those built in my native Slovakia after 1945, without any Chinese touches, style or elegance, so the arrival was a let down.

Luckily, the city is one of the most interesting and fascinating in China to visit due to its incredible past and my mood improved considerably during my stay. Arriving at the Golden Flower Hotel (that became several years later a Shangri-La hotel) in the early evening, I was astounded seeing a crowd of local people staring at the hotel from outside. I understood later that it was one of the tallest structures in the city at the time and at night, it was “shining” while the streets around were dark with the standard dim lights in all buildings and blocks of flats.

Xian was already very popular with foreign tourists as the Terracotta Warriors had already been discovered more than 10 years prior to my visit. The city was on all inbound tourist’s itineraries and those going to see the Terracotta Warriors in the morning could hardly stop to admire the features of the warriors as masses of tourists would basically create an unstoppable flow. So I decided to visit other sites first to better enjoy the warriors in the relative peace and quietness of the afternoon.

The city is so rich in cultural treasures that visitors never have sufficient time to explore them during their few days in what became the capital of Shaanxi Province. I selected the Ban Po Neolithic Village as my first stop. There, history takes on a completely different meaning. My imagination went into overdrive as I walked slowly through the remains of several well organised Neolithic settlements dating back more than 6,700 years, trying to imagine how people used to live in this matriarchal society during times long gone by.

From Ban Po, I went to the Huaqing Hot Spring, a complex of hot springs initially built as an imperial retreat during the Western Zhou Dynasty (11th century BC – 771 BC). Over time, various emperors added buildings and facilities to the original compound . The Hot Springs Palace was built by Tang Emperor Xuanzong, and favoured by Yang Gui Fei, his preferred concubine. Overlooking the beautifully landscaped lake with lots of greenery and what looked like thousands of golden carps, I was told a more contemporary story, called the “Xian Incident”, which took place there in 1936.

It appears that Chang Kai Sheng (also called Chiang Kai-shek), the leader of the Chinese Republic from 1928 to 1948, was literally caught up with his “pants down” by a former warlord, Zhang Xue Liang, while he was residing at the Huaqing complex. Temporarily kidnapped, he was eventually “convinced” to join in a united front with the Chinese Communist Party to fight the Japanese Imperial Army. This united front would eventually end in 1945 leading to the overall victory a few years later of the communist party and the subsequent departure of Chang Kai Sheng to Taiwan that he ruled with an iron fist until his death in 1975.

The final stop on my first day was the visit to the Terracotta Warriors dating from Emperor Qinshihuangdi’s reign (221-206BC), a discovery made by a peasant digging in his field in 1974. The army of soldiers in the hangar-like structure (now called Pit No 1) is breathtaking. There are about 10000 excavated soldiers and horses and excavations around this original site were still going on at that time. Although from a distance, one realizes that each soldier has different features from the others. Since then, more exhibits were added and opened to the public. One can spend long hours in this amazing historical site and my time was up too quickly. I eventually left, walking out of the compound to the “modern day army” of sellers of Xian souvenirs that are still an integral part of the visit today. I bought a very colourful quilt that I kept preciously for many years and that always brought fond memories about my first trip to Xian.

img141_副本2 Xian quilt

img141_副本Souvenir stand at the Terracotta Warriors

The following day, I went to visit Gao Xue Min, a well-known local paper-cutting artist, at his home. He had already been overseas to host exhibitions and eventually became Chairman of the Xian Paper Cutting Association. I was very interested to discover the difference between this old art form in China and the paper cutting traditions we have in Slovakia and other central European countries. I had a great time sipping Chinese tea while chatting with him and going through his creations. I still have a picture of “Monkeys in the well”, inspired from an old Chinese tale about a young monkey playing by the well at night. Seeing the refection of the moon in the water, it decides to go down the well with the help of other monkeys to get the moon out of the water .….

img141_副本1Monkeys in the well catching the moon

I have developed a very special affinity to the monkey since arriving in China, partly because it is my Chinese astrological sign, and partly because it holds a special place in Chinese folk art and culture. It is said that monkeys drive away evil spirits. One of the most famous Peking Operas is called the Monkey King and there are many intriguing tales about monkeys in Chinese mythology. One of them has it that a monkey stole a peach from the celestial Garden of Xi Wang Mu. It was not just any peach but a Peach of Immortality destined for a special banquet in honour of “the Eight Immortals” and aimed at ensuring the deities’ everlasting existence. The immortals had waited six thousand years before gathering for this magnificent feast, thus the havoc created by the mischievous monkey’s theft of the peach.  As a testimony to this story, I bought a paper cutting on that day representing monkeys and a peach. I framed it and still have it in my sitting room.

MTXX_20140321_114810100 monkeys with a peach

I returned back many times afterwards to Xian to continue exploring the city and its surroundings such as the astounding Famen Temple (that very few foreign tourists visit as it is quite a drive from Xian), the Great Mosque that brings me unbelievable (and unexpected as I am a Christian) peace on each visit, the Shaanxi Provincial Museum (that took 18 years to build in Tang Dynasty style and houses over 370,000 precious relics) and the Tang Dynasty Tomb of Princess Yong Tai. But this is another story ….


Love Affair With China 30 Years Later!

Today I am celebrating my Pearl Anniversary in China! It is hard to believe that I have been in China for 30 years. The time has gone by very fast and there are still so many places to see, so many books to read and so many people to meet………

May the LOVE AFFAIR last for many more years!

My bus trip to the Beijing Zoo

Professor Tang Banjie at the Milu Patk, Nan HaiziCirca 1985 – Professor Tang Banjie at the Milu Park, Nan Haizi

After my visit to the Forbidden City,(18 March 1984), I told my “guide” that I would rest in the hotel. Unbeknown to him, it was not because I was tired but because I wanted to meet privately Professor Tang Banjie with whom I was not able to spend any time the day of my arrival.

I therefore decided to go to the Beijing zoo where he was working although I had no idea where the zoo was located in the city and how to get there. I had to plan this simple bus trip with military precision as I did not speak Mandarin and, obviously, did not have a mobile phone (we were in 1984!) to ask for help. First, I needed a Beijing map. Actually two, one in English and one in Chinese so I could find out the location of the zoo and the corresponding name in Mandarin. I decided to go to the small postcard shop in the hotel lobby and got the maps. Studying both maps, I managed to locate the zoo on the English map and the Chinese name on the other map that I marked in red.

Then, I asked the front desk staff for the bus number to get to the zoo. The clerk was quite surprised by my request but obliged and gave me the bus number and told me where the bus stop was located and here I went on what seemed at the time like a real “expedition” in to wild territories. The bus stop was 2 minutes away from the hotel in Wangfujing, sometimes called the Beijing equivalent of the Champs-Élysées and today a pedestrian street. Boarding the bus and getting my ticket was easy. My first encounter with local people was heart warming. The bus was full and an old lady offered me her seat, which I refused. I showed the Chinese map to the driver and pinpointed the spot of the Beijing zoo and the Chinese name. He understood my “request” and eventually waved at me when we reached my destination some 30 mn or so later to make sure that I would leave the bus at the right spot. People in the street showed me the direction (it was very close) and I walked the short distance to the entrance of the zoo whose grounds were, during the Qing Dynasty, an imperial retreat.

The gate, made of bricks, is quite impressive and dates back to 1906 when the place was established as the “Experimental Farm and Zoo” that included a farm, a botanical garden and a small menagerie that initially housed a small batch of animals purchased by a high ranking official during his overseas trips. The lower part of the gate is engraved with patterns of different farming activities and the word “Beijing Zoo” is engraved on the right. The story says that the five calligraphy characters (Bei Jing Dong Wu Yuan) were taken from Mao Zedong poems and put together to say Beijing Animal Park. I must also add that Dong Wu literally means “moving thing” (for the word ‘animal’ does not exist in the Chinese vocabulary), which may explain why most people in this country did not really care too much for animals until recently.

At the ticketing office, I asked to see Professor Tang Banjie. The ticket lady was so shocked that she could hardly speak and sent me to the side entrance where I repeated my request. Despite my very minimal ability to speak Chinese, we managed to understand each other. She immediately called Professor Tang’s office and he came shortly. He was amazed to see me alone without my “guide” but was very happy to show me around and talk about the Milu, the Panda, the Golden Monkeys, the Red Panda and many other animals. The esteemed professor knew a lot about the Milu, his English was perfect and I wished I could spend as much time as possible with him.

MB and Tan Bang Jie

Prof. Tan Bang Jie and Maria Boyd

During our walk through the zoo, Professor Tang told me that the zoo was visited twice by Dowager Empress Cixi and Emperor Guangxu in the early 20th century and was then called “The Garden of Ten Thousand Beasts”. Among the historical buildings on the premises is Chang Guanlou, a Baroque-style mansion built in 1908 for the Empress Dowager by a French architect. It is known to be the only western style mansion ever built for the Imperial family and it remains one of the best preserved original Western-style buildings in Beijing to this day. The others are located in the former Legation Quarters on the east side of Tian An Men Square and now ruined palaces on the grounds of the Old Summer Palace.

It was my second meeting with Professor Tang (following our initial encounter at the airport) and the beginning of a long friendship and professional relationship. He was well versed in Chinese nature conservation issues and helped me navigate pitfalls when dealing with various Chinese entities among the many things he did to help me coordinate the successful reintroduction of the Milu to China. Unfortunately I eventually had to leave in the late afternoon and they called the Ministry of Health and told my “guide” to pick me up and take me back to the Beijing Hotel. My excursion to the zoo ended and I still remember my “guide” asking me pointedly what would my program be the following day. Obviously, the possibility for me to explore Beijing on my own was not really an option he would entertain. Little did he know about me then …… but this is another story!!!

Discovering the Forbidden City on my first day in China

img139_副本View of Tian’An Men Square

Excitement made me wake up early in the morning  (18 March 1984) on my first full day in Beijing. I went out on the balcony as the sun was just coming up. The first thing that struck me was the overall quietness compared to Hong Kong. There was not even one bird singing. I looked around and saw a solitary gentleman practicing morning exercises on the roof of the building across the road. I went back in my room, picked up my binoculars, and went out again to look at him more closely.  He was actually using a sword and I was amazed at the coordination, the intricate movements and what seemed like a very elaborate morning routine ..… I would learn much more about Tai Qi in the following years.

After breakfast, I met the man from the Ministry of Health who had come to meet me at the airport the day before. He was going to act as my “guide” for the day and we left for the Forbidden City just a short distance away. I had been intrigued by those yellow roofs I could see from my room and was told that special yellow-coloured tiles were only used for buildings and structures used by the Emperor and his family as a symbol of the dignity and solemnity of the Emperor. Similarly, only the Imperial family was permitted to wear yellow/gold clothes.

I could not wait to discover what was behind the crimson coloured Forbidden City walls. We walked in through The Gate of Heavenly Peace (Tian An Men Gate),  under the watchful eyes of Chairman Mao Tse Tung’s portrait and began our long walk to the actual gate of what had become “the Palace Museum”. The Forbidden City originally dates back to 1406 when the Ming Emperor Yong Le decided to build a palace to rival the palaces of earlier dynasties built in Nanjing and Xian. It encompasses an amazing succession of magnificent courtyards housing stunning halls and it was meticulously designed to accommodate official state affairs, the private quarters of the Emperor with families and friends, and more intimate moments with concubines, but also areas were specially designed for the elder members of the Imperial family, the eunuchs in charge of the concubines and the running of the Imperial households and so on. It is almost symmetrical and hierarchically arranged so that all the important buildings run down the center, from North to South.

While walking and being mesmerized by the sheer size of the palace (I believe the largest such compound in the world), my imagination was going wild thinking of what had happened within these walls including tragedies and upheavals, changes of dynasties and the end of the Forbidden City as the Imperial family’s residence in the 1920’s when a War Lord took control of Beijing in a coup and expelled Pu Yi.

I was told that we could only go along the main South-North axis but I managed to get a peek at small courtyards on the west side. My “guide” reminded me several times that it was not allowed but he was kind and understood that I was genuinely interested to discover as many things as possible. On that first visit, I was not able to access the “Courtyard of Fresh Fragrance”, near the Imperial Garden. It features a Peking Opera stage and an adjacent hall full of priceless antique furniture and beautiful artifacts.  I had this opportunity many years later and it remains one of the highlights of all my visits at the Palace together with this first tour.

I still remember vividly seeing two large pots with beautiful orange-colored flowers in the north garden. I was told that they were the preferred flowers of late Premier Zhou En Lai, the first Prime Minister of New China who had died in 1976, the same year as Chairman Mao. It would seem that these flowers were very carefully nurtured by the staff of the Palace Museum as a symbolic tribute to Premier Zhou. It must be remembered that at the heydays of the Cultural Revolution, he sent the army to protect the Forbidden City and other key monuments in Beijing. These troops prevented ransacking by the Red Guards. From 1966 to 1971, all gates to the Forbidden City were eventually sealed, saving the Palace from destruction or severe damage.

I attracted some attention from the many Chinese visitors that were strolling the Palace mostly in groups following their guides that were holding various coloured flags high up to make sure that nobody within the their groups would get “lost” (It has actually not changed to this day). It was simple curiosity toward a funny-coloured hair lady and it did not prevent me from enjoying the visit.

After getting out through the North Gate, we went to Coal Hill, an artificial mound made of the earth excavated for the moat surrounding the Forbidden City. According to classic geomancy (Feng Shui) principles, the hill’s purpose was to guard the Forbidden City from evil northern spirits. The turbulent Chinese history caught up with me when I was reminded that in April 1644 the last Ming Emperor, Chong Zhen, after being handed a yellow silk rope by his faithful eunuch, hung himself there rather than being captured by entering rebel forces.  A few months later, the Qing Dynasty was founded. Little they knew that the Forbidden City would only be home to ten of the Qing Dynasty emperors and would eventually become a magnificent museum and a unique tribute to Chinese culture and history.

It was a beautiful visit and a perfect introduction to my stay in China that still brings a lot of warm feeling to my heart.

The Tale of the Milu – Arriving in Beijing in 1984



Tian’an Men Square with Forbidden City in the background

img137_副本1View from hotel’s room

In the early 1980’s, the Chinese government officially required international support to save two endemic Chinese species namely the Panda and the Pere David’s Deer also called the Milu. While everybody in the world came to know and love the cute panda, very few are aware that the Milu, discovered for western science by a French Lazarist missionary,  Pere Armand David in the late 19th century, is one of the most charismatic species in China.

Nicknamed “Si-bu-xiang” or the “four-un-a-likes”, the Milu combines attributes from four different animals namely the antlers of a deer, hooves of a cow, tail of a donkey and neck of a camel.  It is believed they became extinct in the wild some 1500 years ago. However, a herd remained until the late 19th century at Nan Haizi, the imperial hunting ground south of Beijing.  All the animals were eventually killed as a result of flood and war and by the beginning of 1900s it marked the extinction of the species in China.

The future of the species was however not doomed yet. Just before the turn of the century, selected animals had been sent to Le Jardin d’Acclimatation in Paris and several zoos across Europe including Antwerp and Berlin. All remaining 18 Milu were eventually bought and regrouped between 1894 and 1901 by the 11th Duke of Bedford on his estate at Woburn Abbey in the United Kingdom.  He thus successfully handled one of the first conservation programmes in the world. The Milu species did not become extinct and the last remaining herd roamed on his estate far away from their native land of the eastern seaboard of China and along the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers.

Following the call from the Chinese government and the full support of Robin, the 14th Duke of Bedford, preparation was made to reintroduce the Milu to Nan Haizi. Due to my zoological studies and specific research at Oxford University on the Milu and my link to the family of the 14th Duke of Bedford, a very close friend of my late husband, I became the Head of this reintroduction project.

In the early 1980’s, China has just started to open to the outside world. Current means of communication – Internet and social media, foreign TV channels and so on – were not yet in operation and scattered news would take weeks to get to the western world via Hong Kong. Going to China was an exciting prospect but also a bit “scary”. No fax would be available there but only telex and pre-booked (one day ahead) international calls. Although I was travelling in an official capacity (so to speak) and with all approved paperwork, nobody could confirm before my departure where I would be staying. I was just told that a hotel room was booked for me and that people would take care of me upon arrival and that I should not worry. Easier said than done ……

I finally boarded a British Airways flight to Hong Kong where I stayed for about 10 days getting acquainted with the Orient and putting the final touches to the reintroduction plan. When the day finally arrived to fly to Beijing I could not contain my curiosity. Taking off from Hong Kong was as spectacular as landing there at the old Kai Tak International Airport where the planes were so close to the buildings upon final approach that passengers had the feeling that one could actually touch them.

We left the balmy weather and greenery of Hong Kong behind. As we approached Beijing, the scenery became increasingly brownish and dry and we were told that the weather was very cold although it was already past mid March.

After landing in Beijing, taxiing was an eye opener for me. I realized that I was truly entering unchartered territory and that my usual short temper was going to be tested but, at the same time, I was so excited to be part of this project. After a few minutes …. a lone bicycle rider came toward the plane. The pilot knew the procedure and here we went, a half-empty plane taxiing very slowly behind the path of a bicycle toward our spot at one of the gates of the miniscule round terminal that was still in operation until the late 1990’s. It was eventually fully renovated to become terminal 1 of the current Beijing International Capital Airport, the second busiest in the world according to the latest data. A different world from 30 years ago!

Disembarkation and arrival procedures went smoothly although I realized that my blond hair were generating a LOT of attention …… a recurrent story for the next two decades or so! To my relief amongst the hundreds of people who were waiting for arriving passengers were two people carrying my name, one was Professor Tang Banjie with whom I had been in contact previously and the other was a foreign affairs officer from the Ministry of Health, one of the key organizations involved in my invitation to China. I was told that I would be staying at the famous Beijing Hotel and that, in the evening, I would attend my first Chinese banquet with Dr. Cui Yueli, the Minister of Health whom I had met the previous year at Woburn Abbey and who had signed my official invitation letter.

The expressway from the airport to downtown Beijing was only built 10 years later and I enjoyed a beautiful ride on a narrow road lined up with trees. There were only a few cars, obviously no traffic jam, and we made it to the hotel without problems. I was mesmerized by the “sea of bicycles” that were all over the roads. I was told that there were at least two bicycles per family, so around 10 million bicycles in the city at that time and I felt as if they were all in use on my arrival day.  A truly overwhelming feeling so very different from Hong Kong that I had only left a few hours earlier but already looked like a distant past. Thus my “love affair” with China and things Chinese that began  in a bookstore in my native Slovakia is lasting till today.

To be continued ……