It was early Sunday morning when I heard my wife gasp in the
next room. She walked in, her hands to her mouth, obviously quite shaken, and then
I knew. She didn’t have to say anything.
Before leaving on this trip, I had accepted the eventuality
of this happening and considered what to do if it came to pass. Where would I
be, what would I do, my plan of action never really accepted the possibility. Nevertheless,
nothing ever prepares you. Last time we spoke, he sounded quite cheerful,
asking where we were, where we were headed, what we were up to. This was our
usual banter, and I again reminded him that we‘d be seeing him soon in
September. He seemed happy, as he described his adjustment to life at the
assisted living facility, the new friends he met, and the daily exercise
routines to strengthen his body both physically and mentally.
He also enthused about returning home; to the place he spent
the last 60+ years of his life. Our cozy house, where they raised seven
wonderful children, with countless meals shared scrunched together in our tiny
kitchen, our dear departed mother cranking out meal after meal on our
impossibly small oven. For fifty-seven years, he picked up the phone and answered
-‘hello Pfeffer’s’. Through the many years, a familiar and comforting voice
wherever I happened to be.
From Dad I inherited diabetes, his energetic signature, and
a penchant for sweets and second helpings. He loved his family, the Green Bay Packers,
a good bratwurst, super sharp cheddar cheese, an occasional old-fashioned at
Christmas, and Late’s hamburgers. Fondly, I have the same acquired tastes.
Now, I try to recollect that last time we talked. I so regret
not having one last chat, to hang on his every word, to know it would be the
last time we spoke, to say goodbye. Eighty-four years in this world, I only
hope to be so lucky. Know now that he sits on my shoulders, unburdened from his
unwilling body, seeing all the wonderful things we now see, all the while
safely guiding us, as we move around this world.
Had not a farmer dug up pieces of a Terra Cotta Warrior
than water, Xian would not be the major tourist stop that it is today.
Undiscovered for centuries, full-scale excavation began in the 1980’s,
uncovering thousands of unique life sized warriors, intended to guard the
emperor Qin Shi Huang on his journey into the next life. Nowadays, tourist
buses from the railroad station efficiently whisk you to this impressive site
in under an hour.
Consisting of three locations, the largest is the size of a
football field, with trenches dug throughout, like a super sized ant farm.
Within the trenches, thousands of stoic clay warriors, stacked shoulder to shoulder,
stand in an everlasting and dutiful vigil. Just the many years of effort required
to create these figures, with the conscription of thousands of workers, is
quite an impressive feat to ponder. Marvelously engineered, a permanent
structure spans the largest pit, somehow managing to cover the entire area with
not a single column of support.
People are sometimes disappointed when entering the site.
Kept away from the figures, it is actually more of an aerial view where you
look down into the pits from concrete platforms above. Do not expect to stand next
to them and have your picture taken, although certain souvenir shops, for a
fee, will let you pose next to a replica warrior. For an authentic close-up,
visit the Shaanxi
where many of the restored figures are on display. Here, you can get nose to
nose to a patched together warrior and appreciate the effort that went into
deciphering these ancient jumbled humpty dumpty puzzles.
As you leave the Terra Cotta Warrior grounds, you funnel
past a bloated inventory of stores that sell cheap terra cotta warrior
figurines in all shapes and sizes. In keeping with the misguided Chinese
business plan of ‘if we build more stores we’ll sell more products’, recent
construction of uninspiring concrete storefronts sit empty, soon to be filled
by even more merchants hawking – you guessed it – cheap terra cotta warrior
figurines in all shapes and sizes.
Xian, famous for its Terra Cotta Warriors, should also be
for its heat, with temperatures reaching upwards of 108 degrees a few
days we were in town (we were there in late June). As we circled around the six-mile
perimeter of the ancient city walls, the sky opened up and we were caught in a
torrential rainfall, with neither adequate cover nor an obvious escape route. Fortunately,
a couple of local women generously lent us one of their umbrellas, and we
huddled together as we continued to search out for a way out. After all, it was
built to keep the invaders out, so why should it be easy for us to exit?
Other attractions in Xian include the Muslim Quarter, where
you’ll wander through a market of merchandise and down lanes laden with street
food. Splat! Just as a food vendor was cooking up my food, a gigantic bug
landed in the frying pan. Without missing a beat, she flipped it out, shrugged,
and went back to chopping onions. The Forest of Stelae Museum is impressive for
its display of over a thousand inscribed stone tablets, while the Big Goose
Pagoda is Xian’s most famous landmark. We went on an extremely hot day, and the
nearby lake had a fountain show, with showers of water raining mercifully down
on the parched visitors.
We had a few extra days to spend before taking the train to Beijing, and we decided to visit the mountain town of Hua Shan. Oddly, one of
things about this town was the huge bathroom in our hotel room, where an entire
wall was a picture window overlooking downtown and the distant mountain. Known
as the most dangerous mountain in China, you are shocked with an initial steep ascent
in a cable car to a ridge clogged full of tourists jostling their way along
narrow walkways thousands of feet in the air, with sheer drop-offs on either
On the cable car ride up, I had a panic attack as my pulse
quickened and my breathing became shallow, claustrophobic in a metal box swaying
thousands of feet in the air. I have a fear of flying, so getting on a cable
car required a real test of faith. Once on top the mountain, you scramble along
the thin ridges as you make your way around the range of spires and visit the
North, South, East, and West peaks, each affording spectacular views over the
surrounding countryside. Both incredibly beautiful and scary, it rained during
the day, making the granite steps even more treacherous. This mountain required
constant caution, with many passages single file and dangerously steep.
That evening, while walking back to our hotel, we met a
group of seventeen college bound students, who invited us to join them for
dinner at a local restaurant. Although only four of them spoke English, we
delightfully shared a dinner of hotpot, a delicacy where various meat and
vegetable products are dipped in a boiling spicy brew until cooked, then dabbed
in a spicy peanut/tofu sauce. Over many beers and broken conversation, we were
welcomed as if we were old friends. When it came time to pay, they told us it
was their treat!
It was really a magical evening after an exhaustive day of
hiking, one of the most memorable evenings of our thirteen-month trip around
the world. We also ran into a person we met on the bus, sat down, and proceeded
to indulge in a few more local brews, engaging in conversations and enjoying
the locals milling around the food stalls under balmy Chinese skies, the
setting sun accenting the powerful mountain that loomed over the tiny town.
With 3 million people, Xian is a popular stopover on the Shanghai to Beijing
route, and it certainly has sites to see beyond the world famous warriors. Littered
with archeological sites, new ones are discovered and developed every year. We
stayed seven days, and were delightfully entertained, despite the trying and
sobering situation that developed during our visit.
Xian will always be a bittersweet destination on our trip,
the place where we received the news that our father had passed away quite
unexpectedly. You never really know when your last talk with a loved one will
occur, far easier to take for granted that many more will follow, but nothing
is so guaranteed. Delight in every conversation as the precious gift that it is,
and appreciate every word and moment as though it may be the last. Carry on all
aspects of your life to make your parents proud, remember to hug your loved
ones whenever possible, and respect your mother. Most of all, honor thy father.
Rest in peace Pops…