My wife gasped in the next room, then walked in, hands to her mouth, obviously quite shaken. Then I knew – she didn’t have to say anything.
Before leaving on our year-long trip, we had accepted the eventuality of this happening and considered what to do if it came to pass. Where would we be, what would we do – my plan of action never really accepted the possibility.
Nevertheless, nothing ever prepares you. Last time we spoke, my father sounded 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 would 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 was enthusiastic about returning home, back to the place he spent the last 62 years of his life. He looked forward to reside again in our cozy house, where my parents raised seven children, where we shared countless suppers scrunched together in our tiny kitchen, where our mother cranked out meal after meal on our impossibly small oven.
My father always answered the phone the same way – ‘hello Pfeffer’s’. Through many years, it was a familiar and comforting voice wherever we 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, and an occasional old-fashioned at Christmas. Fondly, I have the same acquired tastes.
Now, I try to recollect that last time we talked, and 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.
He survived eighty-four years, as a World War II veteran and proud father – we should all 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 terracotta warrior rather than water, Xian would not be the major tourist stop that it is today. Buried in 210 BC, they lay undiscovered for centuries, until the fateful farmer discovered the remains in 1974.
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 Xian railroad station, efficiently whisk you to this impressive site in under an hour.
The site consists of three locations, with the largest the size of a football field. Trenches are dug throughout, like a super-sized ant farm. Within the trenches, close to 8,000 stoic clay warriors, stacked shoulder to shoulder, stand in an everlasting and dutiful vigil. Along with these warriors are generals, horses, chariots , and other assorted figures.
Thousands of workers (an estimated 700,000) were conscripted to produce these clay warriors – amazingly, no two are alike. An introductory movie re-enacts the period in time when they were produced, and the methods that were used to craft this artifacts. It provides the necessary introduction to the site before you actually view the warriors.
The permanent structure that spans the largest pit is marvelously engineered, as it manages to cover the entire area without a single column of support. My first impression was ‘wow’, this is huge. Still, people are frequently disappointed when first entering, since you are kept away from the figures.
Instead, platforms surround the pits, and you are treated to an aerial view where you look down upon the warriors, from – quite honestly – a goodly distance. Do not expect to stand next to them and have your picture taken, although the souvenir shops, for a fee, will let you pose next to a replica warrior.
For an authentic close-up, visit the Shaanxi History Museum, 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 and jumbled humpty-dumpty puzzles.
As you leave the Terra Cotta Warrior grounds, you funnel past a bloated inventory of stores that sell cheap terracotta warrior figurines in all shapes and sizes. In keeping with the misguided Chinese business plan of ‘if we build more stores we will sell more products’, recent construction of uninspiring concrete storefronts sit empty, soon to be filled by even more merchants hawking – you guessed it – cheap terracotta warrior figurines in all shapes and sizes.
Xian, famous for its Terracotta Warriors, should also be famous 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 the six-mile perimeter of the ancient city walls – began in 190 BC and completed in the 14th century- 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?
Shuyuan Gate opens to an interesting stretch of merchants which line the restored buildings along the atmospheric flagstone walkway. If you are looking for jade, original artwork (be careful, everyone claims their art is original), or other Chinese artifacts, this is probably the best place to linger. We also walked over to an area of Xian where antique dealers spread their wares in alleyways – although it is tough since no one spoke English.
Other attractions in Xian include the iconic Bell Tower (14th century), which marks the center of town, and the adjacent Drum Tower, which used to signal the 24 hours of the day.
The Muslim Quarter, home of the Great Mosque (the oldest in China -742 AD), begins behind the Drum Tower. Here, street merchants sell knick-knacks and cheap clothing in an open-air bazaar, while down Muslim Street, cooks of varying skill create cheap snacks.
As I stood salivating over my frying stuffed crepe, pointing out which ingredients to be added – splat! – a gigantic bug flopped into my onions. Without missing a beat, the cook 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 Buddhist Big Wild Goose Pagoda is Xian’s most famous landmark. We went on an extremely hot day, and the nearby lake had a fountain show (supposedly the largest in Asia), with showers of water raining mercifully down on the parched visitors.
With eight 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 (Xian claims 800 royal mausoleums), there are new ones discovered and developed every year.
Xian will always be remembered as a bittersweet destination, the place where we received news that my father had passed away unexpectedly. You never really know when your last talk with a loved one will occur. It is far easier to take for granted that many more will follow. However, nothing is 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.
Above all, honor thy father. Rest in peace Pops…