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Jia Jia and the Warriors, a short story from China.

Jia Jia and the Warriors a short story from China

Jia Jia and the Warriors, a short story from China.

After a prolonged period of stability, I finally bid farewell to Belgium in the summer of 2009. Uninspired by life in grey, uneventful Brussels, my girl and I headed off to China for an unforgettable year of teaching and traveling.

The slow train from Beijing to Pingyao was a long, plodding, twelve hour slog. We could have paid a bit more and cut that time in half. But it was the start of our grand farewell trip and we figured there was plenty of time. Having gone for the overnight train, we also reckoned seven to eight hours of bunk bed sleep would wipe out most of the journey. And so it proved.

I was feeling awfully reflective as we chugged out of the capital towards the final chapter of our Chinese adventure. Despite her disappointment that I was leaving, Trudy had been really gracious during my final weeks. In fact, she helped us sort out our train tickets and even threw a school party to ensure I departed to great fanfare.

A number of parents came to see me off too. Hence Trudy asked me to make a speech and formally introduce my replacement, Joanna from London. One of my students, Nina, burst into tears and hugged me so tightly I thought she might self-combust.

Jia Jia and the Warriors a short story from China.

My final week at school. With Cathy, Jack, Monster Frank and Kevin.

Jia Jia and the Warriors, a short story from China.

And then there was my teaching assistant Nini and her boyfriend Kevin. On my final day they presented me with a farewell present, a beautiful piece of framed Chinese dragon art. I felt particularly touched by this, especially as Nini and I had a rough time of working together in the beginning. Putting all those cultural conflicts and miscommunications to one side, I had grown really fond of Nini. Now, I could’t help but feel guilty about all the times I’d gotten snappy with her. “Keep in touch Leighton!” gushed Trudy. “Maybe one day we will meet again”.

No chance, I remember thinking.

Jia Jia and the warriors a short story from China-

Saying goodbye to Kevin and Nini. May 2010.

The ancient city of Pingyao sits in Shanxi province, eighty kilometres from the region’s capital, Taiyuan. We knew this place was special the moment we read about it online. UNESCO World Heritage status? Yup! One of the best-preserved city walls in all of China? Check! 

On arrival at the train station we jumped into a cycle rickshaw. Within minutes we found ourselves clunking through a network of twisting hutongs, packed full of traditional Qing Dynasty buildings.

Harmony Guesthouse Pingyao China.

Harmony Guesthouse, Pingyao.

Our Pingyao base was Harmony Guesthouse, a three hundred year old building with traditional rooms set around a stone courtyard. On arrival we were greeted personally by the friendly owner, Jackie Deng, a local man who spoke decent English.

“Hey, welcome to Harmony!”

he said softly, with an easygoing smile. “You guys look like you need breakfast”. He wasn’t wrong.

Jackie Deng Harmony Guesthouse Pingyao.

Jackie Deng, Harmony Guesthouse.

Fed, watered and highly expectant, S and I spent the rest of the day meandering around Pingyao’s sights. An incredibly chilled atmosphere prevailed, from the old man sleeping in a chair outside a craft shop to the mother and daughter quietly sewing traditional shoes from handmade cloth. Deep in concentration, the older woman momentarily lifted her head to smile at us before returning to her work.

Traditional shoemakers Pingyao China

Traditional shoemakers, Pingyao.

Jia Jia and the Warriors, a short story from China.

There were a number of amazing florists around town. Not the typical kind with plants and bouquets, but dusty workshops overflowing with grand, multi-coloured floral wheels attached to wooden tripods. On closer inspection some of the arrangements weren’t real flowers, but paper creations. Jackie Deng later told us that these are traditional tributes for funerals. I’d never seen anything like them. 

Funeral wreaths florist Pingyao Shanxi Province

Pingyao, China.

Everything in Pingyao seemed to move in slow motion. Strolling in and out of its narrow side streets, we came across an old woman beating the world’s grimiest rug against the side of her house. Elsewhere, a smiley man unloaded blocks of coal from a metal wagon. He even seemed to pose for me as I discreetly photographed him from the other side of the road. I guess he’d seen it all before.

Charcoal briquettes Pingyao Shanxi Province China

Jia Jia and the Warriors, a short story from China.

Reaching the old town’s ramshackle outer streets, we soon stumbled upon the unlikely sight of a Christian church. It was a thoroughly charming little building with a stark interior, its faded walls and wooden benches crying out for a lick of paint. The ever-knowledgeable Mr. Deng explained that two percent of Pingyao’s thirty thousand residents were Christian and that Sunday services were well attended. Not that we saw a single soul on the day of our visit. 

Christian church Pingyao Shanxi Province China

Christian Church, Pingyao.

Jia Jia and the Warriors, a short story from China.

Just a few yards from the church I found an intricately carved stone wall. It was a dense and dusty structure depicting dragons and serpents battling it out across a bubbling river. The imagery was quite fearsome, oozing an atmosphere of foreboding and dread. With no plaque or indeed online information to enlighten me further, I turned to Jackie for more info. But sadly even he was clueless about its backstory. 

Dragon wall Pingyao Shanxi Province China

The mysterious dragon wall, Pingyao.

It was late afternoon when we bought our tickets to enter the city walls. Dating back to 1370, the six-kilometer pathway goes all the way around town. The route is punctuated by seventy two watchtowers, each with really impressive views of Pingyao’s curvy-roofed skyline.

Moreover, we discovered a series of dramatic bronze sculptures. From chattering tradesmen, shooting archers and elegant horses, to a pair of weapon-wielding warriors in mid battle, we loved them all! 

Ancient city wall sculptures Pingyao China.

The ancient city walls, Pingyao.

Some of the watchtowers contained paragraphs of Sun Tzu’s ancient text The Art Of War, a highly influential book that went on to shape eastern and western military thinking. Peeking down at traditional townhouse courtyards and gardens across the city, it was impossible not to feel the weight of history as we made our way. 

Visit Pingyao China.

The ancient city walls, Pingyao.

Jia Jia and the Warriors, a short story from China.

By late afternoon we’d built up quite an appetite. The restaurant we ended up in was a tiny joint with a huge picture menu. Having settled down at one of their tables, the owner came over and handed me a giant bamboo stick. “Urggh!” he growled, gesticulating towards the board. And that’s how we ordered, banging the stick against the desired picture.

Jia Jia and the Warriors a short story from China.

Bamboo stick ordering, Pingyao.

The menu had some wonderfully botched translations. From a bowl of fried green vegetables called The Great Rape, to a stew-like dish called Potato Burns The Pork. There was also a stir-fry dish called Ambiguous that looked every bit as indistinct as it sounded. The pick of the bunch though had to be a meat-veg-rice concoction named You, the surface, the ancient times rich man entertained visitor’s highest food. So ridiculous we simply had to order it.

Leighton Travels travel reports short stories. 

As pretty as Pingyao was, we were able to cover its main sights in a day. Thus the next morning we hired some bicycles and cycled out to the nearby Shuanglin Temple. It was a hairy eight and a half kilometres of bumpy road and we had to weave and wobble between cars, motorbikes, pedicabs and ambling locals.

Jia Jia and the Warriors a short story from China.

On the way to Shuanglin Temple.

Eventually the main road gave way to a pretty, tree-lined street full of market traders. “Hellooooooo!” they called, in what sounded like their best Mrs Doubtfire impressions. “Ni haaaaaaaaoo” we responded. As usual, this produced long bouts of giggling and pointing. In truth, I had long grown bored of this repertoire. But on that morning I was in fine spirits and therefore more than happy to be such a rich source of entertainment.

Entrance road to Shuanglin Temple Pingyao Shanxi Province China

The leafy approach to Shuanglin Temple.

Jia Jia and the Warriors, a short story from China.

It was chaotically busy at the temple, with people running around in all directions. Much to our surprise, we learned that it was the birthday of Kwan Yin, a resident Buddha. The locals were offering prayers and burning incense sticks in huge numbers, a steady stream of smoke wafting up into the morning sky.

Dating back to The Song Dynasty, Shuanglin Temple is a diminutive structure stuffed with a staggering two thousand sculptures in various states of peeling decay. After some searching, we found Kwan Yin, nicknamed The One Thousand Hand Buddha, out in the main courtyard. On closer inspection however we realized he only actually had twenty two hands. Boo, etc. 

One thousand hand buddha Shuanglin Temple Pingyao Shanxi Province China

The so-called One Thousand Hand Buddha, Shuanglin Temple.

Kwan Yin’s birthday celebrations stretched out around the surrounding area and included a sizeable clothing and food market. The aromas were absolutely mouth watering, with every conceivable Chinese dish on offer. Not to mention some inconceivable ones too.

Noodle Soup Vendor Food Market Shuanglin Temple Pingyao Shanxi Province China

Noodle soup vendor near Shuanglin Temple.

Passing up the tempting offers of bugs-on-a-stick and fried chicken heads, we ultimately went for two bowls of Cha Ge Dou, a delicious noodle soup with egg, tomato, onions and beef shavings. The dough (roughly translated as newt-like noodle), was flattened, grated and dropped into the stock right in front of us by the hardworking vendor. And of course, it was absolutely delicious! 

Cha Ge Dou Newt like noodles Pingyao Shanxi Province China

Cha Ge Dou, Pingyao’s famous newt-like noodles.

“So what do you think of Pingyao?” Jackie asked us, back at Harmony.

We were checking out, backpacks at our feet, a pedicab waiting outside to shuttle us off to the train station. “It’s been really chilled!” I replied, realising that this isn’t an adjective typically used to describe Chinese cities. “Perfect” he smiled, handing me our change. “Because you know, Ping literally means peace and Yao is relaxation”.


The night train from Pingyao to Xian took eleven hours. That aforementioned peace and relaxation was conspicuous in its absence as we arrived at Xian’s crazy train station. Consequently, I felt relieved when we spotted the girl from Shu Yuan Youth Hostel and she promptly whisked us away.  Unfortunately, the jarring, smoky, honking minibus ride through Xian’s urban sprawl failed to provide any relief.

Jia Jia and the Warriors a short story from China.

Arrival at Xian Railway Station.

Even the hostel itself was bustling, with just about every nationality under the sun crammed into the communal lounge. The walls were rattling with the sound of animated chatter, colliding pool balls and clinking beer bottles. Hence we opted to give the place a miss and head straight out into the city. 

Jia Jia and the Warriors, a short story from China.

We kicked things off with a visit to Xian’s fascinating Muslim quarter, home to the ethnic Hui community. A network of interlocking lanes and streets, the neighbourhood was all about food. There were noodle carts and stir-fry hole-in-the-wall joints. Moreover, we passed a string of open-air butchers, juice stalls and a pair of friendly brothers baking Arabic bread from a giant metal stove.

Muslim Quarter Xian.

The Muslim Quarter, Xian.

Amid all these culinary delights stood The Great Mosque, China’s largest place of Muslim prayer. Happily, it was open to visitors and free to enter (the only such mosque in China). While we couldn’t actually step inside the main hall, it was still great to stroll around the gardens with its carved stonework, wooden arches, Qing dynasty furniture and Islamic art.

The Great Mosque Xian.

The Great Mosque, Xian.

Photo courtesy of chensiyuan.

The main reason we’d come to Xian was to see its world famous Terracotta Army, a collection of ancient warrior sculptures dating back to 210–209 BCE. That evening we booked a tour through the hostel, which left early the next morning at a bright and breezy 8:00am. Our guide was a bubbly Chinese girl who called herself Jia Jia. “Welcome to my tour! Mmm” she told us.

“You peoples is very lucky, mmm. You know, today we will see some of China’s best treasures”. 

There were ten of us piled into a small minivan. Along the way, we stopped at The Tomb of Emperor Jingdi, a smaller excavation site where twenty one narrow pits display a varied range of ancient relics. The Tomb sits within a grand old stone museum, where an introductory hologram gives visitors a playful character profile on Emperor Jingdi. By all accounts he was a decent chap who lowered taxes, cut down on frivolous military expenditure and was far less murderous than other emperors of the era. 

Portrait Emperor Jingdi Xian China

Emperor Jingdi, an alright guy.

A dreary exhibition followed featuring various pots and pans discovered within the site. And then it was time to descend into the pits for a look at the tombs themselves. A series of glass walkways and open balconies provided an up-close-and-personal look at the pits and their ancient occupants. 

Tomb of Emperor Jingdi Xian.

Tomb of Emperor Jingdi, Xian.

Inside, lay hundreds of armless and mostly naked figurines embedded into the stone. Some of them were soldiers and servants, others eunuchs and elegant women on horseback. While hardly an earth-shattering display, we found it interesting enough. A nice warmup act, I hoped, before the more dramatic sight of the terracotta warriors. 

“You know, Emperor Qin Shi Huang was a bad man… mmm… some might say crazy!”

We were zooming down the motorway again, our eccentric tour guide keeping her subjects more than entertained. “Emperor Qin Shi Huang make many people slaves… mmm. He hate Confucianism so much he ban it… mmm. Any scholar who speak out against him he bury alive… mmm”.

Emperor Qin Shu Huang Terracotta Warriors Xian Shaanxi Province China

Emperor Qin Shi Huang, a bit of a twat.

“But he did some good stuff too, right?” interjected a stiff-looking German man from the back of the van. “Mmm yes!” grinned Jia Jia, swinging her microphone around playfully. “Qin Shi Huang evil but not stupid, mmm. He create first central government, mmm. Standardise currency… build many roads… mmm. He also give green light for Great Wall construction. So you know… as you say in English… he put in a good shift! Ha ha!!! Mmm”. 

Another amazing thing Emperor Qin Shi Huang did during his reign was to commission the building of a vast army of stone warriors. “Qin Shi Huang always think about death… paranoia mmm”, explained Jia Jia.

He kill many people and think that when he die, those spirits come to get him… mmm”. 

“So he build terracotta army for bury with him when he die… mmm. That way, he have guardians to protect him and kill his enemies. He also think he can continue to rule from grave! He fucking crazy! Mmm”.


Jia Jia and the Warriors, a short story from China.

At long last we arrived at the Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor, home to the terracotta warriors. Jia Jia personally took us around the three underground pits containing the remains of Qin Shi Huang’s insane project. First up was Pit 2, a dimly lit warehouse divided into four sections by a raised, crucifix-shaped wall. Most of the stone soldiers on display were cracked and shattered, if not completely destroyed.

Terracotta Warriors Xian China Pit 3 Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor

The Terracotta Warriors, Pit 2.

Nevertheless, the level of detail was impressive, with Jia Jia explaining that no two warriors were exactly alike. And right enough there were subtle differences among the figurines, from their hairstyles and expressions to the type of footwear worn. “This one is a general!” cried Jia Jia, pointing to a particularly aggressive looking warrior. 

“In ancient China big belly and bushy moustache considered very handsome!”

This was the cue for Kentucky Derek, a former U.S. soldier, to chip in. “Well… one out of two ain’t bad”, he laughed, patting his stomach. “Mmmm” replied Jia Jia and we all had a good laugh.

Next up was the u-shaped Pit 3, which contained seventy two warriors and horses. “Many warriors not finished!” explained Jia Jia, with a knowing smile. “When the emperor die, project was abandon and the pits closed, mmm. The workers so relieved! Because many of them got buried by emperor to protect his secret project, mmm”.

Terracotta Warriors Xian China Pit 2 Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor

The Terracotta Warriors, Pit 3.

Saving the best for last, Jia Jia led us into the spectacular Pit 1, the site’s largest space and home to around two thousand statues! It was quite a sight, a vast expanse of east-facing figurines dramatically poised for battle.

Terracotta Warriors Xian China Pit 1 Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor

The Terracotta Warriors, Pit 1.

“The warriors were discovered in 1974 by a peasant man Yang Xinman”, explained Jia Jia, as we all gazed out across the pit. “You know, Chinese government paid him only 10RMB for his discovery, mmm”.  “But I think he had interesting life because of this…mmm. He met many people from all over the world, such as The Clintons mmm”.

The Terracotta Warriors China.

Jia Jia and the Warriors, a short story from China.

“If you want meet him he is here today mmm… to sign books and answer questions!” We exited Pit 1 into the adjoining gift shop and there he was, stationed at a desk. He must have been in his mid seventies, a studious looking man dressed in a smart black shirt. He had a pen in his hand, ever-ready to scribble down his signature for anyone who cared to have it.

Yang Xinman discoverer of The Terracotta Warriors.

Yang Xinman, discoverer of The Terracotta Warriors.

Jia Jia and the Warriors, a short story from China.

Jia Jia’s incredible enthusiasm and energy ensured the drive back to the hostel flew by. She cracked jokes and, with much gusto, sang us a traditional Chinese song. She asked us all where we were from and about our upcoming travel plans. Upon hearing that S was Dutch, Jia Jia got particularly animated.

Jia Jia and the Warriors a short story from China

Jia Jia and her clogs.

“Oooh! I love Dutch people, mmm!” she exclaimed, digging around in her bag. “A few weeks ago Dutch girl give me these!” she beamed, producing two pairs of model clogs. “So cool! I also love windmill, mmm. And the orange football shirt, mmm. People always on the bicycles, mmm. Those crazy city rivers very narrow. The buildings look like might fall over, mmm”.

‘Jia Jia and the Warriors’ is the sixteenth tale from my short story series Challenged in China.

I’ve also written hundreds of travel reports from all across China.

I’ve been living, working and traveling all over the world since 2001. So why not check out my huge library of travel reports from over 30 countries.

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  • Mary Phillips

    It must be really fun for you to relive these travels and visits in China. I certainly enjoyed the Xian part. Thanks.

    March 5, 2017 - 10:48 pm Reply
    • leightonliterature

      Thanks Mary, yes it’s a really rewarding process. Just one more China story to go for this series.

      March 5, 2017 - 11:39 pm Reply
  • arielaonthego

    I love your stories, very informative!

    August 19, 2020 - 12:22 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Thank you very much! Hope you enjoy the rest of the series.

      August 19, 2020 - 1:01 am Reply
  • Memo

    Xian was my favorite city in China. I especially liked the Muslim market and the ancient walls around the city.

    August 19, 2020 - 1:50 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Affirmative on both counts! The food in The Muslim Quarter was amazing.

      August 19, 2020 - 8:49 am Reply

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