I always knew that one of my books was going to be about the flow of knowledge and ideas between China and India. As is my usual pattern, I invested almost a year in my research: reading books, articles, and papers that would enable me to build the historical narrative around this ancient relationship. But once I was done, I knew that the final part of my research would be to visit the key places that figured in my story.
The first leg of the journey was on a flight from Mumbai to Beijing. Accompanied by my wife and son, we took a high-speed train to Xi’an, China’s ancient capital, and then another Hexie Hao gliding along at 350 km/hr to Luoyang. Our last stop in mainland China was Shanghai, from where we proceeded to Hong Kong and then back to Mumbai. The itinerary sounded strange to those who had already visited China; most people usually do the Beijing-Shanghai circuit and supplement it with Suzhou, Hangzhou, Chengdu or Zhangjiajie. Others go to Huangshan, Guilin, Yunnan, Tibet or Xiamen. However, my route was not determined by tourist cities, but by specific locations that were part of the book’s narrative.
Much like India, China is a box of assorted chocolates. You could keep going because there is so much to see, and even after seeing much of it you would realize that there is a massive gap in what you’ve covered. So I divided my list of places into ‘must-see’ and ‘nice-to-see’, the former key to the narrative of my new novel and the latter only incidental to the story.
Thus the first stop on my must-see list was the Terracotta Army in Shaanxi province. These are around 8,500 life-size clay figures of soldiers, chariots and horses that were buried along with the first emperor of unified China, Qin Shi Huang, more than two millennia ago. This stunning work remained hidden until it was accidentally discovered in 1974. The sculptures turned out to be even more magnificent than the pictures I had seen, and one could easily spend an entire day here. Each figure has been fabricated in realistic detail, with subtle variations in facial and physical attributes.
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