Travel Journal Overview: Hidden dreams in amongst a larger reality. That’s what the pyramids of China were like to me. I’d discovered them nearly 10 years previously while starting the research for this overland journey. Mini goals are important. But after 10 years they get a little obsessive.
I called the girls and we all climbed into the cab just as it started to rain, and once it was too late to realize that in the rush we had left our rain coats behind. The journey was only about 30 minutes, just enough to take us to the outskirts of the city. We left the taxi and were bundled into a mini bus full of Chinese. It gave me the distinct feeling we were joining a tour of some kind, and not a regular bus.
“Well this should be interesting…” Chirped Mara as she settled into the small cramped seats. She nodded at the driver and a lady with a microphone. “We’re on a Chinese tour! Weee.”
Grimacing I watched the suited lady on the front seat as she made the microphone squeal in an obligatory high pitched tone. Everything she said was in Chinese and we had no idea where the hell we were headed off to.
“Well at least the bus doesn’t leak!” Having the Slovenians come along was nice, but even after a lengthy discussion about how the day could really bore them, I still felt a little guilty having dragged them out like this. They were both laughing about it and said they had nothing else to do, but I think they were expecting something very different to what I wanted to see.
The Lost Chinese Pyramids were indeed Pyramids. First spotted my a USA military reconnaissance plane after WWII, they were denied by the Chinese government. Local archaeological reports leaked onto the internet stated that the ancient Tombs were being systematically destroyed by grant aided farmers who were sought after to build crops over them. Keeping in mind that they were in the moist and crop laden Shaanxi province, it was easy for the buildings to be destroyed in this manner. There were only a few sources on the internet that gave any concrete evidence of this as the area had been in a forbidden zone for many years. What I did understand from both a little documentation and my own intuition of the Chinese economic boost was that all that could be about to change. What bigger draw could there be to a province than a tourist proclamation of world wonder like Pyramids being discovered in China? With the 2008 Olympic Games China was in full on PR and attract tourists mind set.
Walk into any Chinese book store these days and you will discover where all the self taught books on ‘how to be a tour guide’ have ended up. The Pyramids were a gold mine waiting to happen. The problem I imagine was how to do it after all these years of denial. The Pyramids were official Tombs of ancient leaders, and referred to as that. Though both architecturally and physically they resembled the Egyptian equivalents. Throw in internal bureaucracy such as the department for Archaeology, department for tourism, rural development not to mention all the local government scenarios and you could see why all this was stuck in a state of limbo.
Then there was the conspiracy theorists. Or rather the alternative version of what he pyramids were. If you dig deep enough into Tibetan and Western Chinese history you will come up a light splattering of an alternative purpose to the pyramids. From Alien landing zones to complex astronomical star alignments with the Egyptian pyramids. The underground theories even emerge into the fact that in a remote western part of Tibet there was a documented tribe of people that did not grow above 4ft and had elongated heads linking them to being possible Alien Hybrids. All this had, what is commonly referred to as a hook for me. An adventure in a strange land to photograph what only an handful of people have head about.
The reality was that we were stuck out in the rain on a bus with a screeching speaker system. The Slovenians kept smiling but as we visited the temple of some past emperor and and another of some king the smiles turned to upturned pleasantries. Each temple we entered meant we soaked from the torrential downpour that seemed to be lasting for the day. The flimsy neon colored poncho’s we had bought from a street vendor were worse than bin liners. Ill fitting and very easy to rip.
Our stop at the massive Qianling Tomb at least brought our spirits up a notch. The place was huge, with a massive thirty foot smooth stone road that linked two hills together. Spread along the road were giant stone sculptures of warriors on horse back, kings, emperors and noble people. A headless platoon of stone warriors stood nearby a plinth that symbolized the 7 elements of Sun, Moon, Metal, Wood, Water, Earth and Fire the Empress Wu Zetian said her husband Emperor Gao Zong embodied in his achievements.
The Famen Temple with all it’s true magical Chinese architecture and candle lit halls also worked to help us get through the wet journey. This was made even more tragic when Natashka translated that the the ill spoken lady with the speaker system said there were no pyramids or tombs on the trip, just mausoleums. And that it was a business slash historical private tour of some kind. What Bob had done to get us this tour I had no idea. We headed off into the misty wet down pore towards yet another tomb of little interest to us.
I began to plan ahead and think how I would have to stay behind in Xi’an alone to try once again and locate the Pyramids. Maybe I had to go about ‘hiring’ a special guide with a car. The rain splattered hard against the windows as we drove down a straight well tarmacked but quiet road. The landscape was a lush green, yet the views were shortened my the heavy low lying cloud. In the horizon all I could see were a few trees looming out like dark shadows from the mist and rain. A hill emerged as drew closer as kept on going. It was a lone shadowed hill that stood out alone in an open field. A tall pointed mound with a straight lines. My face burst into an uncontrollable smile.
As the hill drew closer my excitement had me standing up against the bus window and beckoning the Slovenians over. It was as blatantly a pyramid as there ever was one. Not the tallest but at least 100 feet in height, though it was hard to tell from the bus and my sense of height was bad anyway. It didn’t matter. It stood now so close to the road I wanted to tell the bus driver to stop. In fact I wanted to escape the bus and not come back for fear of missing this elusive site. Mara saw this and had Natashka speak with the microphone girl.
“She say we stop soon.”
My mind was rushing with options.
“And,” continued Natashka with a little smile which she knew she’d kept with me, nodded at the pyramid. “Is where the woman says we stop near.”
The rain continued to pelt down as the guide led us and the other 10 Chinese through a stone archway. We were at Maoling Mausoleum, it was a place I had read a little about as being one of the ‘Pyramid Tombs’. It never stuck me as also having many other pyramids around it. But from the ground I could see nothing but a typical Chinese inner temple courtyard. Red wooden door like frames appeared along the garden path that led to an inner house that housed a museum. After a 2 minute frantic walk around I saw no trace of a Pyramid like structure on display and so headed out again. To my right there was a garden with wonderful trees where giant red blossoms bloomed, it attracted Natashka. As we grew nearer an exterior staircase reviled itself leading up to the top of a large steep foliage covered object.
“Ah ha,” mused Mara, “That must be your big pyramid that looks like a grass mound!”
I looked at her with an exasperated expression, “I’ll see you guys at the top.”
There was no way it could have been the same Pyramid we saw coming in. It was isolated, this one had a garden surrounding it. The stone steps were very small, as if built for a baby feet. They were incredibly slippery, made worse by the continuing downpour. There was no banister to hold on to either, but to the sides there was some foliage and pulling at it I made my way quickly to the top.
Larger steps heralded the end of the climb through a red wooden square archway. There was a small ten by ten foot platform at the top which I stood as my eyes met with a vista of green fields ahead of me. Then to my right I saw it. Standing as if it had been a dropped straight from the sky was a huge Pyramid. Covered in brown dried up shrubbery and lined sporadically with pine trees it had become a part of the landscape. To its left and further back I spotted another in the distance, and again another behind that one. I inhaled the damp cold air and then blew it out in a long sigh. Whatever people say, tombs, mausoleum or grassy mounds. There was no mistaking them for being anything else other than Pyramids.
Taking my camera out from its water proof bag I shielded it from the rain. The wind was strong out in the open and it made it difficult to protect the camera from water. I managed some long overdue photographs and with Mara’s help a tourist shot of myself with them in the distance.
“Where are the Chinese?” I asked Natashka, hoping to hear something positive.
Natashka took a second to reply. ” There’re emm. They’re still doing the museum part. I told the guide we were going ahead up here.”
It was what I wanted to hear.
“Well,” interjected Mara, “They’re pyramids alright. Happy now?”
Wincing I looked at them, and then at the step of steps leading down on the other side. “I’m going to have a closer look guys. I have too. It’s too good to pass up.” Then looking back at them and apologized, offering that they might come along too. I didn’t wait, one look from Mara told me that they needed to chat about it first.
I didn’t have the time to wait for a chat in the rain. There was a time limit ticking here. The tour still had to finish the museum, and then make there way up the slippery steps. And then pose for photos. Then make there way down again before heading to the bus. I had time. I had to have time. The steps were as small as the other side but not nearly as slippery. They were still wet though and more than once I slid down several at time. At the bottom there were several stone paths leading off to several little red archways. With only one shot at taking the right path I chose the one that was slightly wider than the rest. It went under the first arch and veered off in a winding manner to the left though some flowering bushes. Then it straightened out to arrive at Chinese style hut. Huge red doors with heavy black iron locking it shut to all.
The path stretched out on either side of the hut like entrance way but ended in a row of pine trees. For a reason I can only put down to instinct I did not stop. Walking quickly to the pine trees on the right I pushed into them. My hands felt the cold wet stone first. Feeling along and then down I realized it was a fence. It didn’t take mush effort to pus further into the branches and climb over the stone fence to the other side. Though in the process my neon orange poncho went through the final process of falling apart.
The rain whipped my face as I looked up at the formidable structure before me. The open grass land meant the wind picked up the rain and helped it get into my every pore. It was about 200ft to the Pyramids base and running without caution I felt like the nerdy amateur archaeologist in the world. People had to have seen me run across the grassy area. Looking back towards the stone stepped mound I suddenly realised that that too was a pyramid. Though a much older looking one that had let trees grow all around its pyramidal structure. At the top there were the red archways. The rain blurred my vision as I searched for an audience. Nobody. The rain was keeping people at bay. If I was breaking the law, the security guards were in hiding and not too pushed. There was no sign of the girls either.
The pyramid was completely covered in brown soil. The sporadic green pine trees seemed well spaced out it was almost screaming to say it had once blatantly covered up by the authorities. I reached out and touched the light brown earth covered slope almost as if confirming if it was real. Damp soil and slippery dead brown grass greeted my fingers. I pushed deeper, more soil, hard and gritty. The words ‘grassy mound’ wouldn’t leave my head. Although this was far from grassy.
It was covered in light brown soil, and the pine trees looked as if they had been planted by man and not nature. Following the base I started to walk around the structure. Its similarity to Egyptian pyramids was striking. They too were burial sites, yet they were ‘pyramids’. It is one of humanity’s epic journeys. Thousands of years ago people came out of the wild and formed civilization along with ritual. Yet these structures rarely made it into the news. I was of course looking for an opening, but none came. Turning the first corner I looked back just in time to see some black dots appear on top of the first mound. The tour was already at the top.
On the other side the view was impressive. It was isolated. Free from any form of modern structures. In the distance and across several miles of grass stood the other pyramid. Graceful and permanent. Again I looked my pyramid up and down. Nothing but brown soil and spread out pine trees. Nothing to indicate solid stone or brick. Up ahead there was a cluster of light brown rocks scattered around the ground. Walking closer I could clearly see that there had been an excavation there at some point. But no entrance. Then as clear as it could be in the heavy grey rain I saw a metal grill in the ground. It had several rocks around it that obscured it from plain sight. Moving closer I lent over to peer down at it.
IT was pitch black behind the rusty iron grill plate. It was locked as well, though the rusty lock did not look like it was worthy of a key any more. Fumbling in my pocket I found my head torch and risking it to the rain I turned the light on. My face lit up into another hardened smile. There behind the grill in the depths of darkness my torch illuminated a smooth stone tunnel complete with steps leading down. My heart filled with dreams of ancient wonders and future adventure when the shrill of my phones message tone brought me back with a bang.
“Sweety, they r about 2 head back down. Wht 2 do?”
It was Mara. My head rocked back and faced the sky. Rain pelted my eyes shut and I drank the sweet water as it fell into my mouth. A distant inner voice recalled a saying. ‘Sometimes it’s better to never reach a goal than to have it.‘
Some related links on this website that you might like: (including a lot more photographs from China)
Stories: Surviving the Riots in Tibet
Resources: All about getting a Tibet Permit / Visa
Resources: How to Guide – Nepal to Tibet Overland