I came to see thousands of life-sized armoured soldiers standing in battle formation, guarding the entrance to a forgotten tomb. Every statue is unique featuring a distinctive expression or stance. The famous Terracotta Army. It’s arguably the greatest archaeological discovery of the 20th century, yet people were staring at me. This is where it all began. The fame. The adoration. Demand for my time.
In rural China blonde hair, blue eyes and fair complexion are the ingredients for attention and quite often it was the locals asking for permission to take a photograph of me or my travel companions, rather than the other way round. Children would stand beside us, giggling nervously during the photograph, before skittering back to their parents. It was an adventure in an unknown culture – for all of us.
En route to Zhongnan Mountain, near Xi’an, we travelled by bus through fertile countryside. We passed a goat-herder with his flock, a young woman balancing a box of strawberries on her bicycle, and an old woman pulling a cart loaded with wares.
It was market day in the villages. Stalls lined narrow streets and a sea of humanity blocked the way. Traffic crawled forward and horns blared in a futile attempt to make stall-owners move. The driver painstakingly manoeuvred the bus, while I bartered for fruit through the window. Eager salesmen were delighted at our absurdly slow progress.
On the sidewalk children threw colourful balls, while old men played checkers. A woman sat at her sewing machine, pausing from work to watch us. She smiled a toothy grin as we waved and called out “Ni hao ma” – how are you?
We came to a detour across a riverbed and promptly got stuck. Standing alongside the road with everyone staring I had the distinct feeling that very few foreigners visit these parts. Women waved, while a farmer trundled slowly by on his horse and cart. He laughed sympathetically at our predicament. Children peered from behind the legs of parents, the brave ones calling out “Ni hao, ni hao” – hello, hello! Ducking back to safety when I responded.
At Zhongnan Mountain we visited Lou Guan Tai Temple, the birthplace of Taoism, a revered and sacred place. The area is home to peasant painters and I watched an old man deftly painting – the sun and flowers, trees and birds. The decorative characters spelt out my name. Another man foretold my good fortune, while a young girl in a pink jacket followed us all the way down the cobblestone pathway to watch us re-board the bus.
At the Great Wall of China my fame diminished. Tourists are common here. But there was still plenty of attention from hawkers. I met Xiao Feng, a 35-year-old woman, who walks the wall seven days a week, three seasons of the year. Her goal is to sell souvenirs and if that meant walking the entire 15 kilometres with me, then so be it.
I didn’t have the heart to ignore her, as I’d been advised by our guide, so I took the opportunity to practice my limited Chinese. At the end of the day, I purchased some souvenirs and asked Xiao Feng if she enjoys working here. Her gaze followed the ancient wall, meandering across the mountains, and she smiled. I knew her answer before she spoke.
“Piao liang,” she laughed. We’d been practising the word “beautiful” all afternoon.
Have you travelled to the remote parts of China? Or somewhere else where the locals were curious about your appearance? I’d love to hear your stories in the comments section below.