On your second trip to China, venture off the beaten path to places like Gongxian and Qufu
The Great Wall at Badaling, outside Peking, is splendid. But if you really want to experience the wall's enormous length, to relive the centuries through which it has stood guard against the northern barbarians, go to Jiayuguan, some thousand miles westward on the old silk road from China to Persia and Byzantium.Skip to next paragraph
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The life-size terra-cotta army of Qin Shihuangdi, the first emperor of China, is breathtaking. But you might also like to savor a more intimate sense of the splendor and culture of the China of 2,000 years ago by viewing the miniature terra-cotta army in the museum at Xianyang, which is near Xian and which was Shihuangdi's capital.
By all means visit the Ming Tombs on your way to Badaling. But go see the smaller, more charming Sung Tombs standing in the fields outside Gongxian, near Luoyang.
Jiayuguan takes a bit of planning to get to. You would want to combine it with a trip to Dunhuang, which is also on the old silk road and which has one of the world's greatest surviving art treasures - the sculptures and paintings of the caves of Mogao, dating nearly a thousand years from the northern Wei Dynasty (386-534) to the Mongol Yuan Dynasty (1206-1368).
But Xianyang and Gongxian are both quite accessible. I remember catching my breath over a seated bronze Buddha in the courtyard of the museum in Xianyang, with no explanation other than that it dated from the early Ming Dynasty (1368- 1644). To me, it seemed as serene and otherworldly as the great Buddha of Kamakura, Japan, which is about a century earlier.
That, though, is one of the pleasures of a leisurely excursion to China. Once you have ''done'' Peking and Shanghai, Suzhou, Hangzhou, and Guilin, you should come back for a second or a third visit, to break up your China experience into manageable segments so as not to ingest more than you can absorb.
An expedition to Gongxian opens up all sorts of unexpected delights, from the stone elephants, lions, tigers, sheep, and officials lining the ''sacred way'' leading to each tomb, to the northern Wei cave sculptures along the northern bank of the Luo River. The ''sacred way'' has long since been turned into plowed fields worked by peasants with hoe or ox or hand-held tractor. But the statues stand sentinel, mute testimony to the coexistence of centuries in this timeless land.
Unless you are with a large tourist group, your car with the inevitable China travel service guide will be the only intruder in a landscape of straw-hatted peasant and waving barley. The Wei caves must be approached by Jeep, which the travel service will provide, because for much of the way the road is little more than a track.
Northern Wei is the dynasty that accounts for China's first great age of stone sculptures, mostly of Buddhas, bodhisattvas, and apsaras, with idealized features and archaic smiles reminiscent of the Greek kingdoms of Central Asia. Northern Wei's greatest artistic achievements are the Yungang Caves, near Datong , and the Longmen Caves, outside Luoyang.
The caves near Gongxian are much smaller than either of these. They were hollowed out on a hillside overlooking the Luo between AD 517 and 534. The compound surrounding the caves is adjoined by a primary school, and the curator of the caves makes his detailed explanations of the history and characteristics of the Buddhist statues against a continuous background from across the wall of pupils reciting their lessons in high-pitched Chinese tones.