Standing at the airport arrival gates, I scan the throng of faces. My heart races. I hop from one leg to another like an excited child. Finally, my friends emerge. We’re on the adventure of a lifetime.
Row after row of larger-than-life terracotta warriors stand in the pit. Every single face is different. Originally brightly painted, they were once a fearsome sight for any would-be grave robber.
The pits of warriors have yet to be fully excavated and repaired. During one of many peasant uprisings over two millennia ago, the wooden supporting beams of the caverns containing the armies were set alight. Now the mighty army lies in ruins.
Central to the pits is a huge green mound, under which lies the tomb of the first emperor of China. Folklore suggests that the emperor’s body lies embalmed, floating on a lake of mercury, in a cavern studded with diamonds and other jewels. He was well prepared for the afterlife. Modern scientists are somewhat less prepared to deal with a lake of mercury.
The emperor’s body may decay in majesty, but what of his soul? Meaningless….
Traveling southwest, we ascend the Tibetan plateau. We walk across a rickety wooden bridge, covered with prayer flags flapping noisily in the breeze. Rosy-cheeked kids in bright clothing surround us. Their parents are devout pilgrims who spin prayer wheels as they trudge countless times around the Labrang monastery.
Inside the monastery, hundreds of men attend class or carry out other duties. We watch purple robed monks practise traditional dance in the bright sunlight, rhythmically clanging cymbals as accompaniment. The treeless hills visible over the gold roofed temple form an impressive backdrop.
Suddenly a horn is blown. The men quickly scramble up the steps of the temple. The fully-qualified monks boast bright yellow hats – this is, after all, the ‘Yellow Hat’ sect of Tibetan Buddhism. All the monks leave their black boots rimmed with red or yellow on the steps outside. How they identify their own boots afterwards is a mystery.
Being tourists, we are allowed to enter the temple by a side door, having agreed to ‘No picturing, no spitting, don’t make noise’.
Such devout men, who have given up so much for their faith…. Such devout pilgrims, who endure significant hardship to earn merit for the afterlife…. And so meaningless….
Descending the Tibetan plateau, we turn west again. Weary, we arrive late in the day at an oasis town of the Gobi desert.
Our guide wakes us early in the morning and leads us through the darkness. We mount camels, joined together by chains. “Relax”, our guide urges, “or you’ll be sorry tomorrow!” Jerking up in two NOT smooth movements, our camels begin the trek across wave after wave of golden sand dunes, bathed in the brilliant colours of a desert sunrise.
Three hours later, saddle sore, we arrive at the Mogao grottoes – 429 caves of magnificent Buddhist art. The paintings were commissioned by wealthy traders who wished to purchase the favour of the gods. The caves were sealed up about 1600 years ago, as marauding Moslem armies advanced, forcing local people to convert to Islam.
Such devout artists…. Such devout traders…. Yet so meaningless.
Our camel-raw backsides gingerly perch on seats as we travel further west on planes, trains and vans. Finally we come to the literal high point of our trip – the ‘roof of the world’. We stop on the slopes of Mt Muztagata, its peak towering above at 7546 metres (24757 feet). The wind cuts right through us, blasting off the glaciers which slowly feed the cobalt blue lake.
Traders surround us – Kazaks, Kirghiz, Tajiks, and Uzbeks, identifiable by their different hats. They spend the summer in yurts erected not far from where the tourists stop. Their yaks graze peacefully on the grass that grows during the warmer months in these treeless heights.
These traders and graziers come from different people groups, but all worship Allah and work hard to survive in this harsh landscape. And none have heard the gospel. What eternal meaning do their lives have? Meaningless….
Back at lower altitudes, I stand at the departure gates of Urumqi’s airport. It is time to return to my busy life in a crowded city. The holiday is over, but the adventure continues.
Without Christ, in any culture or era, life is ultimately meaningless. We who have the gospel have a responsibility … and we’re on the adventure of a lifetime.
Who knows where that adventure will take us?
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