Friday, December 31, 2010

Great Wall of China and Ming Tombs

“He who has not climbed the Great Wall is not a true man.” Mao Zedong

The buses were in front of our hotel and waiting for our 7:30 a.m. departure to the Great Wall of China. We ran the “Ha-low” gauntlet to board the bus and settled in for the hour+ ride out to the wall. This is what our family had been waiting for – sure we wanted to see the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square – but the Great Wall? That was the quintessential image of China – I’d seen it in magazines, picture books, it was even in the opening image of one my all time favorite kids movies “Mulan.” Wrenn, my daughter, sat next to me that morning and she glanced at me at one point with the expression of “who are you?” on her face. I was so excited – I was uncharacteristically giddy. I told her I was sorry (I think I was freaking her out a bit) but that I’d seen pictures of The Great Wall and of course had thought to myself that it’s magnificent, but it wasn’t even a dream of mine to come to China and see it because I’d never even thought it would be in the realm of possibilities. And yet, here I was, sitting on a bus traveling with my family to experience something I’d never even thought possible (I know, there’s a lesson in there for me).

We arrived early, and boarded the ropeway to the top and had two hours to explore the Great Wall. It wasn’t exactly a picture perfect day – it was hazy – but while it started out a bit brisk, by the time we were all walking on the wall, we were shedding our layers and for a few, brief moments the sun broke through the. My family took off – setting a goal of reaching a far off gate. I decided to take my time, I would not be here again and I wanted to take in every, single minute. A couple of things struck me; one was that it was really quiet out there, of course it was November not exactly the height of the tourist season, but after the hustle and bustle of Beijing it was very peaceful (I understand however that if you come in the summer it is anything but quiet, more like a carnival atmosphere with hoards of tourists); another thought was that the United States is a toddler in World History, well maybe more like an infant. This original wall was started 2000 years ago (221 B.C.). With a country so rich and deep in culture, no wonder our two countries can have culture-clashes at times. It makes me want to learn more about China, with it’s population at over one billion people and it’s emergence as a world power I’m thinking we’d all better know a lot more about this country.

I did eventually meet up with my family, after climbing more than 400 steps up a steep incline to the northern most point where you could explore the wall (you can only traverse certain renovated sections of the wall). Jeff was already sipping a beer he bought from one of the vendors – he asked if I would like one and just at that moment all the vendors quickly packed up their wares and vanished over the “do not enter” sign to the off-limits section of the wall. We tourists stood there looking around wondering what just happened, when someone spotted a figure hiking up through the brush off to the side of the wall. We all surmised that a guard must be headed our way and these vendors weren’t exactly “approved” for selling their goods on a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Noting the time, we headed back – each family member at their own pace. I wanted to savor, I wanted to try and not forget a single moment. When we were stateside and oblivious to the fact that the military would one day send us to live overseas, our trips consisted only of places we could drive to – exclusively on the East Coast. Jeff and I would sometimes refer to these trips as “Scouting Expeditions” – as in, we’re here to gather information so that when we come back we’ll know what to come back and see. Our trips in Asia have a different mindset – these are onetime deals, at least for me – hopefully our children will be able to come back to some of these places with their kids … a long, long time from now. So the approach is somewhat different and when I leave a site, like the Great Wall, it is bittersweet. I’m so incredibly thankful I’ve had the chance to have the experience, but sad at the same time knowing I will not pass this way again.

We boarded the buses and headed for our next destination a Cloisonne Factory/lunch. Seeing the Cloisonne being made through the windows of the factory was interesting and we were able to get in a bit of power-shopping and purchase some gifts for our friends and family back home. And then we were off and running again, next destination – the Ming Tombs.

Ming Tombs
This is the final resting place for 13 of the 16 Ming emperors. We stopped first at the Spirit Way, passing through the Great Palace Gate and by a giant bixi (a mythical tortoise-dragon-like animal). The Spirit Way is lined with 12 sets of stone animals (sitting and standing) and officials. Along the path are beautiful weeping willow trees, which were in abundance both in and around Beijing. With all of the leaves off of the deciduous trees, these sweeping flowing beauties offered a bit of welcome color to the landscape and I loved them – making a mental note that one day, I wanted a garden with a weeping willow tree that would remind me of China.

Another long day, but it was a great day with the highlight of course being the Great Wall. So much to think about and ponder on the bus ride back to the hotel, more great stories and information from our guide, George, which I’ll save for my final Beijing entry. Till next time, sayonara.

Beijing Trip

Our first day full day in Beijing started off with an 8 a.m. bus pickup, first stop Tiananmen Square but before getting on the bus though we had to run a gauntlet of the Ha-low People.

“Ha-low, ha-low … you buy Panda?”
Here is yet another Asian culture vastly different from Japan, to encounter someone here in Japan that would be literally shoving things in your face and saying “Ha-low, ha-low – you buy? Very good price!” is absolutely unheard of. The Ha-low people clearly know where the foreigners are staying and if I could think of a stronger word than aggressive to describe their tactics I would. Sunglasses are very handy in this instance – do not, as our guide George warned us, do not make eye contact, unless you want to buy something. And bargain – you must. At one point I said to Jeff “you need to bargain” and he said “but Jane, it’s only $5” and my response was that’s not the point, they expect you to bargain. I don’t like to bargain – I’d rather just not buy it, suddenly whatever it was I thought would be interesting to have is no longer worth it. Jeff on the other hand is too left brained – he’s just making the calculation in his computer brain and thinking this is a deal compared to what we’d pay back home. A good bargaining team, we do not make. Again, our guide George was great for giving us parameters – he said take the price and cut it in half, then cut it in half again – and walk away, they’ll come after you if they can still sell it for a profit. That first hat we bought for one of our sons, we paid way too much for – even if it did only convert to $5.

Tiananmen Square

The world’s largest square, Mao conceived it as a square to project the enormity of the Communist Party. Mao is entombed in a building on the square and the Chinese people are still very devoted to him. The line to see his tomb can at times be up to 2 miles in length (see photo at left). Again, thank goodness George briefed us, the Ha-low People were out here too, although not quite as aggressive as those in front of our hotel. We had time to wander the square, wander among the hordes of other tourists. There are two gigantic flat screens showing scenes from across China. One of my sons remarked about the propaganda and I questioned why propaganda? I thought the photography was beautiful and why shouldn’t a country show what’s good about them for all to see? I could envision sweeping vistas of the Grand Canyon, Rocky Mountains, Big Sur, towering Sequoias, and Acadia on huge flat screens on The Mall in DC (for all I know they have that now) of course there would probably be some sort of “sponsored by” ad at the end and the foundation the screen would sit on would have the Apple logo or whomever provided it (hopefully a U.S. owned company?). We took the requisite pictures with the portrait of Mao hanging in the background from the Gate of Heavenly Peace. I’m not sure what I was expecting, a place that I’d seen on tv with so much turmoil – the picture of the lone student standing defiantly in front of the tank. My children asked me what happened to him … and I honestly don’t know (but I’ll be looking it up just after I get this entry completed). Our guide referred to this period as “the incident.” I did not have the gumption (or would it be audacity?) to ask him if that was the Chinese party line speaking. I always think of it as the “student uprising.” The word ‘incident’ I’m sure translates well but doesn’t exactly convey how the rest of the world was riveted by what was occurring in China at the time. Incident makes it sound like a Chinese tank bumped into a telephone pole.

Forbidden City
We made our way towards the Gate of Heavenly Peace, for centuries only the Emperor could use the central door and bridge to enter into the Forbidden City. There are over 1000 rooms in the Forbidden City. If you visited a different room everyday, it would take you just over two and a half years to see all the rooms – it is massive. The amount of information thrown at us was equally massive. I quickly went into “information overload.” While I found the information fascinating at the time, there was so much to take in, the historical significance of a building, the architectural details, that I found later I had a hard time keeping it all. What follows is the “best of” what I can remember. We had a packed day – Tiananmen Square, Forbidden City and the Summer Palace … so we were moving at a fairly good pace and there’s only so much information this brain can apparently absorb in an 8-hour time span.

Interesting Tidbits about the Forbidden City
• There are no trees inside the walled area of the outer court. This was a strategic decision, so that no enemies could hide in the trees. • The outer court is composed of 15 layers of bricks set in a criss-cross pattern to prevent enemies from digging up into the Forbidden City. • There are large, or maybe I should say mammoth, metal containers stationed around the different buildings – these were fire protection containers. • Emperors could have a thousand or more concubines and there were an equal number of eunuchs that would attend to them, safely ensuring only the Emperor himself would be able to get a concubine pregnant. Other than the Emperor himself, the eunuchs were the only other men allowed to live within the Forbidden City. • Rooftop ornaments led by an official riding a rooster – the story goes that an official of the Emperor’s court brought shame upon the Emperor, who then promptly cast the official to always ride a rooster. The importance of the building determines how many of the rooftop ornaments will be on top (as you will see in my photos, I loved these characters and I tried to only select a few from my expansive photo gallery featuring these guys). • Yellow was the color of Imperial Family, all the rooftop tiles of the Emperor’s buildings were yellow. • The buildings are painted vermillion which represents strength. • Only the Emperor could wear the color yellow – in all of China, not just inside the Forbidden City.

Mental Cultivation Hall – Temporary lodgings were provided here for the Empresses and Concubines, who could only visit upon personal invitation of the Emperor to attend to his “needs.” I am sure there was so much more to the information that was provided that day, but this, along with the fact that the some Emperors had as many as 2000 concubines and the beautiful architecture diverted my attention.

Our last stop on the tour that day was the Summer Palace, a good 45 minute bus ride from the Forbidden City, winding our way through the notoriously slow Beijing traffic. George, our guide, was really fabulous during these rides to keep us informed on not just what we would be seeing but also on day to day things like how he met his wife (through his mom, who worked with his future wife). Why there are few dogs in Beijing … he brought just the right amount of levity, knowing what Westerner’s say and no, it’s not because they eat them (well at least not in Beijing) – the truth is that it’s very expensive to own a dog. You have to pay the equivalent of $1000 U.S. to register your dog and then an additional annual fee of more than several hundred dollars. Before stopping for lunch George tried to enlighten our group on some more of the customs of China – for example he asked us if our parents told us when we were growing up if we’d been told at meal time to make sure we “cleaned our plates, because of the starving children in China.” He said in China they were told to make sure to leave a small amount of food on your plate “for the starving children in the U.S.” true or not, we all chuckled. He did share with us the story of being a part of a state dinner where senior U.S. officials dined – someone apparently did not do their homework and so with each course the U.S. diplomats cleaned their plates. Unfortunately, in China this is a signal to the host that they were still hungry and wanted more. And the Chinese being the ever-accommodating hosts, complied. This merry-go-round circle continued, with more than 128 courses served! That story really stuck with our crew and the importance on knowing the culture you’re visiting. I’ve heard them mention that story since we’ve been back – and when we went to Hong Kong they made sure they left a small amount on each plate, “for the starving children in the U.S.”

5-star Restrooms – “I’m sorry but who can we speak to about the rating system?”
There is apparently a rating system for the bathrooms in China. Our guide, George, with each stop would give the rating for that particular stop saying something along the lines of “very nice bathrooms at this stop – 5 star.” I had been warned about the restrooms before arriving in China. Some comments from friends were – “disgusting” “malodorous” “bring your own tp.” I like the saying “forewarned is forearmed.” So I came equipped with tissue packets, hand wipes, and tried to have a sense of adventure in all things, including the necessary room. Thank goodness we were traveling in cooler weather because it appears the Chinese sewage system cannot handle toilet paper. There are little trashcans that are in each stall where you are supposed to deposit well … your used toilet paper, the smell is overpowering. I’ve been in outhouses on camping trips that smelled better. One bathroom that my daughter and I went in together there was a sign that read “watch for landslides” – this did not convey confidence. My daughter asked “what do you think that means?” and I said I think they meant to say the toilets overflow. Dubiously looking at each other, we shrugged our shoulders and picked our stall, hoping for no landslides.

Summer Palace
The Summer Palace was a place where the royals came to escape the oppressive summer heat of the Forbidden City. Kunming Lake is man-made – dug by hand and a favorite playground for the Dragon Empress. We learned that the Dragon Empress was not a patient woman and liked to get what she wanted, so the deck was stacked so to speak, and the servants would dive beneath the water and attach fish to her lines so she did not have to wait for a bite. They would also from time to time attach jewels, like bracelets, to the fishing lines for surprises.

There is a lovely curved covered walking path that follows along the lake – it is curved because evil spirits can only travel in a straight path. There are over 14,000 paintings, along this walkway depicting landscapes, or flower and birds, or Chinese legends – our guide said that they have to repaint the scenes every seven years to maintain them. The covered walkway extends for nearly a half mile.

Our group moved along at a fairly brisk pace – it seemed I was always in the rear running to catch up after stopping for a moment to take a few quick photos. Last stop for the day was a Silk “Museum” – I was excited for this stop with my interest in fiber art/kimonos/shibori – and while we did learn about the production of silk and it was interesting, it was really nothing more than a front for selling silk products. Of course that didn’t stop us for falling for it – the kids all now have silk pillows to remember the trip by and we have a silk comforter that I will honestly say I’m liking a whole heck of a lot more than the down comforter we had at one point.

That night we ended our first day in Beijing by taking our family to the Kung Fu show – clearly geared towards tourists, we all enjoyed it anyways, seeing an additional aspect of Chinese culture and creating another part of a memory for a lifetime. Next day’s agenda: The Great Wall of China – we could hardly wait. Till next time, sayonara.

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