Tuesday, December 27, 2005

"He who doesn't reach the Great Wall is not a true man" - Mao Zedong

Chairman Mao came up with that little gem after climbing to the summit of the Badaling section of the Great Wall. While I'm not a big fan of the man, due mostly in part to his "Red Guard" destroying much of China's heritage, that quote seemed fitting for today's post.

This morning, after an interesting breakfast at the hotel restaurant (I won't be making that trip again) I was picked up at my hotel and whisked away for a day trip to the Great Wall at Badaling and the Ming Tombs. Since I was the first of our group of 4 to be picked up, I had a free drive around Beijing and am still amazed at the contrast you can see with the new Beijing rising from the old. My co-tourers today were Eta (Hong Kong) and Thomas and Charlotte (Paris) quite a nice group to spend the day with. After we were all gathered up and tucked away in our lovely Mercedes van, we headed down the Badaling Expressway in search of this wall people keep talking about.

As we drove into the mountains, it was interesting to see the Chinese countryside.... rather drab with dillapidated buildings scattered here and there and people biking everywhere. We finally reached out first destination of the day, the Great Wall at Badaling.

Can't put it into words, the sight of this hand made wall snaking off into the distance was mesmerizingly amazing.

At this point, we were all feeling pretty good and excited, that feeling would soon turn to one of ridiculous exhaustion and shortness of breath. Our objective is the summit over and to the left of my head, which just kept getting further and further away as we climbed... lol Yes, we are all pussies, I admit it and include myself with the group. And here I was thinking of hitting the Wall at Simatai after doing Badaling as a test run, forget it! The views were great, but for some reason we couldn't catch our breath too too well and damn but some of those steps are high! Off to the right of me is one of the buildings which served as guardhouses when the Wall was used to defend China and not as a photo opportunity for tourists.

I am simply amazed that this thing was built so long ago, by hand. It has of course since been restored (the original probably didn't have handrails) in this section. Speaking of long ago, general consensus is that the Wall never really served it's intended defensive purpose very well, though Chinese propaganda has latched onto the Western idea of a perfect fortification and blown it crazily out of proportion. It did serve a very useful purpose however, communications. Signal towers built over the length of the wall served as a message delivery system which took news of advancing troop strength directly to the Forbidden City within two hours of the chain of smoke signals being started. The Emperor could then use the info and plan a response.

It was at this point that our guide started asking us how far we intended to go. I quickly piped up "The summit or death!!!" I was not going to be outclimbed by little old ladies in canes and teen girls in heels.

We did make it to the top, this is the view of the next section of the wall, from which the real lazy asses who'd paid 50Yuan for a cable car ride up were coming from. Had I bought one of those I climbed the Great Wall shirts, I wouldn't have been telling a lie... unlike some others.

After getting to the top, of course you've got to go back down... but down also means up sometimes since the wall follows the contours of mountains. All in all, we were quite pleased with ourselves that we made it up and back down.

After the trek on the wall, we headed over to a tourist restaurant (only tour buses in the parking lot) and had some passable, but not too good Chinese Food... I miss the place we have lunch at in Utsunomiya... lol In their defense, all they're interested here is pumping out large quantities of food, so I guess it's ok that it's not the highest quality. Also, while I am impressed with the reusing of chopsticks here, compared to the waste I've seen in Japan... them cheap plastic chopsticks just aint easy to use, no grip on them.

This is our limo for the day, which was washed down by our driver while we were inside.

After lunch, we headed out to the Ming Tombs, where 13 of the 16 emperors of the Ming dinasty (1368-1644) are buried. Why only 13? Well, one is buried where he established his capital, in Nanshing I think. Another, the grandson of the previous Emperor, was killed and his body burned when his uncle (jealous at having been skipped over) attacked his capital and seized power. The final of the three was renounced as an emperor by his brother who succeeded him and thus was not buried in the tombs. Of the 13 tombs, the largest is the first one which was built, Changling. Due to the custom that one's tomb cannot be larger than one's father's, this was built the largest to give the following emperors room to do their thing. The Ming Tombs were situated and built according to strict Feng Shue principles with a running river to the North, an opening to the South and mountains all around. Quite interesting to see.

This is the Hall in which the Emperor's son, emperor himself, would come and pay his respects. The building is quite amazing inside due to the fact it was built using huge camphor trees as pillars to hold up the roof. It it said that of the group of 100 men sent in to harvest the 32 pillars, only 10 returned due to the harsh conditions and the difficulty in reaching the area and finding appropriately large trees. The decorations on this bugger were quite ornate with carvings everywhere the eye could see.

When entering the final courtyard before the tomb, one has the choice of passing through this gate. It is believed that the souls of those who pass through the gate ascend to heaven and that when exiting, you must step through the gate again while yelling out "I've come back" otherwise your soul will stay up there.

On either side of the final altar are these wells which served a rather morbid purpose, a little background first. Emperors had not only a wife, the Empress, but also many concubines who were available to serve his every whim. Some emperor's had few concubines, others had tens of thousands of them. Upon the death of the Emperor, his successor is responsible for choosing a number from among these concubines to follow him into the afterlife. After being served a large feast, these lucky chosen ladies were taken to the tomb, given a noose and hung. While their bodies were still warm, they were thrown down these wells... ick.

At this point it had gotten rather nippy out and I'd switched from the leather gloves to my ski gloves and was seriously considering pulling out the hood.

On the way down from the altar, we spotted this rather resilient bugger growing right out of the brick. Speaking of bricks, more quick trivia for you here. All the bricks made during the Ming Dynasty (except for those for the Great Wall) were made using the standard clay but then adding a mixture of egg whites and rice to increase durability... seems to have worked.

While it was quite hazy all day, it certainly gave the mountains a certain mystical air.

Some quick comments here on my first lengthy interaction with a Chinese person, Ben, our tour guide. Totally nice guy, studied civil engineering before dropping graduate studies, then joined the army for three years... been a tour guide for a year. He learned English on his own through books, which is quite amazing! It was interesting to talk with him, he was totally open on many subjects including politics (to a point) and some of the downfalls of being a Chinese Citizen today. He said a few things which shocked me, though I didn't say anything at the time. The first thing was about how pools are a relatively new arrival here in China, but people are used to Public Baths. He was swimming at a new pool in his neighbourhood one day where, to everyone's surprise a man came out of the locker room absolutely naked, having mistakenly assumed it was like a public bath. We all thought the story was pretty funny so far, but then Ben piped in: "And then the guards saw him and gave him a pretty severe beating, which was quite funny"... quite the show stopper! I guess in a country with no human rights, it's funny to see people get beaten up, so long as it isn't you? The second thing he said was that it was too bad that the bodies of the emperors were too decomposed because if the Chinese government could have collected just one viable cell, they could have used computers to give us a picture of the emperor using DNA technology. What? I guess the people here are fairly closed off, which reminds me of another statement about this "new thing" called a paraglider. I guess new to China must mean new to the world...

I was quite disappointed in dear Ben when he dropped off Thomas and Charlotte and then gave them a spiel about "my salary and that of the driver are not included in the tour fees" and how they relied entirely on tips to make a living. They didn't buy it and neither did I. I decided that if he would hit me up with the same sob story I wouldn't give him a dime, since he didn't know I'd overheard the conversation. We talked at length about many things on the way back to my hotel through Beijing rush hour traffic, and I started liking him again. When he opened the door for me, shook my hand and said goodbye, I reached into my wallet and gave him a tip... he's a good kid just trying to make a decent wage out here after all.

So all in all a great day, but quite tiring. Plans for tonight are dinner at the hotel restaurant, let's hope it's different from breakfast... lol Tomorrow? Sleeping in, then heading over to Wangfujing Dajie for the walking tour suggested by Lonely Planet Beijing and some shopping. Tomorrow night I'm heading out to Xian so I'll be incommunicado until Friday night when I get back into my room.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

One fuckin' damn tour guide doesn't represent us. i feel so bad when he states being a chinese citizen its such a dishonorable and shameful thing, little western-ass kisser!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Phew!!!I'm proud to be Chinese.

12:15 AM  
Blogger Michel Lafleur said...

If you`re trying to sell me on China being some kind of bastion of human rights, you`ve got your work cut out for you.

I don`t expect you to feel ashamed of being Chinese, you should be proud... but you should also be able to accept criticism about some area in which China falls far behind the Western World, or at least come up with a rebuke.

Also, I assume the fact that you`re able to read my blog means you are outside of China since blogger is blocked by the Chinese government... so lets not be a hypocrite...

6:37 AM  

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