Wednesday, December 23, 2015

My Days in Beijing - Day Four

I had dreamed about this day forever.  A visit to China hit my Wanderlust list in the early 1990s when the Chinese government announced it was going to build the Three Gorges Dam.  That meant villages would disappear or be relocated, and ancient sites drowned in the famed Yangtze River.  I had to go to there to see as much of the old China (before the dam project) and other amazing sites like the Great Wall.  I've wondered what it would be like to walk and stand on that wondrous wall.

"Bu dao Changcheng fei haohan."

An original line from a Mao Zedong poem, it is often translated as "He who has never been to the Great Wall is not a true man", or "He who doesn't reach the Great Wall is no hero."

Well, let me just say, first of all, that I didn't really get to walk the wall, in normal fashion.  I tried, but I was pushed now and then because it was so crowded, but I, too, pushed  forward so I could make my way to the highest point of the wall.  If I didn't do that, I most certainly would've fallen backward and knocked everyone behind me down like a stack of dominoes!  When I reached the highest point of the Badaling wall, I did feel like a hero  - a very hot and exhausted hero.  It was a very difficult trek, and I'm in good physical shape!  This marvel is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which once stretched for more than 6,200 miles and symbolized the country's isolation from the rest of the world.
But wait, let me back-track and show you how we got here.  Our tour group had an early start.  By now, we all know the daily routine.  Early breakfast, on the bus by 8am-ish, but that's a good thing.  We knew we'd be in the middle of the early commuter traffic but our bus had to be one of the first to reach the cable car parking lot.  We traveled 60 miles out of Beijing.  In an hour, we arrived. Many buses were there already, but more buses would come, so we were thankful to be there early.  Tourists can hike up to the Great Wall, but we took the cable cars as our time was limited with other activities planned for the day. 
Angie, our tour director, led us inside the cable car building where we passed everyone standing in line.  We had a fast pass!  I think being a part of a Viking group was the key to being in the express lane.  That, or Angie was the cutest little thing, no one could say no to her.

It took a few minutes to reach the Great Wall.  Once we got off the cable car, we could choose to walk north or south.  Going north would take you down the mountain to the towers, but we chose to go south, which would take us to the highest point of the Badaling wall.  The views were outstanding, and exceeded all of my expectations of what the Great Wall would be.
I could not leave Padre, the Globetrotting Gnome behind at the hotel today.  He had to be here.
There are many sections of the Great Wall around Beijing city, but the wall in Badaling is the most visited since its restoration in 1957.  It is a well-developed area with a bear zoo, slow roller coaster that takes tourists up and down certain sections of the mountain to the valley floor, and the Great Wall Museum in the vicinity.  Hotels and the Safari World are nearby.
My navigating the steps of the wall, for the most part, was precarious.  Besides the thick crowds of people, the most difficult part of walking the wall were the stairs.  The steps were of different depths, so if you weren't watchful, you'd stumble.  Also, the climb up was very steep so all of this combined, I was out of breath a lot.  When I had to stop, I needed to hold on to a piece of the wall so I wouldn't fall back.  Sometimes, when I had to stop, there would be no wall for support as families would be sitting there to rest.  That's when I'd have to slightly hold on to someone else for support, and I could feel people doing the same with me.

If I ever have the opportunity to come back, I'd definitely want to visit the museum and this time head south on the wall to go through the towers and make a day of it.  Any season is a great time to visit the Great Wall.  In the spring, the landscape is so green.  In the summer, the rains come late in the day which leaves the air cool and fresh.  We were there in the autumn and the leaves were on the verge of changing colors, and the sky was blue with a bit of haze.  Or was that smog?  We were always questioning that!  I hear winter on the Great Walls is enchanting with the snow on the ground, and no visitors.  Oh, I think I can brave that cold temperature.
Next stop was the Ming Tombs (or the Thirteen Tombs of the Ming Dynasty), located 30 miles outside of Beijing.  The Ming Tombs are a collection of mausoleums built by the emperors. In a carefully selected site, according to Chinese feng-shui traditions, the tombs are surrounded by mountains on three sides and a river flows near them.  The tomb area is a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site.  It offers insight into imperial Ming Dynasty life, including stone thrones, huge human and animal sculptures, and other evidence of Chinese culture and traditions.

We entered the Thirteen Tombs through a stone arched gateway, and onto this avenue called The Sacred Way, which means "a walk to heaven". According to Chinese history, an emperor descends from heaven upon death and returns through the walkway.  The emperor was referred to as a Son of the Heaven.  The Sacred Way ends at the Dragon-Headed Turtle Tablet Pavilion.
If it wasn't for the beauty of the emperor and animal statues, I would've laid my hot, tired body under a shade tree and taken a nap.  Hiking the Great Wall was a challenge already, and now I have to look down this long, long avenue.  And it wasn't just that, but this place was so ethereally quiet and serene, and so green.  And birds were chirping!  See what I mean?  (yawn)

The details of each imposing human and animal statue differed.  No two were alike.  Also, the sculptures were transported purely by human labor.  Water was first poured on the road during the winter causing it to become icy.  They were then hauled forward by sliding on the slippery ice. Wells were dug every 500 yards or so in order to get water for this purpose.  Only two tombs of the thirteen are open to the public.  The others are in ruins or entombed in one of the three forested mountain ranges.

We exited the area through the Dragon-Headed Turtle Tablet Pavilion.  Inside was a large stone carving of a turtle with a dragon head and a Chinese tablet containing more than 1,000 Chinese characters.
We saw and learned plenty on this day.  In addition to the Great Wall and the Ming Tombs, we made a stop at a big place that sold jade - lots and lots of it.  Different sizes and different colors.  Jewelry, statues, wall art, souvenir type of items -- all made with real and varients of jade.  Gerry and I came away with some nice jewelry and souvenirs.  
We had a fabulous Peking duck dinner at Hua's Fine Dining Restaurant at Wangfujing.  It's a famous duck dish from Beijing that has been prepared since the imperial era. 
Upon entering the restaurant, we saw ducks being roasted in a hung, or open oven.  The ducks were carved in front of us at our tables.  With other delicious dishes, the Peking duck was served on a Lazy Susan table with all the sides: scallion, cucumber, sweet bean sauce and other tasty items. Pancakes (spring roll wraps really) held it all together.  Oh my goodness, I couldn't eat enough of the Peking duck. Gosh, I want some right now.  I wonder where they serve it up good in San Diego?

In 2011, The Huffington Post ranked Peking duck first in a list of "10 Foods Around the World To Try Before You Die".  

What are you waiting for?