Day 18 - The Great Wall

Tuesday, September 11th, 2007

It has been a warm day. And a long one. A lot of travel.

Jacky requested that we meet him quite early at the front of the hotel (but not so early so as to require that we miss the breakfast included in the cost of our room…). Today was our trip to the Great Wall. Typically tourists visit the area of the Great Wall closest to Beijing so it is quite crowded and not as interesting as other areas. We had been given the choice and picked the less-obvious Mutianyu area to visit. The drawback being, of course, that it is a bit further away from the city and meant the day was longer than is typical for visiting the wall. I suppose it did not help that we visited the shops we visited as well…

Leaving the City

Our driver very quickly left the city as we made our way to Mutianyu. The roads are in very good shape as we followed a tree lined artificial canal for much of the way after the large highways in the city. We passed through a number of small villages that remind me a lot of Africa with dirt roads, small shacks selling fruit and vegetables as well as farmers in their fields of maize. In the afternoon we would see the maize spread out drying out on the side roads leading into the farms. Anyone can own and operate a farm with a minimal investment as the government subsidises a lot of the industry. A farmer is guaranteed a price for his crop before he even plants it so there is no worry (other than natural disaster) about whether or not he will make any money that year.

A winding road up a valley into the hills (I can't call them mountains but they have a pretty good shot at the title…) very quickly we came across a barrier across the road and directed to the parking lot off to the right. We had made it to the Great Wall though we could not yet see it. Leaving the driver with the car we climbed up the steep slope passing by a number of stalls selling mostly souvenirs though one caught our eye which was selling dried fruits. It was still early in the morning and we were among the first to visit so we got a lot of hassle with stall owners yelling at us to purchase their wares and coming up to us to show us how good their plastic figures were. Disturbing but we continued on.

The climb to the Great Wall itself takes a few hours and we were not here to kill ourselves so we had opted to take the ski lift to the wall. It is a Swiss-made “bubble lift” (as my mother and I know them from skiing) – a small ball that opens up to let about four people sit around the edge to look through the windows all around. Leaving the stalls and the concrete road around which they were erected, we quickly were lifted above a green canopy of trees covering the side of the mountains (ok, mountains, not hills…). The mist quickly shrouded where we had come from but just as quickly revealed the object of our visit: The Great Wall. Perched along the ridges of the mountains, the wall extends in both directions as far as you can see (admittedly, not far, in the smog that is even here – sorry, did not mean to mention it again…). About 30 feet high and in very good shape (yes, it is restored here) it snakes it's way slavishly following the line made by the mountain ridges.

Disembarking from the lift we climbed a few steps to a clearing where Jacky gave us one of the day's lectures for about 10 minutes though, honestly, I don't remember much about it except to say that the wall was built by the first great emperor and never completed. In fact, only about a third of the wall was ever completed and it was never really used in anger (I knew that not from talking to Jacky but from my reading). It cost a great proportion of the national budget at the time to pay for it and the one time that the Mongols actually stormed the country the gate was open to let them pass, unchallenged, onto Beijing.

We climbed the final, steep, steps onto the wall. At periodic intervals on the wall are the sentry towers. These towers were where sentries would have not only been posted but also, after time, lived. I am told that along the wall to the west there are families descended from the original sentries posted there. Many of the soldiers that manned the wall had actually helped build it and eventually made their home in the towers themselves.

The Great Wall

The green of the forest surrounds the tower on either side (what you can see through the smog…oops…sorry!) as we made our way along the wall. The steps are uneven and this was, I am told, intentional to keep any invaders on top of the wall from quickly passing along it. Mother and I were enjoying the time away from Beijing and we quickly wore out Jacky. We left him at a sentry tower and continued alone. We had seen in the distance a tower quite high up a mountain that looked interesting that, since we were here, we wanted to visit. So, continue on we did.

Walking along the Wall

We stumbled across a film crew in one of the towers filming an actor sitting in the doorway leading in the direction in which we were headed. Making our excuses we climbed around the actor as well as the film and lighting crew huddled around him. The wall itself is in very good shape: About 30 feet across each side has a short wall with gaps along the top so you can see out. The sides have gutters to drain away the water and there are steps everywhere (not ramps). The last stretch of our walk was extremely steep with a number of other “western” tourists stopped along the way catching their breath. I forced mother to slow down (I was not tired but knew we would have trouble if we pushed ourselves too hard). I have a picture of mother standing on one of the steps with the side wall behind her at about 45 degrees. Yes, it was steep. The steps of that stretch were as nothing compared to the final set of steps leading to the final tower – About 1 ½ feet high EACH and quite narrow. I was a bit concerned that we would lose our balance and fall backwards which would have been a bit tricky considering how far we were from any sort of medical assistance…

Steep Steps

The top of the tower looked out over the stretch we had traveled with the smog (sorry) we could see the entire distance we had walked – about half a mile.

The Wall

Not too bad considering that this was all steps and steep inclines. There are towers further in the distance beyond this one but we cannot go there. There is a sign forbidding us from proceeding onwards but this is not entirely necessary as looking past the sign you can see that the wall disintegrates into a pile of rocks. You don't really want to be walking along the top of a mountain on top of a pile of rocks.

No Further

We enjoyed the view and encouraged a few tourists in their efforts but then made our way back down. It was getting on for about noon and we were told it was about 34 Celsius so we were getting tired.

Returning to Ground Level

Picking up Jacky from where we had left him, we returned back via the gondola to the parking lot. The hassle returning to the car was even greater than before but a few overweight Americans behind us were a much more appealing target for the sellers so they largely left us alone. The American had also made the mistake of actually talking to them…

Stalls (SW)

We picked up some dried fruit from the stalls we had seen on the way up. Jacky tried to negotiate for us but I swear I could have done a better job in English. But, anyway, he tried to help us which is appreciated. We picked up some dried cherries which I find quite peculiar – Small translucent red fruits slightly wrinkled covered with a thin layer of powder (I think icing sugar). They have pits in them so you need to be careful eating them but the flavour is interesting – Slightly sweet but not entirely. Certainly cherries though.

Ready for lunch our guide, always a stickler for following the schedule, had to first take us to a Cloisonné workshop. Mother and I had discussed it and had not really been all that interested in visiting but it did prove to be interesting (even more so if we had not been so hungry). Jacky promised us lunch in Beijing to placate us. A guide at the workshop took us through several rooms around a courtyard where the cloisonné is made. Cloisonné is the art of attaching copper strips to pottery then filling in the gaps with many layers of (fired) enamel. This is quite an art so it was interesting to see it done.

Attaching the Copper Filigree

Firing the Pots

Of course, the largest amount of time for our visit was saved for the trip to the shop which was quite impressive. They sold not only the cloisonné but also other Chinese souvenirs – Glass snuff bottles painted on the inside in quite a lot of detail (I got one of those), traditional paintings, and pottery.

Cloisonné Shop (SW)

It was quite a long drive back to the city. It certainly seemed longer than the trip out. Along the way I chatted (while mother dozed) to Jacky about the area and farming though he also really did not seem to want to chat so I ended up just looking out the window myself. A truck had run into another vehicle on one of the roads in a bit of a chaotic scene as we made our way through the debris. The road is generally quite narrow with only the two lanes (one each way) and no road edge. The sun beat down on us as we enjoyed the air conditioning of the car. Arriving back into the city we showed up at the restaurant. Did I say restaurant? Of course, I meant, another shop that happened to have a restaurant in it. This time, a place specialising in jade. By this point we were just interested in eating (as it was about 2 PM already) so quickly passed by the glass room housing the artisans cutting the jade and through the (much larger) shop towards the back and sat down for some food. Jacky is not able to eat with us but him and the driver are given food and eat in the car. I guess this is some sort of tourism policy. The food was alright, sort of what I would expect from a typical Chinese restaurant anywhere in the world – nothing terribly exciting.

Jade Carving

Of course, we were left with plenty of time to walk around the shop to buy things. I did not feel in the mood though the nested balls of jade were quite interesting – A ball with holes in the surface through which another ball is carved inside also with holes in it's surface, inside of which is another ball…etc. These are not too expensive but I was just not “grabbed” with enthusiasm. We had been given a small talk when we arrived in one of the several presentation halls they have to talk about what is good jade versus what is bad. That was probably the most interesting thing about the whole visit.

Returning to the Hotel

We wanted to be returned to the hotel as we had planned what we were going to do this evening. Jacky was not involved. Well, to be fair, I did ask him about what to do but he came up with something that was not acceptable…

I am a fan of opera and the arts in general. As we are in Beijing I wanted to visit a Beijing Opera. Looking in the tourist books I had found that there are several places in Beijing that have shows every night. All of the books had made it clear to stay away from one as it is very “touristy:” This is the one that Jacky suggested he could arrange a visit of (namely, Liyuan Theatre). We opted to visit the Huguang Guild Hall (not noted as being “touristy” but also not the most highly recommended…). Having the front desk of the hotel write our destination out in Chinese we grabbed a taxi to the hall for the evenings performance. The parking lot had a number of coaches in it – not a good sign and, after following a group into an eating area by mistake, a kindly gentleman directed us to the performance hall. And what a performance hall. The small room seating about 100 people around tables on the ground floor and about 50 on the first level in the balcony surrounding on the three sides was covered with paintings with a prominence of red and gold throughout. The stage is only about four feet off of the ground and having been issued a ticket we were shown to our small table only about eight feet from the stage. Each small table has two chairs on each side – all facing the stage (so sitting on the one of the sides of a table we were able to rest an elbow on the table). We were given small things to nibble on throughout the performance – peanuts (etc) – along with tea. We were the first to arrive as many of the people attending the performance, we found out, were having dinner in the attached restaurant. I took the opportunity to check out the small display cabinets around the outside of the hall showing traditional costumes masks. This facility aim is to preserve the heritage of Beijing Opera – keep it alive – and this was obvious. Mother rented a headset to listen to commentary throughout the performance (she was not terribly impressed and took it off at regular intervals so she was not too distracted).

Beijing Opera

The crowd arrived and the show eventually started. The first hour we were treated to what one might think of as a more traditional opera – An empress singing about how she does not want to leave home to a ferryman who is supposed to be taking her away. The music was very traditional with a group of musicians off to the side on the right. The costumes were magnificent and I found it very enjoyable. The second half of the show was a more acrobatic and martial arts oriented scene with lots of action and not a lot of singing. Again, wonderful costumes and the acrobatics were also quite enjoyable. Though we had been told there was going to be no English available there was an electronic sign above the stage (“surtitles” as we would call them in the west) with English displayed – not as a true translation of every word spoken but enough to follow what was going on (though the neck did hurt a bit looking up that far…).

Inside the Opera House

We both enjoyed our evening. Yes, the singing and music is a bit high and perhaps even a bit grating at times but it was not really all that long a performance. Fantastic. Will have to visit more of this next time I am in town.

Day 19 - Beijing Day 2

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