The Great Wall of China

Wednesday, July 29 2009

THE GREAT WALL of CHINA – Yea! We are up at the crack of dawn and we are pumped up — to ride the bus for 4 hours. Back to sleep. Bing, our guide to the end, wanted to take us as far out of the city as possible for the best chance at a blue sky, but alas we wouldn’t see blue that day.  This, however, did not stop us from taking lots of pictures to document our great journey.

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We would finish on the blue dot at the bottom right – from there -back up 30 blue dots (each blue dot is a tower) and you can see where we start – the lower squiggly blue line above the two straight ones. (10 kilometers or a little over 6 miles)

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Though initially built by the first Emperor of China (Qin Shi Huang) for protection from Mongol invaders, it never served its intended military purpose and instead served more as an ancient highway to transport goods and services from one town to another along its 4,000-mile, meandering route through the mountains. However, the road between the wall towers is so steep, with many, many steps and vertical grades along the way, transport must have been backbreaking. Wait until you see some of the pictures — while the sections were short – the inclines were steep!

THAT was the tower where our hike began – just getting there had us out of breath!

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But off we went and just took it one step at a time…

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The plan for the day was a 5-hour hike today and we were all ready for it – carrying backpacks with sunscreen, hats, lunch, and water. We were all expecting a walk along a wall.  What we found were steep inclines and declines – crumbling rock and broken steps.

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Looking at the Wall and walking on its cobblestones was a remarkable experience. In places, the pathways lean at about a 45-degree angle and going up and down sometimes felt like a 90-degree angle!

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An interesting note about the first Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, who built this wall – also buried the Terracotta Warriors.

China_New Faces 42That first hour was all about breathing – in and out – ignoring the pain in our bodies.  We lost two members of the crew in that first hour.  We planned to traverse through 30 towers.  At the 4th tower, you have the option of taking a cable car to the bottom. Mandy and Sara decided that was a pretty good idea.

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As I walked the Wall, I thought about the laborers who laid these stones and the people who must have traveled along its path. It’s not merely a marvel of engineering, but a tremendous bridge to the past. It’s a true world treasure.

We learned at one point in its construction, fully 70% of all Chinese men were involved with work building the Wall. I’m thinking this was not a volunteer project.

What I found unbelievable was that if a person was born into a family with a criminal sentence and that sentence was not fulfilled upon their death, the criminal’s innocent offspring could be forced to finish the sentence of their father or family member and their entire life might be spent working to build the wall.

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We trekked up and down – over and under – stopping at tower 15 for a quick lunch- then off again.  We were actually climbing on all fours up some places and yet we were exhilarated!  That’s another word for exhausted and broken – but still smiling.

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The inside of a tower

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It was hot and humid and I’m sweating!

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By hour #2, we had found our stride and had sweat all the water out of our bodies – about 10 lbs worth – which lightened our backpacks considerably.  All along the way at every tower, there were two or three ladies selling bric-a-brack, water, coke and snacks.  We bought and drank one bottle of water about every three towers and no one was claiming that they needed to use the loo!

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The wall is not smooth!  It’s old and crumbling.   They are repairing it in places but in many, it was just tough going!

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At the end of our particular section of the wall – and finished in the record setting time of 2 1/5 hours –  there was a swing bridge that crossed over a river and a gorge. To the right was a zip line down to the bottom!  Whoo Hoo.  There were a few of us that had a fear of heights and zip lining in general, so half the group zipped and the other half walked down.  I zipped.

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Today was everything that I could have asked for in a Great Wall experience!

Everyone split up that night to do their own thing for dinner.  Five of us went down the street to a little Chinese diner and while we ordered way too much food – but it was good and we deserved it!

The next day or two was taken up with touristy things like visiting the Forbidden City, Lake Houhai, taking in an Acrobatic Show and a few other cool things.

Tiananmen Square

The Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, culminating in a violent conflict referred to in the United States as the Tiananmen Square massacre and in China as the June Fourth Incident (ostensibly to avoid confusion with two prior Tiananmen Square protests), were a series of demonstrations in and near Tiananmen Square in Beijing in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) beginning on 14 April. Led mainly by students and intellectuals, the protests occurred in a year that saw the collapse of a number of communist governments around the world.

The protests were sparked by the death of a pro-market, pro-democracy, and anti-corruption official, Hu Yaobang, whom protesters wanted to mourn. By the eve of Hu’s funeral, 1,000,000 people had gathered on the Tiananmen square. The protests lacked a unified cause or leadership; participants included disillusioned Communist Party members and Trotskyists as well as free market reformers, who were generally against the government’s authoritarianism and voiced calls for economic change and democratic reform within the structure of the government. The demonstrations centered on Tiananmen Square, in Beijing, but large-scale protests also occurred in cities throughout China, including Shanghai, which remained peaceful throughout the protests.


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Tank Man — This famous photo, taken on 5 June 1989 by photographer Jeff Widener, depicts an unknown man halting the PLA’s advancing tanks near Tiananmen Square.

I don’t remember where I was when the student protesters stood their ground in Tiananmen Square against the powerful Chinese military in 1989. Many people do and Mandy and Sara both recall watching the disturbing scenes on TV and being horrified by the violence as well as impressed with the conviction of the students to stand their ground against obviously bad odds. I remember seeing the now famous picture of the lone individual standing before the huge Chinese tank in all of our magazines. Now, as I stand in this fantastic public space, surrounded by other tourists and people milling around, I can only see the students and what they did here and I don’t know if I would have had that same courage.

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There is no mention of what happened, no memorial plaque, nothing. That is the eery part of China, the authoritarian stranglehold on information over its people.  That is most evident in the flow of information or lack thereof – Facebook is still not up!

Like everything else in Beijing, Tiananmen Square (ironically, Square of Heavenly Peace) is massive. I tried to get the dimensions but accounts vary. I was told it is the largest public square in the world. It can hold 1 million people easily. It is hard to grasp the size, even being there. It takes about 20 minutes to walk from one end to the other. The buildings surrounding the square are also mammoth sized, so it makes you feel like  an ant moving around. Maybe this was the idea – to make the citizens feel small and unimportant as individuals. It works.

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The body of Chairman Mao lays (in a crystal tomb) in a memorial building where the Chinese people can come and honor him.  The line to get in stretched around the building and beyond.  That’s why the Chinese come here – the rest of us are here to experience the square.

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The building where Chairman Mao’s body lies

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They flood in one entrance and flood back out another..

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Our next visit was to the Forbidden City – the world’s largest surviving palace complex. It consists of 980 surviving buildings with 8,707 bays of rooms.  It was originally built with 9,999 rooms but in a dream one night, the emperor received a message from heaven stating that the heavenly palace had 10,000 rooms and his could not have as many.

The Forbidden City was designed to be the centre of the ancient, walled city of Beijing. It is enclosed in a larger, walled area called the Imperial City. The Imperial City is, in turn, enclosed by the Inner City; to its south lies the Outer City.

 We entered the Forbidden City (called this because the “normal” folk were forbidden to enter) by crossing the entry bridge under Chairman Mao’s portrait then through one of the five tunnels via Tiananmen Gate, the Gate of Heavenly Peace.

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And that is the final picture for 24 hours. No photos of the Forbidden City, or our adventure at Lake Houhai or the Acrobatic Show – which was really cool.

There I was – at the entrance to the Forbidden City  – stepping back to get a better view – when I tripped and fell on my butt – taking the camera down with me. I cracked the lens finder pretty good and in return received a message from my camera – “Lens Error” – I will no longer work for you. Damn it.

Finding and then getting to a camera repair shop took some doing and communicating my problem to the young lady behind the counter was equally challenging, but we made it work. I handed her the camera, she looked it over and managed to say to me in English “come back tomorrow at 2”. I wanted to kiss her. But back to the Forbidden City…and the photos herein have come from google images 😦

This “city” took us half the day to walk through, as it encompasses several city blocks. And Beijing’s blocks are really big blocks – they’re New York City blocks! Strolling around the Palace Museum which is The Forbidden City, I was impressed with its immense scale. There were some city residents who have never left in their entire lives. You can easily see how this is possible. If we didn’t have a guide, we would have gotten lost. This place is just massive.

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Most of the structures were built during the Ming Dynasty to house the emperors, his staff of pharmacists, wardrobe masters, eunuchs, servants, empresses and concubines.  The Empress Dowager was the one who chose the concubines.  There were hundreds of them and many never even got to see the emperor, but they lived their lives here regardless. There are endless temples with haunting names like the Palace of Earthly Tranquility, Hall of Mental Cultivation and the Temple of Heavenly Purity. There was one building dedicated to food, called the Temple of Lingering Taste.

At times, it felt as if I was just part of a wave of people, going from one temple to the next. At smaller exhibits it was easier to see the displays, but at the Temples for the Emperor’s throne or the Empress’ bedroom, there was always a crush of people trying to see what was inside.

Emperor’s bedroom


Concubine bedroom

Concubine's Bedroom

Public toilets inside the Forbidden City

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Although it is August, not nearly prime tourist season, there were probably more people at this attraction than any place I’ve been on my trip to date. People were everywhere, and it is best to accept them as part of the experience.  We’ve found that the Chinese are not to be messed with when they’re trying to get somewhere and it’s usually just in front of you.  It didn’t matter if we were buying an apple, waiting to get through a doorway, or standing in a stationary line waiting for a taxi – they simply go right around you until they are in front of you and can go no further.

At first, it’s surprising.  Then it’s annoying.  Finally, it becomes a challenge to defeat the line cutter’s plans – which really messes with them.   We don’t, however, mess with little old ladies and I don’t recommend that any of you do either.  The smaller and older – the more dangerous and determined. Enough said.

Later that evening, we all went to the Chinese Acrobatic Show and WOW!  I recommend this to anyone coming to Beijing.  It’s exciting and dangerous and fast-paced!  Groups of men and women perform feats of agility, balance and flexibility that to us, was both unimaginable and CRAZY!

Afterward, we took taxis up to Houhai Lake for dinner and some beers.  The lake is surrounded by bars that are lit up like Vegas – each one blaring their own particular brand of music from large speakers placed strategically near their doors to attract party-goers.  We are poked and prodded by men and women alike trying to get us to buy something, give them a donation, or come into their establishment.  You really have to zone out or you could get a little Chinese overload.

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Bing took us to a bar that he obviously frequents often because they all knew him by name.  After a couple of beers, some of us decided that a hookah pipe was in order.  Almost immediately, Bing rose from his seat and excused himself saying that he was tired and wanted to go to bed.  We said goodnight and didn’t think anything more about it until the train ride to Xi’an the next night.  He asked us if we had gotten very “high” on the marijuana pipe last night?  What?!  We had to explain to him that a hookah pipe just has flavored tobacco in it – no nicotine – no marijuana!  Jeez – they cut off your head for having pot in this country.  Poor Bing hadn’t wanted to hang out with a bunch pot-heads!

And so we come to the end of a busy few days in Beijing.  Tomorrow is a free day for everyone and while some are relaxing – others are touring more sights.  Me – well I have an appointment at 2:00 with the camera store and I’m crossing my fingers that my camera lens is fixed and all is right with my world again.

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