Thursday, August 13, 2009

Around City

August 8, 2009 Beijing -

So today is our first full day in Beijing. Our hostel is in a fascinating, traditional "Hutong" neighborhood full of street vendors, tea houses, and people walking their dogs.  Our room is off of an inner court yard, which is typical of the neighborhood.  A canopy of Zucchini vines hangs over a cafĂ© area were we can relax and have a tea or beer.

 Walking down the street we see shop after shop of Dim Sum vendors. Outside of each is a big water-filled wok over white hot coals.  Stacked on a plate over the wok are 3 or 4 feet of bamboo steamers filled with sticky, fluffy stuffed buns and tender gyoza. So yummy!!! We eat until we can't any more for $2.25. Then it is off to the clean, user-friendly subway for a day at Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City.

The Chinese are very proud of their country, and parents are eager to travel with their children during the July/August break. That means we are smack in the middle of high season for domestic tourism, and that couldn't be more real than the second Tiananmen Square comes into view. It's packed. I have never seen so many people, not at Disney World during Christmas, not in a Manhattan rush hour.  In a way it's helpful because the 100 acre square is so big that the throng is necessary to lend a sense of scale to the place. We briefly consider visiting Mao's mausoleum. We skip the four hour wait, but thousands of Chinese line-up reverently for the 1 minute glimpse of the waxy Chairman. As we get to the end of the square the crowd thins a little, but picks up with double the intensity as we cross the street into the Forbidden City. The architecture is magnificent; vast palaces in gold, red and vivid blue.  Every inch is covered in detailed carving and colorful vignettes.  Figurines of Confucius, dragons, griffins and other good luck charms line each corner of the roof of the 980 buildings, but the real show is the crowd.  I know there are a billion people in China, but today I got to feel the meaning of that number.

-          Cindy

Great wall goodness

Just an aside about being in China.  The government has blocked access to both Facebook and Blogger (the home of this blog).  We have found a way to post to blog via email but cannot see the blog ourselves.  If something looks screwy to anyone, please let us know.  As for keeping track of our friends via Facebook, I'm afraid that we are out of luck for now, although there are rumors on the internet that the ban might be lifted soon.


We wanted to see the great wall but were loath to visit the "oh so touristy" section about an hour outside of Beijing.  You know the one; it's in all the pictures.  Wide, clean, newly refurbished and utterly devoid of its original character.  It's my understanding that they just built over the top of the crumbling old wall with complete disregard of its original look. 

Just down the street from our hostel was a quaint little tea shop that also advertised itself as a tourist agency.  Run by a sweet women with a great command of English, we were lulled into her establishment by her friendly demeanor with the promise of free tea. The walls were lined with teapots of all shapes and designs and large open mouthed jars with orange cloth covered tops filled with an array of teas for you to choose from.  With a flourish she would open each of the jars and let you smell the tea before picking the one you wanted.  We walked out with tickets to an Acrobatic show that night (Cirque de sole has nothing on these guys) and a tour package that included a ride to the town of Jinsangling the next day as a launching point to walk the Great Wall.  From there we would walk 10 Kilometers on the top of the wall to the town of Simatai.  We would be fed at the end and then begin the 3 hour long bus trip back to Beijing. 

Our pick up for the wall hike was set for 6:00 AM.  We had forgotten that with tours like this, they will often work their way to different hotels around the city picking up passengers along the route.  Two hours later, a bus change, and the addition of many Germans, French, Scottish, the only other  American I have met here, we were full up and ready to leave the city for our destination.

Along the way the countryside quickly turned from city to grungy manufacturing and then to rural landscape and the bus ride was over soon enough.  It quickly became evident that the English speaking guide we were promised was not really a part of the package, so  tickets in hand (one was needed at each end of the route) we were turned loose to wander along the wall at our own pace.  You can't get lost we were told.  "Just walk up the hill to the wall and turn left".

The wall was built over the period of thousands years by many different dynasties.   The Chinese always built walls around their cities but the first emperor to unify China in around 220BC extended its framework to create a northern border to the country and to keep out the barbarian invaders and raiding parties from the north. It averages 7 meters high and 7 meters tall and has some 25,000 battlements along its entire length.  As a means of defense, it served its purpose poorly.  It is not one continuous wall and raiders often just rode along the length until a suitable opening was found.  More often they would just bribe a high ranking official or guard to be allowed passage.  What it did do well was define the borders of the northern states and provide a vantage point to see approaching raiding armies.  Messages were sent using canon, flags and fires as a means of communicating over great distances down the curving line of the wall.

Starting at around 600 AD the Tang dynasty started expanding their hold on the territories to the north and the wall was largely forgotten and fell into disrepair.  In the 1200's the Ming dynasty came to power and being extremely insular, set about consolidating their borders and repairing the wall.  The wall that we see today is largely from this time period.  Over time the wall became a relic of the past, especially after the Mongols from the north came to power.  Unused, weathered and crumbling, its walls were breached and its stones were often taken by villagers and used to build housing in the local Hutongs (neighborhoods).  Today it is only intact in small sections of its former glory.

Contrary to popular myth, the wall cannot be seen from outer space, but I was still not prepared for the shear enormity of it as I ascended the steep hill at Jinshanling, finally emerging onto its backbone.  Its length stretched as far as the eye could see in both directions; its sections broken up by watch towers in various states of disrepair.  To me, the route between the towers always seemed to take most difficult route between.  The initial section we were on had been repaired in the last few years.   Its towers rebuilt, its steps straight and true, and the flagstones under foot flat and easy to walk on.  That changed after the next few towers as we got away from the more touristy sections.  We where then on the old wall.  The thousands year old wall. The crumbly, patchwork, weather worn, sometimes overgrown wall. 

Exhausted, calves quivering from the intense up and downs, we finished the hike after paying the bridge keeper 5 Yuan each (about $1.5) to cross a rickety, swaying cable bridge.  I briefly wondered what he would do if I refused to pay.  Send me back?  I was too tired to find out and dutifully forked over the money. The path was often steep, sometimes dangerous and always engaging.  It has been the highlight of my trip so far.

Three hours later we were back in Beijing with our driver hopelessly lost.  I spied a subway station and Cindy asked the "guide" if we could just hop off the bus.  Half of our fellow trekkers followed us.  We were all tired and ready to be home.