Wednesday, September 22: This morning, I am greeted by a delectable treat: an omelet, bacon, hash brown potatoes, orange juice & toast with jelly, all Western foods that are hard to come by in Korea. A Western breakfast is one of the things I miss most in my temporary home. The buffet spread at the Holiday Inn LIDO is fabulous and, though I know that when you’re in a foreign country you should make an effort to eat the local cuisine, I am utterly delighted to sample as much as possible of this buffet spread. Though there are Chinese offerings, I pass them by happily to eat the things I took for granted in the U.S. but now quietly but steadily crave.
By 8 a.m., we are off to the Great Wall, but first, of course, we must make a stop at the Jade Factory. This is an apparently mandatory tour group stop on the way to the Great Wall, but it isn’t so horrible really. We get to see a guy sitting in a glass cage carving some jade, a demonstration of how to tell fake from real jade (which I’ve now forgotten…), and then we are “allowed” (encouraged) to walk around and shop. The thing I find the coolest is this jade ball with 9 diminishing-sized balls inside; apparently it is all carved from one solid piece of jade. We also see a huge intricately carved yellow jade sailing ship that is quite amazing.
Jerry tells us that in China there are 1,500 kinds of jade, but 3 main types: 1) white jade stone found in the street markets; 2) jade for carving; and 3) jadeite, which is the harder top-quality jade.
As we drive toward the Great Wall, Jerry says in his cute little accent: “It’s a lovely day for the birds.” We couldn’t have wished for a more perfect day to see this amazing section of wall where every tourist from Beijing goes, the Badaling section. This is apparently the best preserved section of the 5,600 kilometer wall that stretches from the bank of the Yalu River in the east, over mountains, across grasslands, and through deserts to the Qilian and Tianshan Mountains in the west. These walls along China’s northern frontier were begun in the 5th century BC and continued until the 16th century. Jerry asks us if we know who the wall was meant to keep out and many of us guess the Mongolians. Jerry tells us that it was built to keep out all foreign invaders, not just Mongolians.
Our group disperses with instructions from Jerry to be back by 12:30. It is 11 a.m., so we have 1 1/2 hours. We begin our climb, but there is a huge bottleneck of tourists packed on the stairs. We take a step or two, then stop, then move a step, then stop. It is claustrophobic on this most gargantuan of walls — a wall so big that astronaut Neil Armstrong said it was one of the two construction projects on earth that can be clearly seen from space. We can see across a valley another large section of the wall that is empty, yet here we are, hundreds of tourists, jammed into this one section of wall like canned tuna. We mutter among ourselves, wondering why all the tourists are brought to this one section at the same time of the morning. Later I find this Badaling portion was the first section to be opened to tourists.
As we move further up the stairs, it becomes evident that the stairwell is narrowing. In addition, people are descending down the same stairwell. Tourists are holding on to the railing on the right as they ascend steeply, yet others keep pushing into the center to shove past the people on the railing. Everyone eventually comes to a standstill when this narrowing stairwell and the descending people converge with the climbers. I hear a French delegation complaining about this. Though my French is bad, I can understand that they are irked that the people climbing are not making way for the descenders. I find myself wishing I could speak better French so I could agree with them wholeheartedly.
Finally, we get to the first watch tower, and many people, thank goodness, are only willing to climb this far. This decision by so many thins the ranks for those of us who want to climb higher. I stop briefly inside this first watch tower and check out the views, but after getting a whiff of urine in the watch tower (I’m sure someone peed in there!), I head out pell-mell to enjoy the remaining climb in relative sparseness and fresh air. I climb to the 2nd watch tower and then to the third, where I encounter a sign that says “He who doesn’t reach the Great Wall isn’t a true man!!” ~ Mao Ze Dong. I guess since I reached it, I must be a “true man!”
The walk up is exhausting, but of course I can never resist climbing to the highest point to get a view and just to say I did it. There is one more tower visible above the 3rd one, but we now don’t have much time until we are supposed to meet back at the bottom. I try to gauge how long it will take me to climb up, which probably isn’t that long, but coming down again is impossible to estimate. The steps are all of uneven heights and some are very steep and I know that coming down any decline is hard on my right knee. I just had a partial knee replacement in December, and my knee is still not strong when walking downhill, or downstairs. So I decide to pass on the 4th watch tower and to make my way gingerly back down. There are a couple of spots where it is very steep and there is no railing on the right, so I move over to grab the rail on the left, in the face of the ascending people. I say, I’m sorry, so sorry, sorry… but luckily there are not many people at this level; the ones who are here seem sympathetic.
I painstakingly make it down to the bottom, where I wander through a souvenir stall in the tourist circus and buy some sweet dried strawberries and peanuts to snack on. Finally, we head to lunch, which is a mediocre affair served at a large kind of banquet hall where all the tour buses come. I HATE these kinds of places; it is one of many reasons I will never again take a tour like this. I encountered spots like these in my tours of Turkey as well and found them utterly bland and NOT memorable. A typical restaurant created to placate and accommodate hoards of tourists who are herded off the buses.
The Summer Palace, it turns out, is one of my favorite places in Beijing. This spot is dominated by Kunming Lake, which makes up 3/4 of the whole Palace grounds. The lake is brimming with dragon boats and paddle boats and lily pads and lotus blossoms and weeping willows, a very long open-air corridor, numerous pavilions, and a “marble” ship. When we stroll along the palace grounds, we are happily greeted by a cool breeze whispering off the lake and dancing weeping willows around the edge. We immediately want to stop for photos, but Jerry is on a mission and we begin the long walk around one edge of the lake, snapping pictures as we move forward. The lake is man-made and the dirt that was excavated went toward building Longevity Hill, another dominant feature on the grounds. It seems that in China almost everything is geared toward longevity. Colors and teas and foods and pavilions and halls and temples, even stairs, will lead one to a long — though not necessarily happy — life… 🙂
The Summer Palace started off as the Garden of Clear Ripples in 1750 and served as a summer resort for the Empress Dowager Cixi, who diverted masses of silver originally meant for the Chinese navy into enlarging and renovating the palace. This place is really so beautiful that I truly appreciate the Empress Dowager’s foresight (and good taste). In 1998, UNESCO added the Summer Palace to its World Heritage List.
The Empress Dowager Cixi, originally a concubine, ruled the Manchu Qing dynasty for 47 years, from 1861-1908, after climbing her way to power. A conservative ruler, she shunned Western models of government. In looking up the word “dowager,” I find it means: 1) A widow who holds a title or property derived from her deceased husband or 2) An elderly woman of high social station. I’m glad I looked it up because I thought it was an old maid, an unmarried and unattractive woman. I don’t know where I got this idea…
The day, as Jerry earlier predicted, is a “lovely day for the birds.” I love this place and its cool breezes, its greenery, its colorful dragon boats, its pavilions and walkways painted the color of sapphires, grass, and apples. The Painting Walkway, commonly known as the Covered Walkway, is the longest walkway in the Chinese gardens, with its 273 sections and its 14,000 traditional Chinese paintings on the beams and cross beams.
I love the Marble Boat, the two-story lakeside pavilion with its European architectural elements. It is actually made of wood but painted to imitate marble. On each “deck”, there is a large mirror to reflect the waters of the lake and to give an impression of total immersion.
After walking about halfway around the lake, we take a dragon boat back to the other side. I love going out in boats, having grown up near the water in Yorktown, Virginia and spending much of my childhood on my friends’ families’ boats. Somehow I feel I can breathe easier skimming over a surface of water.
Immediately upon leaving the Summer Palace, we are herded directly into a pearl shop where we are shown how to tell real from fake pearls. If you rub them together, they leave a residue, but will still retain their luster. I shop around, but the prices are extremely high. I used to make jewelry and found strands of freshwater pearls in the U.S. for much cheaper. Needless to say, I don’t buy anything.
Next, we eat a dinner of Hot Pot. The meal centers around a simmering metal pot of stock on the table. While the hot pot simmers, ingredients are placed into the pot and cooked at the table. Typical hot pot dishes include thinly sliced meat, dumplings, and leafy vegetables like bok choy and Chinese cabbage, served with a dipping sauce. The sauces are so delicious, I boil random food just so I can have a vehicle to transport the sauces into my mouth.
Back at the Holiday Inn LIDO, Suzanne and I have arranged to have Chinese massages. It’s odd, the masseuses come into our hotel rooms, and since Suzanne and I share a room, we have our massages simultaneously by two Chinese girls. We lie on our beds and they don’t use any lotions or oils. (Earlier I had wondered how they would give us massages without getting our sheets and comforters all greasy!) The 90 minute massage costs us 170 yuan, or less than $40 USD. It is one of the most painful experiences I have ever had, with these strong girls using pressure points on sensitive spots and massaging relentlessly our deepest tissues. They flap and twist our ears, pop our fingers and toes, shake and twist our arms and legs into unfathomable positions. I feel certain when I am done I will be black and blue all over.
After they finish with the full body massage, they tell us they will give us foot massages. What a short memory I have, as I am envisioning a relaxing foot massage much like what I get when I have a pedicure in the U.S. Suzanne is also feeling quite sore and she says, about the upcoming foot massage, this is going to hurt! With the pain I am feeling from the full body massage, why on earth am I envisioning something lovely and soothing? Ultimately, Suzanne is right. The foot massage is quite painful, with the girl using her tough thumbs to make volcanic craters in my tender foot bones. Owwwwwwwww……