Early on our first day in Beijing as we disembarked from the bus near the East Gate to Beijing’s Summer Palace, a UNESCO World Heritage site, I was overwhelmed by the mass of people.
The last thing I ever pictured myself wanting to do was to follow along in a line behind a tour leader carrying a sign. Yet, on most days as we would venture out, I was grateful for that yellow flag.
While there were local visitors of all ages, I noticed the groups of senior citizens, often wearing matching colored caps as their way of staying connected with the rest of their tour group.
I realized that these seniors, would not have had the opportunity to visit spots of cultural and historical significance when they were younger. They would have become adults during the Great Leap Forward when the entire country was focused on the production of steel, followed by the Great Famine that resulted when the emphasis on manufacturing ignored food production, and shortly afterwards the Cultural Revolution when the past was denounced.
After passing through the Summer Palace gate, we paused in the courtyard in front of the Hall of Benevolence and Longevity while Linda, our local guide, began to describe some of the highlights, including the bronze statue Kylin, with dragon head, lion tail, deer horn, and cattle hoof.
The sign on the guard rail around the statue is an example of the value that the Chinese government now places on cultural relics.
“Kunming Lake has very good feng shui,” Linda told us as she pointed out the alignment of the lake, with Longevity Hill above it.
I was glad that this was not the busy summer season when the lake would have been full of the paddle boats that were now neatly moored.
As we proceeded through the numerous pavilions and halls, my head began to swim with the details of their use through various dynasties. It was clear that the structures combined political, administrative, residential, spiritual, and recreational functions in a park-like environment.
One of the salient features of the Summer Palace is its Long Corridor bordering the lake.
After lunch in a private dining room in one of the halls, we continued through the grounds, stopping to admire the Marble Boat.
Most of the group chose to go on the afternoon optional activity to visit the iconic Temple of Heaven.
It seemed appropriate that a kite dipped and floated above the park entrance.
“Seniors can get a pass to use the parks,” our tour guide Evan commented as we entered the grounds. Indeed, the ledges of the covered walkways surrounding the main structures were lined with groups of local people engaged in games like Chinese checkers.
We made our way to the Hall of Good Harvests.
“The visit to the Great Wall is always a highlight,” Linda told us the following morning as we were inching through rush hour traffic.
As we merged from one freeway to another, I was amazed by the plethora of greenery and parks lining the freeways. With the exception of the various palaces and temple areas, I had imagined Beijing as a sea of buildings and marveled at the greenery.
“Chairman Mao has a famous quote,” Linda continued. “He who doesn’t reach the Great Wall is no hero.” She then told us that today we would all be heroes.
Rather than go to the more heavily traveled section of the Wall at Badaling, we went further to an older and unrestored part of the wall. As we pulled into the parking lot, there were only a couple of other vehicles.
Pictures I had seen from friends who had visited the Great Wall showed throngs of people. We were greeted by Mr. Shao, an official guide, who would lead us in our trek.
As we headed up the steps leading to the Wall, it was as if we had the Wall all to ourselves.
While walking on the Great Wall had been a long-held dream, I was apprehensive about whether I would be able to manage it. As we slowly ascended the steps, I was able to hold onto a handrail or grab onto the edge of the adjacent wall. I was at the end of the group, and as I made the final turn, I realized that there was nothing to hold onto – and the remaining steps were very steep. I didn’t want to turn back at this point. Seeing my distress, Mr. Shao walked part way down and gave me his hand. With his help, I was able to make it to the top.
Evan had brought a bottle of Great Wall wine and some little plastic cups. Everyone was waiting for me. “We are all heroes,” Evan toasted our initial accomplishment.
A few of the group decided not to go any further. The rest of us started up the steps, which initially were not steep. My friend Jan and I walked a short ways before we turned around. The steps were getting steep and uneven, and I was concerned about the strain on my knees going down.
Everyone else continued up,
making it to the third watch tower, before returning.
On our return to the city, we stopped view the Bird’s Nest at the site of the 2008 Summer Olympics. “It is located on the Dragon Line, the meridian starting at Tiananmen Square,” Linda explained.
A day without crowds was followed by throngs of people as we toured Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. The bus let us off and we joined the queue that led to the first security checkpoint.
Clearing that, we crossed the street and went through further security to enter the Square – a large flat expanse – with no trees and no place to sit. It was a gathering place for large crowds and bold statements, not a space for quiet reflection.
After Linda, our local guide, gave us an overview,
we took time to view the various monuments, including the War Memorial,
Chairman Mao’s Memorial Hall – his mausoleum,
and color guard practicing on the steps of the Monument to People’s Heroes.
After some people watching,
we viewed a changing of the guard,
and then proceeded to cross the street to the Forbidden City, crossing the moat that surrounds the complex, entering at the Meridian Gate – the start of the Dragon Line.
Once inside, we crossed the Golden Stream
and found ourselves in an enormous courtyard, pausing for a documentary photo.
From this point on, as we traversed across the maze of buildings, containing 9,999,999 rooms, we had to move with the crowd – up one set of stairs, through a building, and down the other side – over and over. First was the Gate of Supreme Harmony, guarded by bronze lions,
across another courtyard where workmen were repairing paving tiles,
stopping to view gilded halls, such as the Hall of Supreme Harmony
and the Hall of Central Harmony.
Linda pointed out one of the large bronze urns. “They were kept full of water in the event there was a fire,” she told us.
As we gazed over the rooftops of the courtyard homes where the emperors, empresses, concubines (which when she pronounced it, sounded like ‘cucumber’ – one of the trip chuckles) and eunuchs lived, Linda explained that because they were castrated, the eunuchs were the only males allowed to live in the Forbidden City. She went on to describe that when they were castrated, their “walnuts were pickled so that upon their death, they could be a whole man again.”
Our tour group decided that the walnut story would be one of the trip memories we wouldn’t forget.
The following day we boarded a bullet train after lunch for our four and a half hour ride, averaging 190 miles per hour.
We passed through farm land and as we got closer to Xian, the terrain began to resemble northern New Mexico.
As the bus took us from the train terminal to our hotel, Jenny, our local guide, shared information about Xian. One of six ancient capitals – and the earliest, Xian today has a population of 8.4 M people and contains more than 50 universities. “It has very good feng shui,” she reported.
Xian, situated in a valley, also experiences high pollution from coal burning power plants and car emissions.
As we approached our hotel, the lights of the Bell Tower’s jade roof glittered in welcome.
The next day we sampled examples of modern culture and ancient history as we watched jade being carved, then visited the Small Wild Goose Pagoda where we learned Tai Chi
and took a calligraphy lesson.
I’m sure that everyone who travels to China anticipates a visit to the Terracotta Warrior archaeological site, and I was no exception. However, like our visits to key sites in Beijing, there were swarms of visitors. According to Jenny, our local guide, about 8 – 10,000 visitors, most from China, descend on the site daily. I was really glad that Jan, my friend and traveling companion, and I had seen the Dynamax movie Mysteries of China at the New Mexico Natural History Museum that provided us close-up, unobstructed views of the warriors and restoration.
A large statue of General Qin greeted us as we arrived at the entrance.
Once through the gate, we joined the throngs trekking through the park-like setting to the four museums.
We started in the large, well-lighted, airplane hangar-like Pit 1 Museum. The railings encircling the museum were lined several rows deep with visitors – many intent on taking selfies of themselves. It made it difficult to get close enough to study the intricacies of the clay statues,
but also to take photos to share.
Even though the museum opened in 1979, the excavation and restoration is still a work in progress and there is an extensive work area.
We moved on to the smaller and darker Pit 2 Museum where the artifacts were different array of infantrymen and excavation continues.
Our next stop was the Pit 3 Museum, also dark, where most of the pits viewed contained broken, unrestored artifacts.
After lunch and a tea tasting, we were given the opportunity to go into Museum 4 where the highlight was a Golden Chariot. It was hard to hold onto the handrail as we descended the stairs amidst the crowd going both up and down. The layers of people peering into the glass enclosure with the chariot were so dense that Jan and I only got a glance and decided it wasn’t worth it to try and get closer.
On our way to the exit we came across a Chinese family who wanted a photo with blonde-haired Robin and Dick, her husband, with a gray fuzzy beard – both a novelty in China. Marilyn joined in.
I was glad we didn’t encounter the fast food ‘strip mall’ until we were exiting. I would have been devastated to see a McDonald’s or Starbucks on the way in.
“I’ll ask the bus driver, always called Jack (for our convenience), to slow down as we pass the mound which is supposed to be the mausoleum of Qin Shi Huang,” Evan said.
The mausoleum was discovered by chance by a local farmer in 1974 as he and others were digging a well and unearthed a clay head. According to Jenny, our local guide, the farmer lost his land and did not receive any special remuneration. At one point, the museum thought that the farmer might like to autograph books about the archaeological site, but he found it too tiring and uninteresting.
“When President and Mrs. Clinton visited the site in 1988, officials tutored the farmer to be able to exchange a greeting with the President in English,” Jenny shared the local lore. “When the President said hello,” she continued, “the nervous farmer instead of responding ‘how are you?’ said ‘who are you?’ President Clinton answered saying, ‘I’m her husband,’ pointing at his wife. The farmer responded as taught – ‘me too.’
We departed Xian two days later by plane and were amazed by how large the airport was. Security was tight. When our luggage, taken ahead by a courier, was scanned, they discovered the baggie of salt that Bill had packed to gargle with. It looked suspicious and he had to unlock his suitcase so they could remove it – thinking it looked like cocaine. We arrived at the airport 3 hours ahead of our flight, and it took us two hours to get to the gate.
Heather, the Chengdu local guide, filled us in as we rode from the airport to our hotel. The city blew my mind. I had pictured it as a small town nestled against the foothills and the home of the Giant Panda.
“Chengdu has a population of over 15 M people and continues to grow,” Heather informed us. “The city is a high tech zone – one of the most successful in China. Land is cheap, which attracts companies.”
There is an iPhone manufacturing plant in Chengdu.
After visiting Tibet (separate story), we flew to Chongking before boarding the Yangtze River boat.
As I was looking at my atlas of China before the trip, I noticed that the river was referred to as Cháng Jiāng. “The name Yangtze came from missionaries,” Evan told us, “and is not used by the Chinese.”
I didn’t know much about Chongking, but remembered the pastoral scenes I had seen in movies. I was surprised to learn that there were now 33 M people in the area and that the city, with its proximity to the river, was a large industrial area, specializing in steel, bridge construction,
auto manufacturing, and shipping.
We spent the afternoon exploring the area near the city center where the Great Hall of the People dominated one hillside,
and the Three Gorges Museum opposite, where I was surprised that many hand-holding couples were visiting.
“Young people are very interested in Chinese history,” Evan told me later when I expressed my disbelief.
After a ‘Learning and Discovery’ activity at the local Walmart, much to my dismay since I NEVER shop at Walmart,
where I learned that I had to go across the street to buy band aids, we headed to a local restaurant for dinner. As we returned to the bus, the streets were packed with people.
Our boat sailed after dark, highlighting the city lights.
We had been caught up in the pulse of China for two weeks, exploring ancient treasures and modern byways. Now for four days of floating on the Yangtze River.