Beijing: Of Walls, Palaces and Forbidden Cities

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January 16th 2008
Published: January 16th 2008
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In the Forbidden City
Beijing, China's capital, beats with the unrelenting pulse of 15.2 million hearts; the mad dash to modernity; the immense pull of tradition. Beijing: where skyscrapers and coal-belching chimneys jostle for sky space; where one day's worth of breathing is equivalent to chain-smoking 70 cigarettes; where planes get delayed because the smog reduces visibility to near zero. Beijing: where Olympic-driven, cutting-edge structures like the Bird's Nest and Cube sit only miles away from ancient marvels like the Great Wall and, even closer, the Forbidden City; where imports like the Volkswagen Passats and Buicks brush up against crusty tricycles and beat-up mopeds. It was to Beijing AKA Peking that we had come.

Beijingxi (Beijing West). The station. The time: 7:25 a.m. Daryl was nowhere to be seen. By telephone he told us to take a cab. "RMB 80 or so", he said. But Daryl didn't know our 'cheapskate' status. We asked our way to the subway at Fuxingmen and emerged 45 minutes later at Dawanglu. And there he was. Daryl: radio personality, turned government propagandist, turned architecture and urban planning student, turned slighter bigger (particularly around the middle), turned (what?) corn-rowed Russian? Long story. We'll leave that alone. Vibert's buddy during his
Mao all lit upMao all lit upMao all lit up

Gate of Heavenly Peace
happy Dominica years, Daryl had met Shanna in St. Maarten. He didn't recognize her now though. She had longer hair then. With one hand firmly on the car horn, he weaved between the madness of rush-hour traffic and deposited us safely (Thank God!) at his bachelor pad.

Scratch the hours we spent procuring onward train tickets from nearby Beijing Central Station and see us now in:

The Forbidden City

Entry was thru the 15th century Gate of Heavenly Peace in the center of which hung a huge portrait of Mao Zedong. Groups of Chinese tourists congregated for pictures with the smiling chairman in the background. A sweeping courtyard was sectioned off by another gate, Duan Gate, which, itself, opened up on to another courtyard and finally there was the official entrance, Meridian Gate. For 500 years the Forbidden City was off-limits to non-royals serving as the exclusive, decadent playpen for Ming and Qing emperors. Every conceivable delight was hoarded within its towering, impregnable walls. Even the very Meridian Gate was once an Emperor-only passage.

Inside, Golden Stream was bridged by five fine marble bridges and a path led to yet another gate, Supreme Harmony Gate which overlooked yet another courtyard and Hall of Supreme Harmony. Its monstrous size and position, set high atop a white marble terrace with thick, intricate ballusters, signalled its importance. From the awesome Dragon Throne inside, Emperors dispensed their brand of justice, law and order. And there were other halls too each rich in architectural detail and history and each saddled with an auspicious name. There were Halls of Middle Harmony, Union, Preserving Harmony Mental Cultivation, Character Cultivation, Literary Glory, Military Prowess and Imperial Peace. Each hall held exhibitions of preserved artifacts and relics of ancient Chinese life. The Clock Exhibition Hall housed an astonishing array of elaborate timepieces. Jewellery, enamels and jade exhibitions were in separate halls. Nearing the northern end of the City was the Imperial Garden, a veritable oasis of grafted trees, interesting pavilions and rock walls. Some of the living spaces were presented in their original state including the numerous rooms for the Emperors' numerous concubines. These were, of course, a little removed from the residence of the Empress.

Stuck waist-deep in the quicksand of Chinese history, in the very heart of modern China, we hardly noticed how five hours drifted by. Exiting, we saw the sun, muzzled
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So precise, it's scary
behind 15.2 million layers of smog, sinking fast behind the Communist-red walls of the Forbidden City. A platoon of soldiers went thru the precise paces of lowering the flag and artificial light brightened the countenance of Chairman Mao.

A pedestrian subway led over to the largest public square on earth. Flanked on three sides by the space-age National Grand Theatre, the Great Hall of the People and smiling Mao, Tiananmen Square was nearly devoid of people at that time. A few entrepreneurs tried to sell us Mao pins, little red Mao books, Communist fur hats and even Mao wristwatches. Those were cute. His hands moved to the rhythm of seconds. The 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre of thousands of pro-democracy proponents didn't actually take place on the square. Soldiers and army tanks drove the demonstrators over to nearby Muxidi and there, massacred them. We fled the dark, creepy square, back to a worried Daryl.

In the 20/20 of hindsight, we remain amazed at the careful planning and flawless execution had raised this city of endless delights. From the marble dragon reliefs carved on the center threads of forbidden steps to the gold trims on curved rooftops; from the endless
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Ride fit for an empress. Hoisted.
maze of walkways leading to innumerable doors to the labyrinthine corridors; from the belittling courtyards to the cool interiors of historic buildings, everything complimented each other. Everything, that is, except one intruder. One foreigner who was terribly out-of-place. Here, amidst the grandest collection of the best preserved walled city and buildings in all of China, sits...(oh, the pain; the anguish)...say it, already. Ok, then. Here, amidst the grandest collection of the best preserved walled city and buildings in all of China, sits a Starbucks.

A small miracle occurred the next morning. We were able to see the blue of the sky. Hallelujah!! Daryl explained that China sought no happy medium between its plans to impress the world in August 2008 and its coal-burning, Beijing-based industries. The smoke-stacks closest to us, and most likely the culprit for yesterday's haze, were not emitting any fumes today. Apparently, factories were not now allowed to pollute daily. They had special "you-can-pollute" and "you-can't-pollute" days. Worse yet (for the business owners) some factories were shut down and ordered to leave town. After much, useless dilly-dallying (and way too late) we chose the day's activity:

The Great Wall at Simatai

He who has not climbed the Great Wall is not a true man.

~ Mao Zedong

In the beginning there were separate walls constructed as defense lines against would-be conquerors. Emperor Qin tied them together during the Qing dynasty (221-207 BC). But Genghis Khan and his Mongols and also the marauding Manchu army breached the wall rendering useless (as a defense mechanism anyway) the labours of many lifetimes. Most people, us included, consider the section of the wall at Badaling as the Great Wall. This is so because this renovated stretch is the TV-face, the popular choice. Truth is that around Beijing there are at least six places, Badaling included, to visit China's compulsory sight. We had seen a photo once of a dude posing at Badaling, some 70 km northwest of Beijing. In the background we saw a section of the wall jammed with thousands of people. Plus, we had heard stories of endless souvenir shops and touts. In search of a quieter, more authentic 'walling' experience, we scratched Badaling. Mutianyu was 90 km northeast of Beijing, Juyongguan 50 km northwest, Jinshanling 100 km northeast, Huanghua 60 km north and Simatai 110 km northeast. We chose Simatai using the fuzzy logic that greater distance and greater difficulty to get there would mean less tourists and a more authentic wall. Both assumptions were true but one would horribly backfire. You'll just have to read on to learn about that.

Why did we not leave before 11:30 am when we wanted to go such great a distance is anyone's guess. In retrospect, we call it the folly of youth. By the time we had disembarked the subway and found the way to Dongzhimen long-distance bus station and found bus 980, one hour had passed. Cramped in the backseat of an overcrowded bus, whose passengers made up a motley crew (including this one old dude who butchered his face dry-shaving) we started to wonder what we had gotten ourselves into this time. The bus crawled down the road and then, to our deep amazement and hurt, we saw a luxury, tourist bus (with soft reclining seats) hurtle pass us. It was marked 980. We were in the 980 mini-van when we could have been in the 980 luxury liner. The driver roughly ejected us by the roadside in Miyun, in the middle of nowhere. Not even by a bus-stop or a place where we could easily find connecting transport to the park. Minutes later a van came along and overcharged us for the ride. Getting to the park at 2:30 pm, we paid the RMB 60 entrance fee and set off at a brisk pace. Stragglers coming down told us that it took them 3-4 hours to the last of 12 watchtowers. The park closed at 5:30 pm.

It is not quite possible to accurately describe the feeling of seeing the Great Wall for the first time. 'A mix between elation and trepidation' would have to suffice. High above us she snaked over hillsides, disappearing into the clouds. On the 30-minute walk up to the foot, we passed four 'guides/salespeople' and one old man detached himself from the group and started following us. Our feet connected with the first step and we were officially on the Great Wall. This 19 km stretch of wall was built during Ming time and boasts some of the steepest, most precarious ascents (and descents). The timing was right for two reasons. Firstly, the wall was virtually deserted except for a few climbers who were well spread-out. Plus, the changing light brought on by an overcast sky shrouded the wall with mystery. One by one we powered up to and thru sturdy watchtowers. It was from these very towers that the burnt droppings of wolves would send smoke signals throughout the land to warn of an advancing enemy. Adrenaline pumped. We were over-awed. Tower seven. Then eight. One shack was stuck (ridiculously precariously) to the mountainside. A round-faced lady was hawking t-shirts, marble carvings and water at this incredible altitude. The ancient guide we didn't ask for nor bother with was still close behind us. Some sections had no rails or ramparts and the views below were dizzying. We were so high that last night's snow had not yet melted away. The air was frigid; the views unreal; the feeling, exhilarating. In an-hour-an-a-half flat, we scrambled, hand-over-feet, up to and thru the 12-tower and then a little further. Alas, that was as far as we could go. The wall plunged treacherously down into a valley before raking skyward and disappearing over the brow of a skinny mountain. Any attempt to go further would be suicidal. And to ensure that daredevils didn't push their luck, a guard, Yang Yang, was stationed at wall's end. We didn't envy Yang Yang who sat all alone in the freezing cold after making the punishing climb. But, apparently, Yang Yang envied Vibert who he hurriedly pushed out of the way so that he could pose for a picture alone with the out-of-breath Shanna 😊 A French 'homme' joined us and we all celebrated being on top of the world.

So pumped we were that, on the way down, we patronized the (ridiculously precariously) hanging shop. The round-faced lady shared a joke and sold an 'I climbed the Great Wall' t-shirt. Our conscience kicked in and we purchased another from our ancient follower. Heading back to ground-zero was no less otherworldly, grandiose, exhilarating or stupendous than the ascent. We had done it. Scratch another dream off the must-do list. The Great Wall experience, the walk into and on top of history, will forever remain of the most exciting, special accomplishments of our lives.

It was now 5:30 pm. A minute from the foot of the wall was the 'Flying Fox' - an ominous zip line down a steep incline and over a river. The folly of youth combined with adrenaline overload. We clambered into harnesses, clipped on to the same carbiner and together (literally) flew down the line to a waiting boat. Now, here comes the backlash. We were 110 km from Beijing without a clue of how to get home. The parking lot was empty except for two mercenaries who tried desperately to overcharge the stuffing out of us. One asked for RMB 400 to Beijing, the other RMB 200 to Miyun. We had paid (combined) a total of RMB 120 from Beijing. They really didn't know our 'cheapskate' status. We decided to walk. Yes, ladies and gentlemen. We two, in the relative darkness of an overcast late-afternoon, took to the road fully determined to hike or hitchhike the 10 km to the main road and then figure out the remaining 100 km. One taxi driver didn't believe we'd make it and so he drove alongside persistently quoting the same overpriced fare and grinning. Somewhere between 2-3 km and total darkness (we didn't have a torch or water, mind you) we stumbled upon a group of tourists who had apparently done the hike and we now having dinner. A luxury bus, with reclining seats, awaited them and the driver - God bless his soul - offered us a ride to Beijing for RMB 120, combined.

Now, allow us to digress and conclude. Follow this logic, if you will. According to Mao (and it's dangerous to ignore him while in China), Vibert, having climbed the Great Wall, was now a Real Man (RM). On the assumption that the Chairman was speaking in the generic sense, that would qualify Shanna as a Generic Real Man (GRM). RM and GRM collapsed into the arms of cushy, reclining seats and slept, with smiles affixed, all the way back to Beijing and then, finally, back to a worried Daryl.

The smoke-stacks were active again on the morning of our last day in Beijing. We donned face masks to cut down our cigarette quota and after a subway and a crowded bus-ride, we emerged at the entrance to our last major Beijing attraction:

The Summer Palace

Probably the only thing that could have driven emperors and empresses out of the Forbidden City was the summer heat. Royalty retreated to the coolness of the Summer Palace, an oasis, 12 km from Beijing, built by Emperor Qianlong in 1750. The immense park, dominated almost two-thirds by Kunming Lake, covers 290 hectares. The rest of the park is covered by verdant hills of pine and cypresses, elaborate palaces, temples
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Overlooking Kunming Lake in Summer Palace
and bronze and stone sculptures. Anglo-French soldiers razed the place to the ground in 1860 during the Second Opium War. Empress Dowager Cixi rebuilt it in 1886. Fourteen years later, in 1900, foreign allied forces burnt it down again. Two years later, it was rebuilt and 12 years thereafter, opened to the public. The UNESCO World Heritage site is said to be "...the most perfectly preserved imperial garden with the richest man-made scenery and the most concentrated architecture in the world".

After four hours exploring the palace grounds, we could attest to rich man-made scenery (the 'richest'? We can't say). Kunming Lake itself, which was considerably enlarged and deepened by Qianlong, was a glittering attraction. Weeping willows hung their heads around the edges and marble and granite bridges, like Jade Belt Bridge, spanned portions of the lake. Add the Garden of Harmonious Interests with its five halls, seven pavilions and five small bridges circling a lotus pond. Add also the many exquisite sculptures like the Bronze Lions. One lion, the female, was depicted playing with a baby lion while the other lion, the male, played with one ball. We draw no inferences here. We only tell it like we see it. Then there is Cixi's marble boat. The 'Clear and Peaceful Boat', as it is officially titled, is a giant, extremely heavy, marble carving stuck to the banks of Kunming Lake. We suppose that it was her tribute to the Royal Navy whose funds she had diverted for the first rebuilding of the Summer Palace. Good thing that the boat is anchored to the shore. That thing, outlandish and picturesque as it was, would sink like 12 tonnes of marble. With other scenic areas like the Heralding Spring Pavilion and its willows and peach trees, Garden of Virtue and Harmony with its Hall of Nourishing Pleasures and the Realm of Multitudinous Fragrance, we'd certainly admit that the palace had outstanding man-made sceneries.

As to the "most concentrated architecture in the world", the grounds did house, and not so far apart too, some truly phenomenal feats of architecture engineering. Chief among them would probably be the three-storeyed octagonal Tower of the Fragrance of the Buddha at 41 meters high with four tiers of eaves. Cixi climbed the many steps (or maybe she was hoisted up, we don't know for sure) to commune with the Buddha. The Baoyun Bronze Pavilion was a true rarity. It is made entirely of bronze with a greenish-grey hue. In times past, it housed a Buddha but the Buddha and some windows (windows now returned) were carted away overseas by foreign invaders. The Great Stage, Wengchang Tower, riverside architecture of Suzhou Street, Glazed Tile Pagoda of Many Treasures, Seventeen-arch Bridge and a host of other unique buildings and structures (some of which we were too tired to visit) all combined to create a wonderfully diverse and utterly impressive architectural landscape.

There is but another accolade we'd humbly like to bestow on the Summer Palace and do forgive us if the title seems rather lengthy. We are trying to stay true to the norm. We add the title of: "The highest concentration of tourists at any single palace sight in the world". Sometimes we shuffled shoulder-to-shoulder along the aptly named Long Corridor and sometimes we got grid-locked in exhibition hall. These times reminded us that we were still in the most populous country in the world.

Daryllovich, our pal from Russia via Dominica, accompanied us to Beijing Central and saw us into the departure lounge. We had soft-sleeper, luxury (but not reclining) beds in the train from Beijing, we can't tell you yet. But one hint: We are going 1423 km from Beijing in the direction Cixi's marble boat would head if it were released from its shore anchor and pushed out into glittering Kunming Lake. 😊

Thanks to:
😊 Daryl for your generous hospitality
😊 Quincy for tolerating us.
😊 The bus driver from Simatai

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17th January 2008

The Answer!
By-the-way ... when you cross a crepe with a wrap you get a CRAP. Did you guys actually EAT it? :-))
21st January 2008

China, unforgetable!
Hey you too! I really enjoyed our visit to China, the pictures were very clean and clear. You are now officially RM and GRM. I loved the excitment and I am sure that both of you had Daryl's heart in his hand wondering where you were some days. He lives in China but you saw China. Love Mom.

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