Sights I just couldn't miss
16.08.2010 - 27.08.2010 33 °C
Great Wall and Ming Tombs
After waking up from a power nap on the hour long bus journey from Beijing to the Great Wall, I was surrounded by epic mountains that to me are the picture of rural china. The steep green slopes are filled with trees, and the occasional smaller village. This seems so strange considering the closeness to Beijing. Although I was fooled by this seemingly peaceful tranquillity, as we came round a corner on the highway, and I caught sight of the epic great wall. As it was raining, it shone out from the green hills with bright yellows, greens, reds, and other assortments of colours that make up tops of umbrellas. There was not an inch to spare. Although the wet weather, it seems that all of china wanted to embark on a great wall journey on the same day!
When climbing the steps to get up to the great wall, it was more of a battle field with elbows and umbrellas going everywhere than the ancient, history filled peacefulness that I imagined it to be; I couldn’t even tell I was on the wall due to the multi coloured sky filled with umbrellas. To escape the chaotic atmosphere, it was essential to climb up. When I say up, I mean steep, 2 foot high steps up, and coming down on the steep, smooth slippery rock steps was stomach turning... and I was told that this part of the wall is considered the ‘easily transversable’ section?? To my amazement, the many Chinese women did this in heels- here heels are acceptable in any setting. Once beyond the crowds, the views were incredible; through the mist, the extent of the wall was just beyond my imagination. Even in modern times I cannot see how humans could build something so huge on such steep and harsh terrain.
The Ming Tombs was another destination that lay nearby. They lie in the centre of a ‘U’ shaped valley, following Feng Shui traditions where the bad spirits are blocked and the good spirits can enter from the opening of the valley. Apparently the location of the tombs was in a much sought after location. The building itself is something of traditional architecture, but the tombs 6 floors below ground level are really nothing more than big red boxes (as the actual tombs and the embellishments were destroyed during the cultural revolution). After exiting, the surrounding car parks are filled with trolleys full of fresh peaches laid neatly in pyramids. There was no shortage of these stands along the roads back to Beijing either.
The Forbidden City was a sight in itself that could easily be granted a full day to explore. After queuing for over an hour, I was struck by the size and incredibly detailed gate that we walked through to enter the city. I thought this was impressive until I managed to push myself through the crowds to a vantage point where I could see the vastness of the city; the description of ‘City’ is definitely not the overstatement that I expected. The enormous open spaces were packed to the brim with tourists. As we made our way through the city, exploring the size alleys as we went, we came across the ‘traditional Chinese garden’. It was beautiful, but again tourists overwhelmed the should be sanctuary for peace. It was hard to imagine how such a huge place was for the sole purpose of one emperor and his hundreds of concubines, who were there at his beckoning call.
One of the strangest things I’ve found about china is the group mentality; never before have I understood the huge groups of Chinese tourist that seem to flock together as they travel around other countries. Here, it is the done thing. One of the many examples of this phenomena was set in Beijing; at the hotel, we were divided up into three different groups, each having 15 people. My group initially steamed ahead and beat the other two groups to the tube station. Instead of jumping on the tube and going to Tiananmen Square, we had to wait 10 minutes for the other two groups to catch up with us. Once in Tiananmen Square, the same thing happened except this time we waited close to half an hour. Finally, having queued and queued to get into the Forbidden city, we insisted to our guides that we would go into the city as smaller groups as we all got our tickets... otherwise all 60 of us would be waiting hours for each other to walk through a gate together just to split up at the other side. The guides could not comprehend this idea that we wanted to walk through as smaller groups or even individually. Coming from an individualist society, this collectivist ideal initially seemed foreign to me, but once I took a minute and looked around, I could see that this really was just the way of thinking here! In England we have a saying: The early bird gets the worm. Here in China, they have the saying: The first bird out of the tree gets shot. I think that sums everything up here!
If I had one word to describe Tienanmen Square, it would be BIG, and my second choice would be CROWDED. Both these choices are not dissimilar from those that I would have chosen for the Forbidden City, which lies just to the north of the square. One end of the square is dominated by a giant photo of Mao, seemingly overlooking and watching everyone. Apparently, this is the one place in Beijing where the 'No Spitting' rule is strictly observed; guards everywhere are keeping a watch on the crowds of people at this site considered by many to be a very special place as Mao's body lies in a building built right in the middle of the square. It was outside of this building that I witnessed the longest queue of my life... it just carried on and on and on. So many Chinese nationals flock to Beijing for the purpose of seeing Mao's body. Occasionally his body is not available to be seen because they need to inject chemicals into him (which explains why the queue was not there the first day I was in Tienanmen Square). Standing in the middle of this square, it's amazing to think about how central this location was to so much history within China.
I also had a chance to see the Olympic Park, including the Bird’s Nest and the Water Cube. Being non sporty, it was a pretty impressive sight; it was a city to itself! There were huge highways running through it that had obviously once been choc-a-block with traffic during the Olympic games, but on this day the wide roads were dead quiet; a pretty eerie sight considering we were in the centre of Beijing. I couldn’t help to be sadden by the idea that so much history in the hutong’s (the little pedestrianised neighbourhoods) were knocked down in order to build these huge, massive, modern, impressive buildings.
I spent an afternoon at the Lama Temple which was a different world from the hectic, shoving, elbowing Forbidden City. Although still full of tourists, we managed to catch it at a time when the peace and tranquillity of the Buddhist temple were permeated far above any of the tourist commotion. In my mind this temple will forever be painted with the smells of incense matched with the image of metal tubs full of burning incense and people praying with three sticks of incense held vertically to their foreheads (and the awkward westerners obviously confused by this concept, as they held them unicorn style to their foreheads to pay respect). The looks resembled that of a miniature Forbidden City with its brightly decorated traditional buildings. Perhaps the most amazing sight here was the 26 meter (yes, 26 meter) tall goddess built out of a single piece of wood, standing tall with one of these traditional buildings built all the way around her. Even here the western world cannot be escaped with a gold plack placed outside advertising the world record achievement for the larges statue built out of a single piece of wood.
The Summer Palace, aptly named for the emperors summer escape from the Forbidden City, was another amazingly worthwhile sight, however it was much greener than any of the other tourist sites, as it’s based on and around a hill and a beautiful lake. Its amazing that in a place so popular with tourists, you can still wander in the green trees without passing (too many) people. There is a little tradition shopping street there (as pictured above) for the emperors use which he apparently used to hire actresses and actors to pretend as though they were townspeople so when he had visitors, they could view what the ‘real’ China was like.
Even in these crowds of people, us westerners are still considered a tourist attraction; we’re ok if we keep walking, but the moment we stand still we are flooded by photo requests. It amazes me that even within one of the most famous sites in the world, people still want pictures of us. Mostly, they like jumping in the pictures as well, and if they have a child with them, the child is ushered in the middle of the photo to hold up a ‘peace’ sign to the camera.