The next morning, tightly clasping my “now-working” camera., I turned to speak to John. He and his wife had traveled from Cincinnati. “Did you hear my camera’s working now?” John had suggested I try new batteries. “I’ll be able to take pictures of the Wall – that is if I can manage to get up to it. I heard it’s a pretty rough climb.”
“We’ll help you if needed,” Mr.Wei chimed in. I didn’t realize then how prophetic his statement was.
But there was more of Beijing for us to see before we got to the Wall.
The tour itinerary stated only that we would be seeing the Ming Tombs, nothing more. If I had known the details of what we’d be experiencing, and the difficulty of getting to the tombs, I would have muttered, “no thanks. I’ll sit this one out.” Not only was it a long walk to the entrance to the tombs from where the bus let us off, but once we were inside, a series of steep descending stairs awaited us. I clung onto the railings tightly because the place was damp, and poorly lit, and I was afraid of slipping.
No matter what I encountered on trips, there always seemed to be something amusing along the way. I was grumbling to myself about why I was in this situation, when I passed a sign in Chinese and English, which read:
NO SMOKING AND SPITTING ALLOWED
As I looked at the long way down I wondered how many visitors were tempted to spit, and watch if splash when it hit the bottom.
I finally made it to the bottom, only to discover I was looking at just two of thirteen tombs built three hundred years ago for thirteen emperors during the Ming Dynasty. I learned these tombs mean as much to the Chinese as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier means to Americans.
The stairs out of the area were much shorter. I was so glad to see daylight at the top.
What a full day it had already been. We now drove to see an outdoor Chinese herbal medicine exhibition. We watched as a man purposely burned his hand on a red-hot chain, then immediately put a special cream on his hand, and instantly the burn disappeared. He reminded me of someone I once saw at our county fair who was trying to sell his magical potion to the public. I smiled at the comparison, and realized we humans are so much alike in so many ways, no matter where we live.
Next stop was the Great Wall. The bus parked not far from the Wall. In spite of the morning’s experience, I was determined I was going to make it, but I hadn’t realized what a difficult climb it would be
Many stone stairs led up to that section of the Wall where tourists were permitted. For a moment I hesitated. They looked so steep, and they were steep. There was no railing on either side to hold onto. The steps were crowded with people going up and down, sometimes jostling one another, or stopping suddenly to look at something in the many shops that lined each side.
I took a deep breath and started out. Part way up Mr. Wei came alongside and helped me by offering his arm. We finally got up to a landing area. “There are only a few more steps here. Do you think you can handle it on your own? I’ve been up so many times. You don’t mind if I stay here?” asked the ever-polite Mr. Wei.
I thanked him for his help and proudly climbed up to the level portion of the Great Wall, now crowded with tourists. On each side of that section, the Wall rises to watchtowers. Many people were climbing that high, and I was sure from there they would be able to see the long stretch of Wall on either side. I was content with what I had already accomplished. Before I started my descent, though, I made sure someone took my picture.
After the picture taking I walked slowly down the short incline to the landing where I sat for awhile, enjoying the warm day, and watching hundreds of people pass by. As I rested I recalled reading that the Great Wall of China was one of the few things that could be seen from the moon. That seemed to make my feat all the more impressive for me.
“Would you like me to help you back down the steep stairs?” Mr. Wei asked. How nice of him, I thought.
“Thanks, but I think I’ll be okay. I’m sure it will be much easier than coming up.”
I managed it fine, though slowly. When we all got back into the bus I made a big point of bragging that I’d got up to the Wall. “I’ve got a picture to prove it,” I said. They all clapped.
I was ready to go back to the hotel for our usual everyday-on-this-tour authentic Chinese dinner, but we were not finished sightseeing yet.
We stopped for a short time at a cloisonné factory. This was quite interesting, for I owned some cloisonné pieces and I hadn’t realized how they were made. We learned copper wire is used to put the design on a vase, then hand painted, fired and polished.
We finally got back to our hotel in time for a quick swim in the hotel pool before bedtime, which felt really good.
I woke up to another hot, humid day. It was August, and I had to expect it. I picked up the paper on which was listed the schedule for the day–a visit to Tiananmen Square just a short bus ride away, and then the Forbidden City.
Tiananmen Square was not a prolonged stop on our tour that day. We simple disembarked at one corner for a brief view. It is the largest square in the world. As I looked across the vast expanse, I could barely make out the government buildings across the way. According to our guide, and what I knew from newspaper accounts, one million dissidents had filled the square on those fateful days in 1980 when one lone student defied the government and stood in front of an armored tank.
The Great Hall of the People, the Museum of Chinese History, and many government buildings are located on all four sides. In a small ceremony each morning at sunrise, the flag of China, bright red background with semicircle of gold stars, is raised, and lowered each evening at sundown. At the entrance to the Forbidden City, right next to Tiananmen Square, a huge portrait of Chairman Mao hung.
The Forbidden City, where the Palaces of the Ming and Qing dynasties are located, is familiar as it is often used as a background in movies. Known as the Palace Museum, it is the largest palace complex in the world, with an aggregate total of 9999 rooms. No one I asked seemed to know if that number of rooms had any significance.
Wherever I looked I saw palace after palace, and pagoda after pagoda, each one very ornate, with red and gold cupolas and ornamental roofs with dragons and dogs. Within the Forbidden City are located the Hall of Supreme Harmony, the Hall of Central Harmony, the Golden Throne, and many bronze statues of lions and cranes. All the buildings looked so familiar, like those in our American Chinatowns.
We had been promised an authentic Chinese meal of Peking duck, and I was now ready for it. Throughout our 10-day trip, except for breakfast where we had an American buffet, we had been served Chinese family-style meals in large bowls on a Lazy Susan in the middle of the table. This dinner was different. Along with the ever-present rice dishes, we were given squab, fresh water shrimp, and fish. When the duck arrived it had been cut up into small pieces. The waiter came to the table, took what looked like a taco shell, though I learned it was a pancake, dabbed some plum sauce on it, added spears of cucumbers, shredded scallions and the duck, and crisp skin, rolled the pancake over and handed it to us. It sure tasted good. For dessert we had small cakes and cut up watermelon. At the very end, another large bowl of soup was placed in the middle of the table. Soup is traditionally served again at the end of a meal, thin watery soup in the hot weather, and thick soup in the winter. An interesting and delicious meal.
After our visit to Beijing, we flew to Xian to see the Terra Cotta Warriors.
In 1974, two farmers who were digging a well, didn’t like the quality of the first water they found, so dug deeper and uncovered a head. Because they were superstitious, the farmers ran away screaming. An American newspaper correspondent, in the area to gather information about the ancient city of Xian, heard about the discovery and concluded they’d found something important. Besides notifying his newspaper, he also alerted the Chinese authorities. Archaeologists soon began excavating, and discovered thousands of full-sized terra cotta soldiers.
I walked into a huge building built specifically to house the soldiers. In front of me, a massive array of terra cotta warriors stood four abreast in full battle formation. Originally brightly painted, they now show a red-clay appearance. Their wooden bows, arrows and spears have disintegrated over time. To keep the entrance a secret, it is believed the craftsmen who fashioned the soldiers were sealed alive in the tomb. Buried for 2,000 years, the statues now stand silently, on and on and on as far as the eye can see. The huge room was completely filled with seven thousand life-size warriors, their chariots and horses in half-size. The grandeur of the exhibition, and knowing their age and their still good condition, literally took my breath way. It is probably the most amazing scene I’ve ever been privileged to look upon
When Ching became emperor at the age of 13, he began preparing for his death. More than 70,000 workers were employed to build his underground mausoleum, and create the terra cotta warriors, horses and chariots. They would be there to always guard his tomb and protect him in death, just as his real army protected him in life. Archeologists now believe the tomb may spread over a twenty square mile area. For lack of money, Ching’s actual tomb has not yet been found. It was an overwhelming experience to look at the multitude of soldiers, all with different facial expressions. Unfortunately no photos of the Terra Cotta Warriors are allowed
I wouldn’t have missed my experience of seeing China for anything. Because my camera didn’t abide by the rules of science, and because I was lucky enough to have slept in Room 1920 in the Beijing Hotel, I now have pictures of the Great Wall, the Imperial Palace, and the fascinating Chinese people. It is a trip I’ll long remember.