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Archive for September, 2007

The Wall

The view from the parking lot

"All in all it was all just bricks in the wall" - for all Pink Floyd fans out there ) .

Our bus tour took us to Badaling, the section of the great wall that is most frequented by tourists. As we approached we could see the watchtowers silhouetted against the hazy sky, then finally the rest of the wall came into view. 

 Across the valley The wall gate Looking back down

By this time it was mid-afternoon so the morning surge of tourists that usually come to this area had died down and we were able to explore relatively unimpeded. Others had told stories of horror congestion at Badaling so we were greatly relieved. The wall obviously takes very heavily traffic at Badaling, the heavily worn stones testifying to how many feet have walked along this section of it. This section of the wall has been completely renovated, so whilst it's not strictly original it gives a feel of what it would have been like hundreds of years ago.

Love locks Looking out across the mountains Left or right?

From the starting point we had 2 choices - going right and up the mountain ridge or going left and up, up, up the mountain ridge. We went with the latter. As we started to climb we went past this row of locks and ribbons on the wall. There is a myth that if a couple attached a padlock to the wall with a ribbon then their love will be locked together forever. There were a couple of shops making the most of this opportunity. There were also other people selling stuff along the way, like T-shirts, stamps with your name on them and other such touristy trinkets you'd expect to see at a place like this. Also purchasable was an obligatory certificate of proof that you climbed the Wall. 

Up, up, up!

It's a steep climb and somewhat hard going. The further up we went, the less & less old overweight tourists we saw yet we still managed to come across a Chinese woman battling with stilettos on the uneven stones (and between them) near the top of the climb. Reaching the top was worth the near-hour-long climb. Although it was hazy the mountains were still inspiring.

Looking back from the top Out from the tower The two of us again!

You can forget any notions that you may have about the wall being this perfectly formed X metres high by Y metres wide construction. It's rough, it twists and turns and it's forever changing as it winds its way across the always-changing landscape. In places it's 4 or 5 metres wide at the top, in others it's single-file only.

Near the start Wall detail Across the towers

Along the way we passed about 10 or so guard towers, each strategically located so that the wall between guard towers could be completely protected by the archers. A very nice little military strategy on the part of the designer ) . These guard towers were also used for communication by passing along different coloured smoke signals. Below is a face-signal poking out.

 

Gail poking out

The key significance of the wall is not it's height in any one location but the fact that it is continuous (as good as) over such an enormous length (over 6000km as originally built). Through mountains and valleys, through forests, through sand and clay, through rocks and stone, the wall just goes on and on. We were amazed at it for about 2km of it's length. Imagine that multiplied 3000 times over!

Up in the mountains On the way back down A defence tower

It was a quiet and subdued 2 hour bus ride back to Ti'anm*n square in Beijing. Everyone on the bus was clearly worn out from the day's activities. Once back in the city we hunted for anything that said "food and water" so we crashed in an RBT restaurant a little south of the square. Having deciding that we wanted the express route back to the hotel we took another of Beijing's cheap taxis to finish out the day.

A place named Ming

For our last whole day in Beijing we taxi'd and metro'd down to a place a little beyond the south west corner of Tiananmen square. Between 6:30am and 8:30am tourist coaches leave for a paltry fee of 50 Yuan. They all head out to one of a few different stretches of the great wall, stopping off at a bunch of different places along the way. 

We arrived at 8:10am and a quick conversation with the people at the bus park revealed that the last bus for the Simatai part of the wall had left at 8:00am, along with all the buses to everywhere except the most popular (but very busy and touristy) part of the wall at Badaling. After agreeing to this the man ushered us to his car. After a couple of confirmations as to what was happening we nervously agreed. Fortunately all he wanted to do was drive us back closer to the corner of Tiananmen square where the buses actually depart from. 

We were the only foreigners on our particular tour group so we were verbally on our own a lot of the time. Most of the hotels in Beijing run day tours to the wall so that's something we'd consider next time. Still, our tour was dirt cheap so we didn't mind so much.

Waxworks 1 Waxworks 2 Waxworks 3

Our first stop was the Beijing Shisanling Waxworks Palace of Ming Dynasty, about 1 hour north of Beijing. There was a particular waxworks creation from each of the 16 Ming emperors, each depicting a significant event during their respective reigns. Fortunately there were English description panels so that we could keep up. 

Emperor Dingling Tomb

Our next stop was the Ming tombs, where 13 of the 16 Ming dynasty emperor's were buried. Scattered through the mountains here the different emperors were buried. How successful and rich the dynasty was at the time is usually reflected in the lavishness of each tomb. Only the tombs of Changling and Dingling are open to the public. We entered the latter tomb only.

The main points of interest here were the Stone Bridge, the Soul Tower and the Underground palace (tomb). Originally discovered and excavated in about 1958, his tomb was laid out with three chambers in a line with 2 smaller chambers off to the side. The whole thing was constructed underground.

Wan Li’s entourage for the afterlife

To enter we went down about 10 flights of stairs and into the rear of one of the side chambers. Once inside we were presented with these massive interconnecting stone chambers. The centre rear chamber is where they found Wan Li's casket (Emperor Dingling), along with the caskets for his two empresses and 40 boxes of articles for the afterlife, all laid upon a marble slab. The originals have been removed and replaced with replicas. On the ground in front of the casket some people throw money. This is significant for the Chinese for those who trace their lineage back through the emperor. In China there is a lot of ancestor worship and the belief is that by brining your ancestors money (fake or real) then they can bring prosperity to your family in the present. And lets face it, an old emperor of China had more money than anyone else at the time!

Money offerings Central chamber Entryway

Lined up down the centre of the very middle chamber were 3 stone thrones, one for each of the empresses and one for the emperor. Finally, we exited out through the original diamond-shaped entry-way into the tombs. Once everything was in place and the emperor safely buried then this was bricked in. After ascending stairs to ground level there was a stone laid in the ground, a place holder showing where the original marker stone for the tomb was found. Apparently upon this stone was written the direction to go and how far to dig down and across to find the buried entryway to the tomb. A handy pointer, I'm sure.

Soul Pillar and Offerings jar Soul Pillar

Directly in front of the tomb was the Soul Pillar, quite an impressive obelisk looking thing with plenty of traditional Chinese writing and fine detailing only visible on closer inspection. Although the interiors of the tombs were not highly decorated there's this overriding feeling of thoroughness and completeness that seems to be missing from modern Chinese culture. So many different objects have precise physical alignment, matching fine decoration and artwork, ornate stone carvings and precise sequences of objects. I left the tomb feeling that China has sacrificed a huge part of who it was to become who it is today.

From here the bus took us to a Jade shop where we stayet wwwwaaaayyyy too long. It's typical of these sorts of organised tours - you inevitably end up spending a stint at a place where you're encouraged to buy stuff.

Er… lunch Touch-for-luck traditional statue

It was about 2:30pm when we finally left with the hunger pangs well and truly in full flight. We arrived at a restaurant and were ushered out the back to a large hall where there were large round tables and, at one end, a row of vats of food. Here the Chinese culture really took over and it was every man and woman for himself as everyone from young girls to 60+ year old women elbowed, barged and pushed their way in front of everyone else to try and get their food first. Some of the vats of food ran dry but they were eventually replenished. We sat down at the last remaining free chairs, pushed aside the pile of fish bones on the table and ate. I still have no idea how the same basic ingredients can result in such tasteless food, but when you're hungry, the quality of the food becomes less important.

Summer palace central palace

Recognise this place? Take a close look at the banner of this blog!

Saturday dawned to the sultry sounds of a sick wife. We stayed in the hotel for the morning while Gail rested. At an early lunch time we ventured out… about 50m out… before Gail decided that the best place for her was back in the snuggly comfort of the hotel room bed. The goal for the day was the Summer Palace, the place where the emperors hung out when things to a bit to hot in summer in the Forbidden city, so I explored it on my own.

I tried to get there on a budget and the palace is located in the north east of the city, so my journey took me by taxi to the subway, then around up to the top-left Xizhimen station on the city ring line, then three stations up on the northern loop light rail line to Wudaokou and finally onto a 375 bus. The palace is called Yihe Yuan in Chinese however the bus stop I needed was 3 stops beyond the bus stop of the same name. Fortunately the bus ticket guy stopped me when I tried to exit the bus at the stop of the same name and told me that it was 3 stops further, my rudimentary Mandarin skills coming in handy there! I covered the straight-line distance of about 14km in approximately 1 hour for a paltry 19 Yuan in total.

Suzhou street View north from the hill Yellow glazed Buddhist tiles

This bus stop put me on the north entrance which leads up the back side of Longevity hill, with the palace located on the front side. Here there's an area called Suzhou street with small walkways, shops and places to eat. Ascending the hill leads up to the Buddhist Temple of the Sea of Wisdom, covered in these glazed porcelain tiles. Looking north has a good view, or at least it would be on a clear day…

Descending the hill through beautiful gardens brings you out on the Kunming lake foreshore to the side of the main palace. The lake was greatly expanded by various emperors as they each made their mark on the palace and it's now about 1.5km long with a few islands and smaller lakes.

Marble boat

Built, destroyed and re-built was the white marble boat. This was a place where rituals were conducted of releasing animals to promote good things spiritually for the emperor. It also signified the solidity of the Qing dynasty.

Foreshore The palace Covered colonnades

Along the foreshore you can look up at the main palace halls, various halls of benevolence and harmony as well as the usual food, museum and such buildings. There's everything from Chinese trinket souvenirs to reproduction Qing dynasty architecture. Also along the foreshore are these highly decorated covered colonnades with some exquisite detailing. It's from here that you can take a ferry to cross the lake if you so desire.

Hall of Benevolence and Harmony A cute little lion Bronze bull

Moving around the side of the lake brought me through to the Hall of Benevolence and Longevity, complete with a courtyard decorated with bronze animals. Further down there was this bronze bull covered in writings from one of the emperor's himself. The bronze bull is said to control the floods and bring good luck to it's visitors.

17 arch bridge

A very cool landmark is the white marble 150m long seventeen-arch bridge. On the columns of the parapets are 544 unique carved lions. Legend has it that these lions move around at night.

North gate Gate to the boat yards Gate to the palace

Another dominant feature of the park is a large array of the traditional Chinese gates. At each entryway in and out of the park and also into the palace itself are these huge structures, some restored and others not.  

After exiting from a different gate it was unclear how to get home, so I took a taxi all the way back to the north-west corner of the subway system. It's here that I became stranded in an A-grade Beijing traffic jam. We barely moved for over half an hour. It took me two hours to get back to the hotel and my recovering wife, where I was once again tired and happy from the adventure.  

Into the haze

Jingshan view of the Forbidden City

Our day was far from over in the centre of Beijing. After exiting the Forbidden city we made our way up to the top of the hill in JingShan park, which lies directly behind the city. From here you have almost a 360 degree view of the centre of Beijing.

The top of the hill in JingShan is also a great place to get an elevated view of the Forbidden City except… well… on this day the view wasn't too flash. We could see less than half the length of the city. At least the temple on top of the hill had some lovely under-roof paintings as some compensation. Lower in the park they were keen to keep people off the grass so they had erected this cute little sign that works in any language.

 Under the roof Hanging tree Cute little sign

Located within the park is the location where the last emperor of the Ming dynasty hanged himself. After receiving news that the peasant uprising had broken into the city he did a bolt for it out the back door and took his own life rather than be captured and killed by the peasants.

From here we made it out into the old streets of surrounding Beijing. We walked through roads and dwellings that look like they haven't changed for 50 years or so. We stopped in a small local restaurant and had a feast of rice, dumplings, fried beef and garlic broccoli, served with a tepid and somewhat ho-hum tea.

Beijing street

With all the rain and so forth our Swiss companion found soggy socks more than she could bear. We eventually managed to find a store selling women's clothes and she managed to put an end to her sodden socks.

 Gail in the street Local house Fixing the sock problem

From here we made our way to Beijing's famous silk markets. Like other places in China, this is a multi-story complex full of shops selling all kinds of goods, including silk. There were shops selling tea wares, jade articles, jewellery accessories, wall hangings, customised stamps and a bunch of other trinkets. There was also a steady stream of foreigners all hunting for a bargain.

Nearby there were a few more familiar food places, where we eventually had dinner. It was a big day, a colossal day in fact. I don't know how many kilometres we walked but it was a lot. We saw everything from the biggest to the smallest Beijing had to offer and went to bed utterly exhausted, but loving our time in this culturally-rich city.

The heart of China

After getting the 2 days of work out the way we began our real adventure in Beijing, exploring the city. We teamed up with a colleague and a friend of his for our first day of exploration. Target - Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City.

Keeping dry

We taxi'd and subway'd our way into Tiananmen sq and emerged at the surface into pouring rain. In this mess the only solution was to buy umbrellas and ponchos from the local sellers who emerged from the woodwork. For 5-10 Yuan each it was a small price to pay to stay dry.  

Motionless guard The flag Lighting up the square Monument to fallen heroes

Tiananmen square is a massive open paved area in the centre of the city. In it's centre is the monument to the fallen heroes of China's past. As the Mid Autumn festival approaches in China the square had many temporary structures on it, including a grandstand and some giant trees carved into the shape of famous Chinese landmarks. There were various guards scattered around, all required to remain motionless, which brought some brief amusement. The Chinese flag is ceremonially hoisted and lowered on it's humongous flag pole every day. The square also has Chairman Mao's Mausoleum, which we were unable to enter due to it being closed for renovation. Keeping a dead guy on ice in a crystal casket is one of the crazier things the Chinese have done.

Mao’s Mausoleum The square The entry way

Just across the road lies the Forbidden City, so called because for many years it has been off-limits to commoners. It's a huge complex consisting of about a dozen primary halls, literally hundreds and hundreds of smaller buildings, alleyways, courtyards. This is where the emperors administered their empire. There are supposed to be 9999 buildings in total spread over 720,000 square metres, 960m long and 750m wide. No wonder it's called a city! 

The entrance with a dilligent guard

The southern section of the city is called the Outer Court and you enter the outer court by going through the Meridean gate. Here are the halls of Supreme Harmony, Central Harmony and Preserved Harmony, each with a different purpose. All of the main halls are perfectly aligned through the central axis of the city and it is symmetrical left and right of it's centreline. The ground is covered in uneven stones. To prevent someone tunnelling in, the paving is made from 15 cris-crossing layers of paving stones.

 Protection for the inner court The moat on the outskirts of the inner court Internal gateway

The gate of Celestial Purity marks the entrance into the Inner Court where the palaces of Celestial Purity, Celestial and Terrestrial Union and Terrestrial Tranquillity lie. The walls of the gate project proudly and dominantly forward on either side, intimidating all who come before it. The inner court is where the emperor and his close consorts resided. On either side lie sets of 6 buildings where the concubines resided. There are additional halls for things like ancestor worship, eternal and joyful tranquillity, benevolence, etc…they just go on and on.

Where the emperor issued his decrees A big impressive hall Another impressive hall

On the north side of the last great hall is the Imperial Garden. It's full of towers, monuments, rocks, flowers, old trees, sculptures and the like. Just the sort of place for the emperor to nip out to if the Mongols have given him a hard day at the office ) . Behind the garden is the gate of Divine Might, which exits the palace on the northern side, nearly 1km from the entrance. 

Gate rivets

The level of detail in everything is quite extraordinary. Some examples are the multiples of 9 that appear in pillars, rows of rivets, roof trusses, the animals and gargoyles on the corners of the roofs, the yellow porcelain tiles, the ornate ceilings, the interlocking pavers and the stone dragon mouths that encircle the elevated platforms that spurt water when it rains. 

The emperor’s quarters The emperess’s quarters The watch towers

Throughout the palace there are these huge bronze basins that were traditionally full of water. Apart from looking nice, their purpose was to enable them to fight a fire when one started. With lots of wooden structures, high roofs and being located in an area prone to lighting, you can imagine the result. The undersides of all the roofs were heavily decorated and I didn't fancy the job of dangling from the rafters 2 storeys up trying to re-paint them!

 Gail in the doorway Pouring rain Old style tree

Located in many of the buildings are small museums to various aspects of the palace or Chinese culture. There are halls that display Chinese clothing, musical instruments, working tools or historical events. Sadly, most of the original articles from within the Forbidden city are now either in storage or in museums and few remain at the city itself. We didn't stop at too many and it still took us 2 hours to get through the city. It would be possible to come back here day after day and still not see everything.

Exquisite roof detailing

It's a strange feeling walking through such a mammoth construction, especially when you consider how long ago it was constructed and the means that it was most likely done by. It feels like the buildings, gates, bridges and paving stones go on for ever. It's also constantly under renovation and it seems especially important to make it pretty for the number of expected visitors during the Olympics. It's big, it's imposing, its overwhelming, which I'm sure was precisely the intention. It signified great might and power and is probably the single most important construction linking China with it's past. 

Beijing initiation

Beijing Skyline

Righto, first things first. Beijing is a place where the pollution is horrendous. Unreal. No words can describe how bad the air pollution is here. It's the first thing that hits you after arriving at the airport. Beijing makes the air in Shenzhen seem like a tropical island resort out in the Pacific somewhere.

It actually requires some mental effort to consider that the level of pollution has been allowed to reach the level that it has. It's mind blowing. It represents a complete disregard for the environment and the future of our planet. None of us are innocent in this regard either, as others have discussed.  

I have no idea what they're going to do for the Olympic games but you can guarantee that there will be some kind of heavy-handed and multi-pronged approach to improve the air quality come August 2008.

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