Monday, September 27, 2004

This morning we went to the Ming Tombs, which are located about 50 km outside of Beijing. The tombs are essentially mausoleums of the 13 emperors of the Ming Dynasty. I know this Dynasty thing can get a little confusing but they are essentially a series of emperors who have all chosen their successor, until they are overthrown and a new dynasty begins. So, the Ming Dynasty had 13 emperors and lasted from 1368-1644. The biggest tomb is the Changling tomb, but we visited the Dingling tomb which is 50 feet underground. What impressed me (once again!) was the size and scale of the structures...massive stone doors, 2 feet thick and 10 feet high. It was all very, well, impressive. Apparently, when the emperor had the tombs built he later killed all the workers and designers that contributed to the project. It took years for people to open the tombs when they did finally find them, and they were rigged with all kind of Indiana Jones type of stuff. Pretty cool.

After the Ming Tombs we went to the Badaling Friendship store. The store is a government-run souvenir shop basically, where the prices are controlled (ie. jacked up) but the quality is supposedly better. I don't know. It was cool to look around the store since it had all kinds of neat stuff - full-sized terra cotta warriors, jade dragons, pearls, silk. I refrained from buying anything because we are planning on going to the silk market on the last day we are here. We had a nice lunch at the store restaurant (again on a giant lazy susan)and headed off for our big day at the Great Wall.

We pulled up to the Great Wall at Badaling at about 2:00 on the afternoon. It was a stunning fall day and the leaves were just starting to change...they had that shimmery look to them. The sun was shining and Brian and I were both very excited to be at the Great Wall. (I won't give you any mumbo-jumbo about the wall being visible from space - because it isn't.) When you first step on to the wall you have the choice of going either left or right. The right way is easier and the left is more difficult. Brian and I went left, assuming that there would be fewer people on the harder route and we were right.

It is quite a steep climb at the beginning but it evens out after a while. The further up the wall you go, the less people you encounter and you start to feel the presence of your surroundings. The wall is one of the most amazing things I have ever seen. The idea that people could conceive of such a venture, let alone succeed in it, left me in awe. The countryside is very steep and I couldn't imagine how anyone could have carried so many rocks up so steep a hillside. Maybe they mined the rocks locally and built it that way. Either way it must have been very labour intensive. A workforce of nearly a million, representing one fifth of the whole labour force of the country (at that time), was used to build it.

The stone itself seems to change colour in the light, from grey to sand coloured to brilliant orange. The area around the wall is so beautiful and you are so high up (600 metres) that you can see for miles. The sky was a brilliant blue and at certain points on our walk you could hear nothing but your own breath and footsteps. It was amazing.

Construction of the Great Wall began in 200 B.C. and was essentially a massive defense project. After that, different emperors would add on to different parts of the wall, as China grew and enemies changed. The Great Wall at Badaling was constructed in 1505 and is said to be the best preserved section of the wall. Along its length are 19 watch towers which earned Badaling the name of "key to the North Gate".

If you take the harder route on Badaling you will find that the wall comes to an end. After the final watch tower, it crumbles away and you have to turn around and go back. Or you can do what we did and jump off the watch tower. After some maneuvering, Brian and I were able to climb off the tower onto a rickety old fence and over some barbed wire. (No problem!) Beyond the tower it is silent. It was just Brian and I, and with our backs to the tower, all we could see was miles of wall stretching out in front of us. We sat on the ruins for a while and enjoyed the isolation and beauty of the ancient wall. I kept trying to imagine what it would have been like hundreds of years ago and realized, it would have been much the same (only less crumbled!). It was one of those days in my life life that I will never forget. It was peaceful and hot and quiet. The sky was a brilliant blue and for the time we were there, it felt as though Brian and I were the only two people in the world.

We eventually had to turn back and managed to get back on to the wall. I thought I saw some Chinese soldiers at the top of the watch tower and had visions of being carted off the jail. Brian says they were only vendors but I am maintaining that they were soldiers. I guess we will never know for sure. We started our walk back down the wall and were lucky to have that perfect light that occurs late in the afternoon. It was a warm light and it cast dark shadows on the wall. As we rounded a corner we bumped into a group of about 20 soldiers running a drill. (This just served to confirm my earlier sighting, at least in my mind.) The soldiers were running up the hill with batons and had rigged a finish line across the width of the wall. We stood and watched for a while and got a very stern warning that we were to take "no photos." I took some anyway and ended up with blur. Typical. Brian however, with his fancy lens, managed to get a shot of the soldiers crossing the finish line, arms in the air. I have a digital but Brian has a 30mm so we will have to wait until we get the film back to see if it worked out. I hope it did - it was great shot.

After we finished at the Great Wall we went for a "traditional" Chinese foot massage. It consisted of 20 people being seated in a room together, soaking our feet in a big tub of warm tea. So far so good. As if on cue, a team of masseurs walked into the room, each one filing over to their customer. Again, in unison, the masseurs begin massaging our feet. Now, by massage I do not mean firm but soothing rubbing. No. I mean a hard knuckle down the middle of your foot combined with some slapping and yanking. They were like an army. They did everything in unison. They ignored any polite attempts to communicate pain and laughed at more blatant attempts to struggle free. After our feet, the leader (who thank God, was not working on either Brian or I) and his minions worked on our legs, necks and shoulders. It was amusing and frightening all at the same time. One thing it was not was relaxing. I must admit though, that once the robot army was finished, my feet did feel more relaxed. Maybe it was the relief more than the massage.

Today confirmed two rules I have always tried to apply to my life:
1. Never take the easy way. It's easier but there might be a cable car at the top and a camel wearing a sign that says "I climbed the Great Wall and saw a camel."
2. Break the rules. You will either get in big trouble or chance upon the most amazing thing in your life.

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