Wednesday, November 02, 2005
Beijing and the Great Wall of China
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Troy and I knew that while in Hong Kong the one place we absolutely had to visit was Beijing and the Great Wall of China. The summer passed before we could get there and we knew we had to go before it got too cold. Beijing gets these fierce winds that come down from Mongolia that make it unbearably cold. We went last weekend which just happened to fall on our 9th wedding anniversary. So it was a nice little present to each other.
We were not overly impressed with Beiijing. It didn't have a spectacular skyline and it was just your average Chinese city. The few things that absolutely astonished us was how clean it was and how blue the sky was. I don't know if it had to do with the weather, maybe factories were on vacation but there was almost no pollution - perfect blue skies and believe it or not, somewhat fresh air. This in a city of over 15 million people. 15 frickin million people! Unbelieveable! The other thing we noticed was how weather worn the local people were. I personally find it difficult to be able to tell the difference between a Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Hong Konger, but in Beijing you knew a Chinese person by their red, weathered cheeks. These people have definitely had a hard life. Living through the tyranny of Chairman Mao and the Cultural Revolution. You have to admire them though for all they have been through.
One of the "must" places to visit was Tiananmen Square (the worlds largest public square) and the Forbidden City. Everyone remembers Tiananmen square: in 1989 when students peacefully protested against the Chinese government, with the government calling for martial law because they felt the students were plotting turmoil. The Peoples Liberation Army were confronted by Chinese workers and students when violence broke out, resulting in hundreds of army and civilian deaths. The exact numbers of deaths has never been known. It has ranged from 400 to over 7000. That is typical China. Keeping bad things as a "state secret".
There are Peoples Liberation Army soldiers throughout the square today. They are a little imitating though, mainly because of who and what they represent. You know how tourists in London get their picture taken with the guards with the tall hats and try to do anything to get the guards to smile? Here it's a little different. I think if you tried to make these guys laugh, they would probably turn around and beat the crap out of you. I had Troy take my picture next to a soldier, but I am acutally standing behind him. I was too chicken shit to stand right next to him.
The Chinese flag is in the square and is guarded by 8 PLA soldiers. We were told to watch the flag lowering ceremony at sunset. At 5:20pm, all the traffic in the 6 lane street is stopped and about 20 soldiers carrying rifles, come marching across the street and take up their position around the flag.
A very short but very precise ceremony then takes places, with the flag being lowered, tied in a knot (I'm curious why it was not folded), then all the soldiers march off back across the road. I commented to Troy afterwards that I wondered if such a ceremony took place at the White House.
Before this, we went across the street to say howdy to a giant picture of Chairman Mao and then to visit the Forbidden City. This is the worlds largest palace complex, consisting of 9,999 buildings. Construction was started in 1407, took 14 years to complete and housed emperors for over 500 years. It was a bit overwhelming because it was so huge, and personally, all the buildings looked the same to me so it kind of got boring fast.
The other "must see" was the Great Wall of China. Without a doubt this was the most phenonmenal thing we have ever seen. It was almost surreal. Pictures doesn't do it justice. It just goes on forever. It extends for over 4000 miles and was built over a period of 2000 years beginning in the 7th century B.C. At any given time between 30,000 and 1.8 million people were working on the construction of the wall.
We arranged a taxi to take us to a section called Jinshanling then to pick us up at another section called Simatai. To get from our starting point to the end was about 4 miles of walking on the wall, following it as it contoured up and down the ridge of the mountain. The first mile or so was restored so the walking wasn't too bad, although there were alot of steep steps and steep inclines. After that the wall was no longer restored, so there were a lot of loose rocks and stones. We had no idea the hike was going to be as difficult as it was.
We thought we would get to the top of the wall and it would be this casual stroll on the wall. It was anything but casual. The stairs were tall and steep and there were a lot of them. Not to mention the steep inclines with rocks jutting out to trip you up. It really was fun and worth it though! Bets being at a "commercial" part of the wall with 10,000 other tourists.
We were constantly met along the way by locals selling books, t-shirts, water and beer. Sometimes they would just follow you, saying nothing and not even trying to sell you anything. They stopped when you stopped and continued on when you did. We couldn't figure out what they were doing. We don't know if they thought we would pay them to go away. They definitely were not trying to be a guide because they were not telling us stuff about the Great Wall. We could only get rid of them by firmly telling them no and to go away.
When we got to Simatai, there was a zip line that we could pay $4 to ride to cross the river. It was something that was very out of place being near the Wall. We decided "what the hell", we were tired of walking, so we paid our $4 and rode it together.
There is an area of Beijing considred the Old City of Beijing. It consists of several thousand "hutongs" which are ancient city alleys. Many of these were built in the 1200's so the buildings in these alleys are old and drab. We knew we could hire a rickshaw but we wanted to rent bikes instead. Troy made sure he had his GPS because we had a feeling we could get easily lost in them.
It was a great way to see where the local people lived and to see how modern day streets and buildings are built around the hutongs. There were a few times I almost ran into an old lady, a dog or a pole because I could not control my bike going down the alley.
As we were walking to dinner that night, (Troy is walking a few feet in front of me) I feel something at my right pocket. I turn around and realize a guy is trying to pick pocket me. At that same instant I yelled at him, and for some unknown reason, I decided to punch him in the chest. I guess I was angry. Troy turned around just in time to see me punch the guy. I casually turn to Troy and said "this guy tried to pick pocket me." They guy is standing there, stunned. He then says something to me in Chinese (somehow I don't think he called me sweetheart) then walks away. Of course, no one around us paid any attention including the 3 Buddhist monks walking behind us.