Sunday, June 21, 2009

Beijing - Day 3 (Great Wall/Ming Tombs)

Today we climb the Great Wall and become real Chinese (again). I've been to the Great Wall when I was in primary school, but the wife has never scaled it before. We were told the best option is to contract a taxi driver to drive us around. Given that my Mandarin is not the best, we simply booked into a local tour. RMB300 for a day tour to Mu Tian Yu (慕田峪) (per person), then a side trip to the Ming Tombs. A bit expensive, but it's a guided tour with pickup from hotel and drop-off and lunch is included. Tour to Ba Da Ling (八達嶺) costs RMB100 less, but everyone says that that section of the Great Wall is overcrowded and overcommercialized, as it is closer to Beijing.

The shuttle coach came to our hotel promptly enough. After half an hour of picking up other people from their hotels, we were on our way to the outskirts of Beijing. Along the way, our guide pointed out some important landmarks and imparted some history and interesting trivia about the capital. (When in Beijing, order Yan Jing Beer (燕京啤酒).) A few minutes prior to reaching our destination, we were given an overview of Mu Tian Yu. This particular section has 22 stations or watchtowers along the Wall. One option is to start walking from station 1, and go as far as you can, then make your way back. Obviously you're not gonna go far. Another option is to take the cable car up to station 14, and start the trek from there. Our guide assures us there's more to see this way. Probably less crowded, too.

The cable car ride (RMB40 per person round-trip) is an experience in itself. The ride up is eerily silent, and the view is magnificent. The sun is out, but not too strong. At this altitude, the air is quite cool, so the walk is pretty pleasant. The going is relatively easy, until we hit station 19. From here, the climb to station 20 is unbelievable steep. The wife insisted she's not going any further, as she's already tired from the earlier walk. Her deep love for me eventually won over, and she changed her mind. We literally have to move up the steps on all fours, lest be lose our footing and tumble back. The view is worth it though. I reckon this is the highest point as we can pretty much see everything in every direction. Coming down station 20 is as difficult as the climb. You can't even stand straight - we had to sit on the steps and slink down one step at a time. One local kid was feeling adventurous and ran down the steps, tumbled, and got a big gash on her head. Fortunately, there were people around who tended to her. Thirty minutes on our way back to station 14, we met some medics slowly making their way up.

On our cable car ride back to the foot of the mountains, we noticed that we're actually in the same cable car that the 17th Living Buddha of Tibet Mageba used when he visited the Great Wall on 20 January 1999. Neat, huh? Once everyone's back, we piled into the coach, and we headed out for lunch. Turns out our lunch place is 1.5 hours away. Our tour guide didn't tell us that bit probably because we might protest. And what/where is this restaurant? It's actually a jade factory cum showroom cum restaurant called the Beijing Dragon Land Superior Jade Gallery. We got there tired and hungry, and still our tour guide insisted we do a round of the shop floor and showrooms first. Bah! I wonder how much commission he gets. Anyway, lunch was actually not too bad. Or maybe we're just hungry.

From here, it's not too far off to the Ming Tombs (明朝十三陵). The Ming Tombs is actually a collection of 13 tombs of the 17 Ming Emperors. Spread across an area of 80 sq. kms., the massive cemetery is situated at the foot of Tianshou Mountains and fronted by a river. Closest to us is the Ding Ling, which was built for Emperor Wan Li. According to our guide, this is the only one of the 13 Ming Tombs to be excavated so far. Pressed for time, we went through the Ling'en Gate (which is not there anymore) and the Lingxing Gate, straight through to the Underground Palace, which is 25 feet beneath ground level. Down a long flight of stairs, we pass by these massive marble doors. Our guide tells us that the marble doors are balanced so well that one man can open or close them easily. After Emperor Wan Li has been buried, these doors were wedged shut from the inside using solid rock braces that slid in place as the doors closed. Then the entrance was sealed off with a "diamond wall". This last barrier has a foundation made up of four layers of stone slabs, then built with 56 layers of bricks. Anyway, past the "diamond wall" and through a tunnel, we end up in a chamber holding the emperor's and empress' thrones and some massive jars. At the rear chamber, we see the red coffins of the emperor and his empresses. Strewn around the coffins are bills and coins, which I guess are thrown by tourists for good luck. Back on the surface, we pass by the Soul Tower. Inside the tower is a single vertical stele of rock with engravings of dragons on top. Further on are exhibition rooms that host some of the unearthed relics. Around 4:30pm, we left the site.

With still a bit of time, the coach brought us to the Olympic district on our way back to the city. For the first time, I got to see the Bird's Nest and the Water Cube. Very impressive. We also passed by the Drum Tower and the Bell Tower. We got back to the heart of Beijing, but our tour guide's not done with us yet. There's one last place to visit - the Silk Market. Here we were shown how the silkworms are grown, how the actual silk is extracted, and how the silk is made into the final product. You've got silk blankets, silk pillow cases, silk suits, silk everything. At this point, I'm not sure what's real or fake anymore, so we didn't get anything from the store. After a short rest at the store canteen, they dropped us off at our hotel, and that's the end of our tour. Too tired to explore, we had dinner at one of the in-house Italian joints Papa Johns for some pasta and pizza.

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