This is Saturday and a day dedicated to some serious sight-seeing–the Great Wall, a jade carving factory and retail outlet, the Ming Tombs. Overnight a light snow had fallen in the city but this did not significantly impede traffic. The temperature was in the mid-20s as we began our 25-mile drive north to what Astronaut Neal Armstrong callled the “only man-made strcture” he could see from his space craft. Our BC group was in high spirits to see what was probably the touristic highlight of this Interterm adventure. The common saying in China is “One hasn’t seen China until one see the Great Wall!”
On this cold, gray day, with light snow continuing to fall, tourist traffic to/at the Great Wall was lighter than usual. This structure, undulating like huge a dragon across the mountainous terrain of north China, dates from abut 200 BC and at one time snaked over some 3,000 miles from the Gobi Desert in Western China to its eastern terminus on the shores of the East China Sea. Today only a small length of the Wall has been rebuilt. The part we were visiting was characterized by high, unevenly-spaced steps–some as high as one’s knee–and proving a particular challenge to the short of stature! The Wall-perhaps 25 feet high and 30 feet wide at the top–is a breathtaking achievement! It is believed that as many as one million workers (perhaps 20% of China’s population at the time) labored in its construction.
Interestingly, the Wall proved almost totally ineffective in protecting the Chinese heartland from incursions by barbarians from the north. As Genghis Khan reportedly said, “The strength of the wall depends on the courage of those who defend it!” The economic and human costs of construction are sobering. At the entrance gate, aggressive vendors hawked an amazing variety of tourist articles. Everyone of our group negotiated some part of the fairly steep inclines of the Wall–and some of the more athletic went to a distance and height where they were almost invisible from the entry gate. Perhaps the most astounding achievement of our group was by our soon-to-be 94 years old–Jake Goering. He, without any needed encouragement, and with little physical support from us, walked up to the second of the three towers that are reasonably accessible from the entry point–a one-way upward journey of perhaps 800 steps–and coming down is generally considered more difficult than the ascent. Along the way, I told a watching and somewhat solicitous security guard nearly that this man was nearly 94 years of age! The guard’s reaction: “That is truly amazing. Have him take it very, very slowly on the way down!”
Our next stop was an establishment that included: a jade carving factory, a very large retail area where an amazing variety of carved jade products were sold, and a nicely-furnished restaurant for tourists. But eating came only after the mandatory first stop at the retail shop! Upon entering the establishment, we were given a brief lecture on jade carving, the attributes of good jade and the role of jade in Chinese culture by a young lady whose considerable skills at salesmanship were matched only by her excellent English! We were told that jade has long been an integral part of Chinese culture. During the Qin and Han Dynasties it was widely believed that jade had magical power that could promote health and perhaps foster immortality. Jade’s value reflects its scarcity, but is also determined by color, hardness, and the skill with which the stone has been carved. It come in may colors from white to black, from to rose to various shade of green. We were told that the best jade in China, callled “jadeite” comes Xinjiang province in the far NW. To the neophyte, jade quality is difficult to determine and much of what is sold by street vendors is low quality or fade. Jade carvings, “life balls”(carved balls w/in balls), bangles, etc., make easy-to-transport gifts for relatives at home! Several of our group left the site with larger obligations on their credit cards.
Following a nice lunch, we were off to the Ming Tombs–the burial sites for 13 Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 AD) emperors. The location of each tomb was determined only after careful feng shui (“wind water”) divinations by local experts. The entire complex was yet another reminder of man’s attempt to control after-life experiences and preserve them as a memorial for those who follow. . Changling, the tomb of Emperor Wan Le, was completed in 1425. It is said that 16 of his favorite concubines where buried alive with the emperor’s corpse. Our guide, Bill, provided his assessment that Wan Le was perhaps the “worst” of the 13 emperors because of his infatuation with women–many of them his senior! Dingling, the tomb of Emperor Wan Li (1563-1620) is the only one of the 13 that has ben excavated (1956-58). It produced an amazing variety of priceless artifacts–gold chopsticks, silver pots gold ingots, porcelain bowls, jade, pearls, cloisonne, etc. An interesting exhibit in one of the exhibition halls related to Admiral Zheng He, the eunuch who commanded a huge naval fleet which some Chinese historians claim discovered the new world a few years before the arrival of Columbus in 1492!
The final “event” of the day was our two-hour bus trip to our hotel through Beijing’s incredible afternoon traffic. An interesting feature: given the amazing increase in Beijing’s privately-owned auto fleet in the past three years, one could logically conclude that the average age of that fleet is probably little more than two years!