Friday, July 13

The Great Wall of China

Over the years I've been privileged to see many of the world's iconic wonders. The Great Wall of China is one such example. I've visited the wall on three previous occasions. Each visit occurred during a different season; summer, winter and autumn. At times I feel a measure of guilt knowing that people like my parents will never enjoy the same experience. It was therefore a special experience to be witness my parent’s first glimpse of the Great Wall of China during our second day in Beijing.

Together we climbed the wall at Mutianyu, 60 kms north of Beijing, pausing twice to call each of my brothers and share the experience. At Mutianyu the wall stretches up and along mountain ridges for miles; almost as far as the eye can see. This section was built in the early Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644 AD), on the remnants of a wall originally built during the Northern Qi Dynasty (550-577 AD). Today, it’s one of four locations open to visitors. If offers 2.5 kms of restored, undulating stonework, including 22 impressive watchtowers. 

 Visitors make their way to up the wall’s crest by cable car or chairlift. However, access to either of these facilities still involves walking up a steep hillside trail. Naturally, this being China, the way is lined with cluttered souvenir stalls and plenty of stall owners passionately touting their wares. The climb from the parking lot to the cable car station certainly tested my father’s stamina. However, his look of awe when he finally stood on the wall’s cobblestone roadway was a joy to see. 

While our visit to the wall was definitely the day’s highlight, we’d actually began our sightseeing with a morning excursion to the Underground Palace of Dingling. This is the tomb of Emperor Wanli, was 13th emperor of the Ming Dynasty. He was born in 1563, ascended to the throne at the age of 10, and reigned for 48 years until his death at age 58.  His tomb sits along with a dozen others in a Feng Shui friendly valley at the foot of the Tianshou Mountains, 50 kms northwest of Beijing.

In many ways this is China's equivalent of Egypt's Valley of the Kings near Luxor. It holds more than a dozen tombs spanning almost three hundred years of rule under the Ming Dynasty from 1368 through to 1644. Currently Wanli's tomb is the only one with access to the underground burial chamber. Even then access is a bit of an adventure.  Visitors reach its marble vaulted rooms by descending a 27-metre stairway.
The descent is worth it. The underground palace is surprisingly spacious. Visitors are greeted by five rooms, each boasting a broad vaulted ceiling. Every surface is clad in smooth veined white marble. The resulting combination of curved ceilings and smooth surfaces transforms the space into a mind-numbing echo chamber. At times the experience becomes overwhelming as an endless stream of noisy Chinese tour groups jostle for space.

Construction of the tomb started in 1584 and took six years to complete. It was constructed as a mausoleum for Emperor Wanli and his two empresses. Unfortunately, the original red coffins laid to rest inside have not survived to the present day. Instead, visitors are greeted by a series of shiny replicas, while the most impressive artifacts recovered are displayed in a small museum located above ground.  

In fact, the only original items of note still in the tomb are three marble thrones and the massive doors that once sealed the tomb.  In a time honoured ritual, visitors toss money onto the throne, honouring the dead and bringing good fortune to them and their family. Our guide showed us how these doors were sealed from the inside using heavy poles. Each pole was stacked on an angle against the inner lining of the door so that their weigh would gently pushed the doors closed when counter-balancing weights were removed from the opposite side.
We finished our day with a visit to "snack street", a popular food stall market located a few blocks from our hotel. This market comes alive each evening with dozens of lively stalls. The array of delicacies on display was a tourist’s delight with vendors offering up dried seahorses, starfish on a stick and baby ducklings alongside more mundane stirfry dishes.

Our guide had reassured me that the food was safe to eat so we boldly sampled a few items, but kept well away from the rats; fried or otherwise. I must admit I was paranoid for days afterwards that my parents would be struck down with food poisoning. It was therefore somewhat ironic that I ended up with severe diarrhoea on our last day while they remained unaffected for the entire vacation.


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