02 May 2010


I meant to write every day while I was here but last night when I logged on I found that both Facebook or Blogger are being blocked by the Chinese government. I actually found out they didn't work on my own and then did a little research and found out why and then found out how to bypass the IP address (which I already knew how to do from getting baseball and "The Office" in Korea which isn't supposed to work either but anyway) and by the time I figgert all of that out I was too tired to write.

The flight over here was uneventful. The Beijing airport was quite a piece of work architecturally and one of the most intriguing spaces I have ever seen. It is huge and seems to hover over the air above you. This (size) soon became a theme and may be the biggest impression I have of China. Everything is giant-size. We got out of the airport and caught a cab to our hotel, the Minzu. This is an old historic hotel which recently celebrated its fiftieth anniversary. It is historic because it is one of ten buildings commissioned by the government when the communists took power back in the early fifties. There are two kinds of old in China. The Minzu kind, the new old, and the Great Wall kind, the old old. They often coexist side by side, as in the case of the famous portrait of Mao affixed to the front of the main gate to the Forbidden City.

After getting checked into the hotel, which is strange in a way but nice, we met a friend of my co-traveller Matt: Ma Huidi. She is so funny. She took us to the National Center for the Performing Arts. This building is surreal. It looks kind of like a partially submerged egg floating in the middle of a lake. It is huge (it actually contains several performance spaces and I believe the one that we were in was one of the smaller ones and it probably seated around 500) and is interesting in that it has no visible entrance. To enter you take a tunnel under the lake which has a glass ceiling: it was amazing to look out through the water of the lake from below. The concert itself was thrilling. The Chinese National Symphony performed with an aging pianist who I gathered from the reception he got was something of a national treasure. Matt told me that the program, which was a mixture of old classics (Grieg and Rachmaninoff) and pieces made famous by the aforementioned pianist during the cultural revolution, was controversial. I wasn't so interested in the politics as the music and enjoyed it thoroughly. After this we walked near Tienanmen Square and then back to the hotel for a late dinner (salted duck and shredded pork).

We woke early and went for a walk. We had booked a tour of the Great Wall through the hotel but we weren't scheduled to leave until ten so we had a leisurely breakfast (bacon, eggs, and Stilton on wheat toast for me) and hiked around for a while. The city was beautiful in the early morning and it was fun to watch the people getting out and about. By the time we were picked up for our tour it was already getting hot and it would eventually reach ninety F. The man who took us on our tour was quite an efficient driver but I don't believe he spoke to us three times throughout the day. He wasn't unfriendly per say, just incredibly quiet. The traffic was horrible the whole day but I was able to catch up on some sleep and it was nice to see the countryside anyway. A few miles north of Beijing the mountains begin and they are very beautiful, rocky sharp ridged, just like the ones you remember seeing from old Chinese ink paintings.

This part of China must have skipped spring because the cherry blossoms were just starting to bloom and only the crazy birches had leaves on. That is another one of the surprising things I found about China. I would have thought that a country of six billions would have had every square inch of arable land under cultivation to produce food (as it is indeed in Korea) but they have apparently had a big drive in the last few years to plant trees to offset their carbon emissions I think and plant they have done. The whole place is covered with newly planted and fast growing trees like poplars, willows, and birches. Everywhere we went it was like one giant tree farm.

Once in the mountains we climbed till we got to our destination, the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall. This is not the most popular (the tourist frenzy what puts the bad in Badaling) or the most picturesque (probably Jinshanling) but strikes a nice balance between the two. We took the cable car up but it was still quite a but of work for both of is to get there and we had to rest in the shade a few times. Once we got to the top the view was of course incredible, the wall rising and falling huge distances as it rode the ridge of the mountain from horizon to horizon, reappearing far off in in places before finally disappearing for good in the distance. The mountains looked a bit naked without their greenery but the puffs of cherry blossom everywhere was a nice accent against the dark of the hills.

After running the gauntlet of the souvenir stands (which is a story all in itself), we got back down and found our driver and headed for the Ming Tombs. We didn't have the time or the energy to really explore them but what we did see was spectacular. I especially loved the Hall of Souls, a thick-walled hall built to look like a wooden structure but constructed of stone so as to last for eternity. Inside was a giant granite obelisk with an ancient inscription. It was amazing to think that these things were built long before the first Europeans set foot on North America. There is a juniper tree there that has been found to be several thousand years old. It was most likely transplanted there during the construction of the tomb complex.

On the way back we stopped at a dumpling house that I found in one of my guidebooks (Matt lived in China for several years and loves dumplings, as do I). They were hand made after we ordered and I made a movie of the lady stuffing and forming them. We had duck, pork, mutton, veggie, and just for fun I ordered donkey. I liked the mutton the best and second probably the donkey, which had a lot of tooth and a beefy texture with a little bit of a whang at the end. All of that was washed down with cold Xingtao. When we got back to the hotel tonight Matt wrote his wife an email and promptly passed out. We are both exhausted. It was a lot of driving in a hot car today and quite a bit of walking. And I have a bit of a cold. One of the funny things that happened today was that I sneezed and had a big string of snot hanging out of my nose. While I was trying to find a tissue or something in my bag the driver turned around and caught a look at me. He turned back around to face the road and silently rolled down his window. That was the end of our air conditioning for the day.

Bed now. Up early tomorrow. More soon and pictures.