The Great Wall: I was in China for four weeks so of course I went to the Great wall. Only I didn’t really see it. As you can see from the picture above it was completely blanketed in fog. It was a very mysterious experience.
I opted to take the cable car up.
Even taking the cable car it’s a long hike if you want to see anything of the wall once you’re up on it, with many stairs to be negotiated at each watchtower.
Although parts of the wall date back as far as the 7th century BCE, the most well-known parts date from the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644). There are actually several walls, built by different dynasties, but together the walls mostly follow an arc roughly along the edge of the Mongolian steppe. In total it’s about 21,000 kilometres (13,000 miles) long. That’s a lot of construction. Despite the myth, it actually can’t be seen from space, but is still undoubtedly one of the most impressive architectural accomplishments of all time.
Watchtowers punctuate the wall and were also used for storage and living quarters for the soldiers.
Walking from watchtower to watchtower I had a feeling of aloneness, of emptiness. Perhaps it was the fog. Even the few fellow tourists were swallowed by it.
What a tough isolated life it must have been for the soldiers who lived there in their cold rough barracks. And yet on a clear sunny day the views must be breathtaking.
I began at watchtower number 15, walked up to number 17, then all the way in the other direction to number four then back up to number 6 for the chairlift down. I covered over twelve kilometres that day. It was a good hike in a shrouded veil punctuated by a bunch of school kids on an excursion, their energy and enthusiasm bringing a smile to my face.
Leaning out through one of the crenellations I could get a sense of the outside of the wall, and almost a sense of the endless extent of it that I was denied by the weather. It’s a huge structure, which can’t really be appreciated until you are actually on it.
Was I disappointed about the weather? Of course, but it was still a remarkable experience.
Communication: Okay I’ll start by saying that me trying to write in Chinese would be completely hopeless. I can’t even imagine how difficult it would be to learn written Chinese. Even so, with humble respect, it was often amusing to see their attempts at written English.
A storefront with a huge sign: Big Gynaecological Big Brand. Huh?
Breast Supply on the Yangtze River cruise boat: coffee, tea, yogurt, acorns in mousetraps (?), cereal, fruit juice.
A sign at the Li River. Don’t have fun!
Some not so hot tips in the forest at Emei Shan:
Blasting Juice! A clear confusion between the letters c and e:
My almost favourite:
One of those bars across the top of taxis with scrolling letters formed by lights. So we’re stuck in slow traffic and I get to watch this taxi for quite a long time. The Chinese characters scroll by over and over, no doubt advertising something. Every now and then a little English appears. The first thing in English is Up U!
And definitely my favourite:
We’re at a spa with many pools of water of varying temperatures cascading down a hill. From one level to the next there is a slide but for some reason they’ve closed it off. The sign? Please feel free to enjoy the inconvenience.
Speaking of language, when I go to a new country I always learn how to say hello, goodbye, please, thank you, and I’m sorry. In China (also in Japan where it is dōitashimashite) I learned to say “you’re welcome” (or the equivalent thereof). Thank you in Chinese is shia shia. I found myself being absurdly pleased when they would respond boo ker chee and I knew what they were saying. Communication win!
On one occasion I walked into a public washroom, which was empty except for a woman mopping the floor. I walked down the line of stalls to see if the symbol on any of the doors indicated a western toilet. Nope. So I walked out again knowing that there would be one in the washroom for the disabled nearby. As I was walking out the woman started shouting at me. Shouting! So I shout back “I have no idea what you’re saying but I can shout as loud as you can!” Communication fail.
Sugar People: In this traditional Chinese folk art the artisan uses hot liquid sugar to create three-dimensional figures. A pre-requisite is a willingness to develop asbestos fingers. I know what that’s like from years of cooking on wood stoves in wilderness camps in the far north of Canada. The semi-liquid viscous sugar is moulded, and then blown in a similar way to glass blowing. The art form has been practiced in public spaces in China for hundreds of years and can still be seen today in most busy places. I’d never seen it before, but came across an expert in a little hole-in-the-wall in one of the hutongs in Beijing.
The figures are created as decorative pieces rather than to be eaten since they are formed by the vendor blowing through a hollow tube of slowly hardening liquid sugar. Dragons, pigs, roosters, fish, horses. I watched as he produced a piece. As always I’m amazed by the creativity of us humans! Who ever would have thought this up? And how? Oh I know, I’ll just take a lump of hot viscous sugar, not let myself notice that my fingers are burning, put a little dent in it, start blowing and see what happens. Really?
Han Yang Ling Mausoleum and museum: I’m in a large dark room staring down through the glass panel at my feet into a long deep pit dug into the earth. The lighting is minimal, presumably to protect the artefacts, but it is enough to see the clay figurines at the bottom of the pit. Hundreds of them, in pit after pit.
It is the mausoleum of the Han Emperor Jing, known as Liu Qi (188-141 BCE). There are eighty-six burial pits, a criminals’ cemetery, a human sacrifice graveyard, two large burial mounds accommodating the bodies of the emperor and his wife,
and 50,000 figurines. Fifty thousand! These miniature figurines represent the daily life of the court and include eunuchs, servants, tools, domesticated animals, and carriages.
There are thousands of animals – horses, dogs, sheep, goats, pigs, ducks, chickens. Some are in the pits, some are displayed in huge glass-walled cases.
The anatomically correct human figures originally had wooden arms and were dressed in bright silk robes, as can be seen in the life-size replicas.
The Yang Ling mausoleum doesn’t have the wow factor of the world-renowned Terracotta Warriors, which are life-size, but the attention to detail in the creation and number of the figurines, and the sheer scale of the place, which covers nearly 5000 acres, are quite mind boggling.
Chinese people are loud. There’s nothing reserved about them. It was such a shock coming directly from Japan where the opposite is true. Many Japanese customs are actually Chinese in origin, and yet the two cultures have developed in such vastly different ways. They’re so different! How did that happen? In Japan it is all order, politeness, and striving for perfection, with a great consciousness of personal space. The Chinese have a much less restrained notion of personal space, and in China it’s all loud and big – big construction, big vision, big projects, and a big just-get-it-done mentality. As a result there is much that they have got done! From ancient times (the biggest archaeological site in the world is the Terracotta Army) to modern (the bridge from Hong Kong to Macau is the longest over-sea bridge in the world) the Chinese have created some of the world’s greatest wonders. They will tackle anything, and they are raucously unrestrained. Japanese people are quiet and polite. They never make loud noises in public and they are embarrassed if they do. Chinese people are the opposite. It hardly seems fair to make a comparison between the two cultures but since I went directly from one to the other it was really really hard not to notice the difference. It’s the difference between I’ll take care not to get in your way and get out of my way. Both countries no doubt have their own version of fierceness; it’s just that in Japan it’s a kind of secret. In China it’s pretty much in your face.
In both countries I was appalled by the use, overuse, flagrant-uncaring-unrestrained-unconscious use of throwaway plastic. Clearly they have not yet received the message of the worldwide problem with plastic pollution. In Japan you will find individual bananas wrapped in plastic. In China it can probably best be summed up by this:
Every stack of dishes at every setting at every table in this large restaurant was shrink-wrapped in plastic, as well as plastic wrappers on the chopsticks.
* has the world’s longest bridge spanning 165 kilometres! It’s the Danyang–Kunshan Grand Bridge and is part of the Beijing-Shanghai High-Speed Railway.
* has more high-speed rail tracks than most of the rest of the world put together.
* has the biggest worldwide farm output.
* is the world’s largest economy, and it is larger than all of Europe combined.
* is home to the world’s largest data centre – China Telecom’s $3billion, 10.7 million square foot hub in Inner Mongolia.
* has the world’s highest bridge standing 1,854 feet over the Beipan River.
* has the largest imperial palace, the Forbidden City, which is more than three times larger than the Louvre in Paris.
* has, of course, the world’s biggest population at 1.4 billion.
Size matters in China. In the third century BCE an entire royal court was created as a mausoleum for the first emperor that included 8000 life-size clay soldiers, and then in 150 BCE 50,000 figurines were made for the mausoleum of Emperor Jing. Clearly the whole notion of doing things on a grandiose scale goes way back. And even today, especially today, China looms large on any list of fastest, biggest, highest, longest. It was really brought home to me when I visited the mausoleums, and when I went to the two outdoor performances – War of the Three Kingdoms, and Impressions Sanjie Liu. The scale and magnitude of both was way beyond anything I’d seen before. And yet, down on the ground it’s just life: people living their lives, taking care of their kids, gathering in the parks, feeding the pigeons, making it work whatever way they can. Like many countries there are poor people, and wealthy people, and these days a huge middle class who are enjoying a level of wealth and freedom that was unheard of only forty years ago. It’s a huge, fascinating country, and I’m glad I had the chance to see some of it.
For three weeks I travelled the length of China from Beijing to Hong Kong. There was a lot packed into those 21 days of Intrepid Travel’s China Experience tour. It was an amazing trip, and I would recommend Intrepid Travel in a heartbeat. Don and I also travelled with them in Egypt. Take a look at Thirdeyemom’s post about Intrepid. It will tell you all you need to know.
Intrepid Travel sponsored me on this trip, however, as always, all opinions are my own.
Previous posts about China:
The Legend of the Song Fairy: Impressions Sanjie Liu
Next post: Hong Kong. I debated whether or not to include Hong Kong as part of the series on China. I know it is under Chinese rule, and with the unrest there these days that is being demonstrated in sharp relief. On the other hand as a Canadian citizen I need a visa to enter China; I don’t need one for Hong Kong. What finally convinced me to separate Hong Kong from the posts on China is that I went through border control and officially exited China before I entered Hong Kong. I don’t know for how long (and it saddens me for the people of Hong Kong that I have to say that) but for now Hong Kong exists under a separate system from the rest of China and so I decided to treat it as such. Besides, it just feels different.
All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted.
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2019.