Monday, August 25, 2008

What? No Escalator?!

After we left the Ming Tombs, our little group headed for that most famous symbol of the Orient: the Great Wall of China. I asked Samantha, our guide, how often she came to the Wall. "Two or three times a week," she replied. "And you climb it every time?" I asked. "No!" she responded with a short laugh. "I will be so tired!" I laughed too, little realizing that the joke was soon to be on me.

Like many of the great engineering feats of ancient China, the Wall was built over a long time; in fact, there have been several walls constructed at different periods in Chinese history. The most popular existing wall (the one you generally see in pictures) was built by the Mings, starting in the mid-15th century. Whether you're a history buff or not, though, the Great Wall is impressive -- extremely impressive. As is so often the case, pictures do not adequately convey the sense of size and weight that you feel when you stand at the base of the Wall, or the awe that washes over you when you realize that the little line running over the hills on the horizon is still the Great Wall.

(I pause to insert a myth-busting parenthesis here: claims that the Wall is visible from the moon are true only if you have had your eyes surgically enhanced with telescopes. It would be comparable to seeing a human hair from two miles away. It is possible to see the Wall from low Earth orbit. Barely. On a crystal-clear day. If you know exactly where to look.)

We went to the Badaling section of the wall. The gates there protected the Imperial capitol, Beijing, from invasion through a strategic mountain pass, and trust me, it would take some serious invading to get through that twenty-five foot high wall. If I'd been a barbarian, I would have just turned right back around and gone home. In fact, the thought crossed my mind as I gazed up -- and up and up -- at the stairs leading from the lowest gate to the first guard tower. Great Wall of China my foot. They should call it the Great Ladder of China. It seems incredible to me that armies, no matter what their condition, could have ever marched across the Wall. It's not that it's too narrow; on the contrary, it's about fifteen feet wide in most places. The problem is that it's ridiculously steep and completely uneven. The average height of a step is probably about double or triple that of a normal staircase like you might have in your home, but each stair is different. One will be six inches high, the next one two feet high, the next eighteen inches, and so on. The widths of the steps varies in a similar manner. Fortunately, the Chinese (not the Mings, but our present administration) have helpfully bolted a handrail to the Wall. This makes thing much easier, but is not always as useful as it may seem, since the steepness of the stairs means that the handrail is sometimes at knee height or lower for a tall man. And yes, I'm a tall man.

Don't get me wrong. The Wall is absolutely worth doing. But for a person with acrophobia, it's quite a feat to get down. Getting up is simply a matter of having enough leg power -- not a problem. Getting down is all about willpower.

As you may have guessed from the fact that I'm writing this post, however, I did make it down eventually. I rewarded myself with a bottle of water, which was available for quadruple the normal price, along with Great Wall t-shirts, Great Wall Commemorative Photos, Great Wall plushies, Great Wall keychains, and the ever-popular red star caps, which seems to show up nearly anywhere there are tourist stands.

Samantha popped up eventually, smiling and looking fresh. "Where were you?" I asked, wondering if there was some kind of lounge where tour guides chatted and sipped iced drinks while their clients dragged themselves, gasping and wheezing, up the worn flagstones of the Wall. "Over there," she replied, waving in the direction of a nondescript hillside. Considering that she'd been gone for three hours, I suspect that my original guess was correct. They probably have closed-circuit TVs in the lounge so that they can keep track of their tourists and take bets on which ones will plummet to their doom or be run over by those infuriating adventurer types who disdain the handrail and always seem to be descending at a run, leaping over three steps at a time like mountain goats and talking and laughing with their friends in some European language while they're doing it.

Not that I'm bitter or anything.


Thursday, August 14, 2008

A Brief Exercise in Historical Imagination (Beijing Continued)

By the dawning of our third day in Beijing, we knew the drill pretty well. We met Samantha in the lobby, and were soon on our way for the most important step of the tour -- getting all the tourists from the lobby. It took an hour and a half of driving around the city to retrieve our tour group, which consisted of a nice family of Austrians who didn't speak much english, and a nice family of English people who didn't speak any German, and us.

We started off at the Ming Tomb (actually one of multiple Ming Tomb sites; ours was the Chang Ling tomb). The centerpiece of the site was a gigantic marble stele inscribed with the name and deeds of the emperor. The stele was a dingy red color and covered with scratches and faded graffiti. Samantha caught my questioning look and said, "Yes, long ago this monument was white. During the Cultural Revolution, the Red Guards came here and tried to destroy it. They burned it and stained it red."

This is the kind of thing you hear a lot on a tour of China. For those of you who don't know much about Chinese history, the Cultural Revolution was a movement whose stated goal was "to rid China of its liberal bourgouise elements." In practical terms, it encompasses more or less a decade of violence, chaos, and destruction beginning in 1966, peaking in 1969, and (in most people's minds) ending with the arrest of four of its key proponents in 1976. Gangs of semi-legitimized thugs (the Red Guards) swarmed over the country closing schools, shutting down businesses, destroying relics of Chinese history, plundering people's belongings, and humiliating, beating, or killing those whom they decided were not sufficiently enthusiastic about the reign of the proletariat. As you may have guessed, the only sure-fire way to be sufficiently enthusiastic was to participate. Apart from the apalling human cost of the Cultural Revolution, many artefacts of China's unrivalled history were damaged or lost. Such as? Well, a home and temple compound was almost completely destroyed and its scrolls burned by a rampaging mob of students and staff from Beijing Normal University; it had belonged to a prominent ancient philosopher named Kong Fuzi. You may know him as Conficius.

So I wasn't surprised that the Red Guards had made an attempt on an imperial tomb. I did find it vaguely amusing, however (as I have at other places) that these thugs were so ineffective. Here's what apparently happened -- some young punks are hankering to go out and break things and hurt people (all in the name of revolution, naturally), and one of them says, "Hey! The tombs of those Ming oppressors are just a day's hike or so! Let's go smash 'em!" (of course, he said it in Chinese). His cohorts enthusiastically follow, and they kick the gates in, shouting revolutionary slogans and waving their revolutionary implements of destruction. They chop up the available woodwork and line up to spit on the imperial altar. Then they head for the stele -- it would be the most obvious target for destruction, since it's a twenty-by-five-by-ten slab of white marble. "Haha!" they shout, as they kick it and hack at it with their crowbars. "Take that, you capitalist-road filth! No-one will revere your memory any longer! Long live the rule of the people!" After about fifteen minutes, this gets a little old, and they decided to actually break the thing, not just take a few small chips out of it. "Ok, who brought the heavy equipment?" says the leader. "Ropes? Block and tackle?" Everyone looks around at each other and there's a long silence. "This pig isn't worth our time!" pipes up one of them eventually. "Let's just burn it!" A cheer goes up. They build a fire around the slab, scribble graffiti like WANG WAS HERE AND SPITS ON THE EMPEROR, sing a few revolutionary songs, and wander off in search of a doctor to beat up.

Ultimately, however, the most devastating rebuttal to the Cultural Revolution isn't a Canadian making fun of it; it's the fact that virtually no-one cares about the art and aesthetic of the Cultural Revolution, but millions of people (foreign and Chinese) pour into these sites every year to admire the splendor of those parts of Chinese heritage that endured every attempt to destroy them. History is not without a sense of irony.

But seriously, setting fire to a marble slab? That was dumb.


Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Beijing: Louis XIV was an amateur

Day two in Beijing began at the Guanzhou Hotel's breakfast buffet, where my father-in-law was anxiously waiting. Dad Werner is serious about food (when we were planning our wedding reception dinner, he told us that the meal had to be good, "because years later, nobody will remember who got married, but they'll remember the food."), and as we strolled out of the elevator, he trotted up to meet us.
"I came down here at 6:00 to check things out," he said confidentially. "They were just setting up, but they let me in to have a look. Seems like a real classy joint. Got a lot of Chinese food, though."
Dad was correct -- the joint was as classy as I could have wished for, and the food was delicious.

Our guide -- an endearing and informative girl named Samantha -- met us in the lobby and we soon found ourselves stepping out of the bus and into the back gate of the Forbidden City. The Forbidden City, palace of the Chinese emperors, sits in the middle of Beijing and was built over a period of fifteen years (starting in 1406) by more than one million workers. Its moat, walls, and 980 buildings(originally totaling 9,999 and a half rooms) cover an area of 720 hectares -- and that's just the palace area itself, not the three huge parks that border it on three sides.

Now let those numbers sink in for a moment. One. Million. Workers. That's roughly the same size as the entire U.S. Army. All in one place. For fifteen years. Building a home and an office. For one family.

The numbers don't really do it justice, either. The Forbidden City is absolutely colossal, and each imposing gateway or stunning courtyard vista seems to open onto another just like it. Samantha told us that more than 10,000 people lived in the palace during the height of the Qing dynasty. It was cool to imagine uniformed officials hurrying this way and that while soldiers drilled in the courtyards and tittering concubines pretended not to admire them. Since there were probably ten thousand tourists there, it wasn't too hard.

Our tour group was great. Aside from the five of us, there was a Romanian flight attendant on a day trip and a family of Canadians (from Calgary -- small world, huh?) exploring their Chinese heritage. The three little girls (Stephanie, Sandra, and Melissa) were adorable and, considering that our day consisted of six-ish hours of walking in the heat, very well-behaved. We were delighted to be able to speak in english to children after being in Shanghai with college students for four months, and as kids are wont to do, they came up with some real gems. "Wow!" exclaimed Sandra as she was shown a replica of a Qing emperor's silk ceremonial robe complete with gold embroidery. "That's a really big t-shirt!"

The little girls also seemed very pleased to learn that Desiree was my wife, and immediately set about pushing Brian and Lena (our Romanian flight attendant friend) into a similarly blissful state.
"Are you married too?" inquired five-year old Melissa as Lena and Brian were snapping photos of the Temple of Heaven. Upon being informed that they were not married, she opined thoughtfully, "Well, you look like you're married. Maybe you should get married."
"What a naughty girl you are!" retorted Lena, laughing.

The Imperial Summer Palace (a few miles up the road and our final destination for the day) was only slightly less impressive than the Forbidden City. Samantha ushered us through the gate and along a beautiful covered walkway, explaining that no-one but the emperor and those to whom he specifically gave permission were ever permitted inside the walls of the Imperial Palaces. As the walkway opened onto a beautiful view of a broad, placid lake bisected by a shaded causeway and ringed with verdant hills, I exclaimed, "This looks just like Hangzhou!" (Hangzhou is another ancient imperial center near Shanghai which we have visited before.)
"Yes," replied Samantha, "the emperor liked Hangzhou so much that he built the summer palace as a replica. The lake and the hills are man-made."
We are not talking about a small lake here, people. We crossed on a boat to an island in the center and it took us ten minutes.
"Wow," muttered Dad, an excavator by trade. "All with hand tools, too."

There were loud lamentations on the way back to the hotel when our little friends (the smallest of whom we had been taking turns to carry around all day) discovered that we were not going with them on the next leg of their trip.
"But I want to go with Desiree!" moaned Sandra, and grumped around the bus until she fell asleep.
Melissa contented herself with playing with my beard (quite a novelty, apparently, since her father didn't have one) while Stephanie asked each person in turn which animal they would like to be and why. She wanted to be a hippopotamus, herself, "because no-one would bother me. Actually, or maybe a turtle. Or a kitty cat."

We were sorry to see our new-found friends go, but comforted ourselves with ice cream and thoughts of the Great Wall to come. I was not entirely comforted, but it was probably because Dairy Queen was out of blackberry.