The Great Wall, The Ming Tombs & The Summer Palace

The Crowds on The Great Wall
Riding the slide down from The Great Wall

The Great Wall, the Ming Toumbs & The Summer Palace

Beating the crowds and resting on the side of The Great Wall - Beijing

The morning started off with a fifty mile drive to the Badaling entrance to the Great Wall which was originally build in the Ming Dynasty around 1500.  This is the most visited entrance due to its close proximity to urban Beijing. It was the first area open to tourists after undergoing significant restoration in the late 1950’s, which may be why it is considered the most famous part of the wall. It is also one of the steepest.  Being made of stone, the steps are very uneven.  Some steps are higher and some lower, some are deeper and some are shallow in depth. Accordingly, you have to watch your step and pay attention to all the people at the same time. Some of the steps are quite steep and walking and trying to navigate the crowds, and view the scenery is not for the faint of heart.  My calves were screaming after a pretty short time into the climb.  Think Stairmaster on steroids.  

The structure itself is really a fort. It has towers for lookouts and holes in the wall for viewing the enemy and weapons.  It is an amazing piece of architecture that snakes across the mountain for miles.

 At times the experience was hard to enjoy because the crowds were quite heavy. It was packed with people all walking in the same direction and pushing their way up the stairs. Often, it was hard to make your way to the sides to have a look around. My teammate wanted to climb up the wall quite a way while the guide and I chose to sit on some of the rocks on the outer edge and wait. I think we made the right choice. We sat and enjoyed the view while my teammate fought the crowds and became frustrated, returning after a short time. The area is quite hilly and the landscape makes the construction and view of the wall very dramatic.

There are two ways to exit the wall. You can go down the steps just by turning around or you can take a roller coaster down.  We wanted the full experience so we entered the queue to take “the slide” down. The crowds were so heavy that if you did not continue to take every possible step forward at the right moment you were pushed.   I struggled with the cultural difference in personal space and was tired of sweaty bodies bumping me and advancing me forward by the time I got to the head of the line.  I eagerly jumped into my car, buckled my seat belt and happily watched the brakeman drive the train of cars down the hill.  The cars looked like an open bobsled for the Matterhorn ride at Disneyland but they were all hooked together in a long line. The ride was not fast but it was fun and it was an unexpected means of transport at such a famous ancient location.

Our next stop was the Ming Tombs. There is so much history here, the Chinese refer to older monuments as Ancient sites and indeed they are. These tombs are strategically placed on a mountainside to take best advantage of feng-shui (fung-shuay) principles.  Feng Shui is the art of Chinese placement and has fairly formal principles.

There is small scale model of the entire area indicating how the whole valley is the burial ground for thirteen emperors and their families.  There are pagodas at the top of the mountains and a valley in-between.  In the museum there are a few elaborately embroidered   burial robes and a couple of crowns on display.  There is definitely a sense of ceremony with the artifacts, clothing and the gates and large copper doors leading to the tombs.  The actual tombs are very different than I expected. The outsides of the tomb are very decorative and the inside very austere.  The caskets are simple square boxes painted with red lacquer. The bright color creates a strong juxtaposition against the plain gray surrounding.  We speculated that the lacquer boxes may be protective enclosures for more decorative caskets inside as the Chinese culture typically has more ornamentation.

It could take anywhere from 1-3 hours depending on traffic to get across town our trips were coordinated to avoid high traffic times.

We stopped for lunch at a lovely outdoor restaurant complete  with lanterns, pagodas, ponds, flat topped Chinese style umbrellas and the staff all wearing traditional costumes. It was in between meal times so we virtually had the place to ourselves.  It was a nice retreat from the crowds, calming to our senses and the weather was perfect.  The food was delicious and the service meticulous. As we left, the staff was gathering and preparing for the dinner crowd.  About forty people all lined up and all dressed in traditional wear greeted us personally, wishing good fortune as us as we left.

Our last ancient site of the day was the Summer Palace. The place was simply beautiful. The palace was designed for the empress to take her leave from the formality of Forbidden City during the summer months.   The royal summer palace sat at the top of a steep hill.  The empress was carried down daily on the shoulders of four guards from the palace to the lakeside in a pagoda chair. Visitors are not allowed in the palace itself but the grounds are beautiful.   Once you get in through the multitude of large ceremonial gates there is a full view of a huge lake with boats and lotus flowers. The man made Summer Palace Lake was designed after the famous Westlake in Hangzhou that I visited and is very similar in appearance and spectacular inside the palace grounds. No one would guess there is such a big lake within the city limits.   Along the lake there is a very long covered colonnade, called the long lobby. It was built for the empress to walk and view the lake and stay covered from the sun. Porcelain white skin was considered a sign of beauty and it was protected at all cost.  Even today commoners use umbrellas to shield their skin from the sun

We made a critical error in cancelling our end of day massage which put us unbearable traffic and shortened everyone’s good nature.  It was a lesson and reminder about real life in Beijing.

The side view of the Great Wall
The Ming Tombs with money offerings
lunch in the garden
The" Beauties" or staff greeting us as we exited our lunch
The Long Lobby at the Summer Palace in Beijing
The lake at the Summer Palace

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