More notes from the forgotten stash
The next day we were off to the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall, although our driver (Who I later found out was not a professional tour driver) did have some slight trouble finding it. Guide and driver camped out in the parking lot below while we took the cable car (“The strongest cable car in China” we were assured) up to the wall itself. We were both glad to be able to do some walking and exploring on our own without having to follow the guide around. The guide did however, mention that in addition to being a very large structure, it also a very large tomb as is said that the labourers who died during the Wall’s construction are buried inside it.
Mercifully there weren’t many people at the Great Wall. It was a pleasant walk with excellent views of the surrounding hills without any haze in sight – up until the steps. There was a very long incline of very steep steps which must have taken us at least 15 minutes to climb with several breaks in between. Accompanying us were Germans, Australians, Britons, and of course Chinese. We all exchanged grim smiles with one another as we struggled up the stone cliff.
At the top we were humbled by a bunch of vendors selling pop, souvenirs, and beer – vendors who in all likelihood made the same climb we just did – every day – with their liquid inventory slung on their backs.
We climbed up the next tower and carried on. Past tower 24 the path on of top the Wall was overgrown with brush and the battlements in some sections crumbled away. We’d walked to the end of the restored section to the “non tourist area” – meaning – the unrestored section – or at least a section not recently restored. Feeling adventurous we continued on. Our path was constrained to the left by the deteriorating battlements and to the right by the dense brush growing right in the middle of the Wall. We reached tower 25 and 26, both crumbling but intact.
We were alone. Being able to rest amongst the ruins by ourselves was no minor privilege which allowed us to really imagine how old the Wall really was.
Although we had optimistically thought we could perhaps explore the entire length of the Mutianyu Section, by the time we got back to the chairlift stop we were properly tired with still half a day ahead of us.
For lunch out guide asked whether we would prefer “Western” food or “Chinese” food. I was worried that “Western” food might mean food at the Subway (Eat fresh!) we’d seen earlier so we opted for “Chinese” food.
Of course opting for “Chinese” food in China is about as meaningful going out for “Italian” food in Italy. What was it going to be? Shanghainese? Northern? Sichuan? Cantonese?
I asked my guide and he said we’d get some “village style” cooking – unfancy, hearty dishes. Driving in circles a few times we finally stopped into the restaurant and cracked open the big, colourful, multilingual menu. I asked my guide for some recommendations on local flavour.
He flipped a few pages, and indicated a picture on the menu.
“Sweet and sour pork?” I asked, somewhat offended. Both days I’d gotten the feeling that Li had no idea whether to treat me as a foreigner or as a Chinese or some combination thereof, but when it came to the menu clearly he’d gone for “foreigner.”
In Chinese, I said there was plenty of sweet and sour pork abroad.
A few pages later he pointed at something else.
“Kung pao chicken?!”
We resigned ourselves to picking some random dishes off the menu. Perhaps sensing that we were unimpressed by his culinary knowledge he came back and recommended a cold tofu dish I’d never heard of, so we added it to our order.
A few minutes later he came back with another recommendation. Since there were only two of us eating at the one table (Driver and guide ate at another) I tried to decline as there was no way we’d finish everything, but he insisted so I acquiesced and along came more food. Two cultures were at work here – traditionally food is left over during banquets or dining with guests to provide a sense of abundance and to avoid the host being perceived as cheap; to refuse food as a guest may suggest that you are ungrateful or that the food was not to your liking.
In our case we simply couldn’t eat that much and the food was fine, especially small chestnut cakes we had at the end. Coincidentally my mom later told me that President Xi Jinping himself had endorsed a “Clean Plate Campaign” (i.e.: No leftovers) started by a Chinese netizen; something I should have cited in my efforts to leave clean plates.
Following lunch we snoozed in the car as we made our way to the site of the 13 Tombs of the Ming Dynasty. About an hour later we pulled into Dingling – the only tomb of the 13 to be excavated. The government has decided to keep the others sealed as many artifacts were lost after the opening of the first tomb, particularly during the Cultural Revolution where the remains of the tomb’s occupants were burned in the street.
The tomb itself is underground but set in a large park-like complex with aboveground halls and buildings, modeled generally on the principles of the Forbidden City. The underground portion is basically shaped like a cross. The rooms have tall ceilings maybe 30 feet high but is not painted or decorated. Replicas of the funeral throne and coffins stand where they would have been almost 400 years ago. Visitors routinely toss coins on bills on the funerary objects though I am not sure why. Our guide told us that the Wanli Emperor ordered the construction of the tomb in his late 20s and subsequently had a large banquet within the tomb with his court to celebrate its completion.
Our last morning we scooted out of bed early to sample some street breakfast. We had seen on previous days 10-person lineups behind a food cart for breakfast, so as far as conventional travel wisdom goes, the food should be good.
I sidled up behind the last person in line and peeked ahead to see what was going on. Three people were working the cart – frying dough with egg inside, brushing on sauce, and then folding the fried dough around a piece of lettuce, and of course, getting paid. I heard people specify “la” or “bu la” – spicy or not-spicy, and decided on not-spicy. I asked how much it was and proffered a bill, but the vendor merely gestured toward a big plastic bucket of cash and just told me to make my own change.
Whatever it was, it was crispy and delicious, kind of a like a thicker, chewier non-sweet Beavertail but with an egg, sauce, and a piece of cool lettuce.
Before leaving Beijing we stopped at the Yonghegong – a temple of Tibetan Buddhism. Construction of the Yonghegong began in 1694 where meanwhile in pre-Canada the French and English were fighting it out for the Hudson Bay trade.
Yonghegong is an active temple. The central halls house thrones and statues of different Buddhas, with one particular 85-foot statue of Buddha carved from a single tree. Tourists outnumbered monks, but there was a ceremony in the hall where we can observe and listen to recitation of Buddhist texts. Other halls were staffed also my monks practicing their texts. The regular cadence of the chants was occasionally broken up by a hesitation in memory or by a particularly noisy visitor. My mom had asked me to make donation so I selected a donation box and put in 200 yuan.
That evening we landed in Guangzhou (Distance – roughly Ottawa to Winnipeg) where it was 15 degrees warmer and quite a bit more humid.