Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Me and Julio Up On The Great Wall

Caveat emptor: this post about climbing on the Great Wall of China is mainly not about climbing the Great Wall, so save your money and leave before the high-pressure sales pitch starts. You'll see what I mean later.

Let's start at the beginning: Great Wall tours can range in price from 150 yuan to 500 or more. Mostly, they are full-day tours, but there's no real reason for this, since one well-restored section is less than an hour from central Beijing, and three other popular sections are an hour and a half away. When I visited Tiananmen Square, numerous mosquitos and tour guides harangued me, and some of them stuck business cards in my pocket.

So we used one of those cards to arrange my GWOC trip--200 yuan for Ming Tombs and a section of the Wall called JuYongGuan, departing at 8:30 from the corner across the street from TB's flat. I was tempted by a similar package, a little more expensive, involving a cable car ride instead of any climbing, but it left an hour earlier. (I opt for sleeping in whenever possible.)

About ten minutes late--I'm starting to wonder if I missed the bus, so to speak--a cute young woman approaches me, and leads me to our Mercedes mini-van, in which there is one other passenger/tourist, who is the spitting image, practically, of Brittain Lawson. If you don't know who that is, it doesn't matter to the narrative that follows. Actually, it doesn't matter even if you do.

Lem, our tour guide, speaks weak intermediate English, and Julio is Colombian, so English is his second language. However, his English is quite advanced and we are able to converse with ease. I end up doing Engrish-English translation for him as the day goes on.

The success or failure of an experience like this--three people thrown together for a day by essentially random powers--depends on certain intangibles. Fortunately, we hit it off pretty quickly, as it turns out my tour-mate is an engineer working for Exxon-Mobil who extended a business trip to Hong Kong so he could do some sightseeing. His questions were always interesting.

Before we even go to the Ming Tombs, we stop at our first destination: a cloisonne factory, where we see step by step the production process for this traditional Chinese copper pottery. It was interesting, but I didn't take any pictures because I was aaving my batteries for the GWOC. No surprise, after the tour we were led into the showroom, where a massive inventory of moderately overpriced cloisonne was available for purchase.

Our next stop was the famous Ming Tombs--well, a Ming Tomb, anyway. Lem informed us that this site--or series of sites, since the 13 Ming Tombs are spread widely across the valley--came to be after the first two Ming emperors died; the third one (Yongle) moved the capital to Beijing and selected a new tomb location. Feng shui was an important factor in this decision, as a valley oriented to shield the necropolis from evil northern winds was necessary.

3rd Ming Emperor Yongle
The main gate of Emperor Yongle's tomb is now a museum, with a large statue of Yongle in the center. The relics in the displays surrounding him are mainly replicas. Indeed, the only attempt to excavate one of the tombs ended in disaster, as the tomb was found in pristine form but its treasures soon disintegrated due to poor storage techniques in the 1950s.

The photos below show the Emperor's spirit tablet and a stamped brick, which shows its origin and purpose. All things considered, this part of the tour has little to recommend itself, except for hard-core history buffs.

Now it was on to the Great Wall, right? Nope. First we stopped for a tour of a jade factory with its massive showroom, and lunch at an adjacent set menu restaurant. The food was certainly edible, but pales in comparison to the food I'd been eating all week (a post dedicated to food is upcoming). The jade was nice, too, but not at the low, low prices you expect in China.

Well, neither Julio or I are big shoppers, so we asked Lem if we could forgo future shopping side trips, and just get to Juyongguan. Turns out, we could not. The tour company has a contract with these places, and the kickback essentially subsidizes the tour, which is why it was so inexpensive (200 yuan is under USD 30). So we dutifully tromped through the silkworks and pearl showrooms.

All of the showrooms guaranteed the authenticity of their products because they were government facilities. So the Chinese government supports cheap tours to the Great Wall, hoping to make the money back in curio sales.

The section our tour went to was called Juyongguan, as I mentioned, which is the closest stretch to Beijing, but also the steepest and most strenuous. The stairs were very uneven. I would suggest an advertizing theme along the lines of "Juyongguan: No Two Steps the Same!"

So, without any further ado, here are My Pictures From the Great Wall of China:

I bought a Great Wall baseball cap, and we came home. Oh, and the tour guide thought my price on the tour was 150 yuan, which is USD 21. Oh, and also, I wore my PeaceFire tee-shirt, which is an internet free-speech group.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this brilliant post and all the lovely pics--Your pictures are amazing. Just looking at those pictures make me want to climb the Great Wall of China now. I also found a great blog of Jinshanling travel tips, I’d love to share it here with you and for future travelers.