When we woke up the next day, we realized what a blessing the rain had been. For the first time in our trip, the perpetual haze that enveloped Beijing had been washed from the air, at least for a short time. We soon understood why authorities had worked so hard to “seed” rain clouds in advance of the Beijing Olympics. As long as we were in Beijing we assumed this was a problem unique to that city, but on landing in Xi’an, we soon realized that the air quality there was much worse. Unlike the acrid in-your-face diet of diesel hydrocarbons we had experienced riding rickshaws in India, Chinese smog has a more subtle perniciousness. At the beginning of the day, you can fool yourself into thinking it’s not all that bad, but after a day of immersion, your lungs begin to feel the effects and your eyes turn dry and sore. Almost every driver or taxi driver we encountered exhibited some form of what we came to call “driver’s cough.” The engines (and smokestacks) that drive China’s economy exact their own price on the people, for sure. I would love to say that this is a strictly urban problem, but as I write this installment, I am riding a high-speed train through the countryside – and through the same thick haze.
But, as I was saying before Mr. Poopypants interrupted there, we were in for one glorious sunny day, and as luck would have it, we were scheduled to visit The Great Wall.
On our way to visit the wall, we stopped to tour a Cloisonné factory. Cloisonné is an enameling process which first involves forming a copper or brass vessel (vase, plate, sculpture) and then gluing tiny copper bands to the vessel to form enclosed spaces. Once this step is complete, it receives its first firing to weld the copper strips to the vessel. After that, the artisans fill each tiny enclosed space with the water and minerals which will ultimately form the enamel. The vessel is then fired again. (photos)The artisan repeats this process five times until the build-up of enamel has filled the cavity and is flush with the top of the copper strip. The vessel then undergoes several forms of polishing to bring it to its final lustre. The factory guide told us that a relatively small vessel will consume 45 person-days of effort from the various artisans who will work on it (all of them middle-aged women, by the way.)
Of course, as with all such “free tours” the original spiel is followed up by a trip to the store. We’ve become accustomed to this rhythm and at least one of us can resist the sales pitches which follow. In fairness to this store, salesmanship was relatively soft-sell. Perhaps that’s why we decided we’d actually spend some money there. We bought a small vase with an inlaid dragon. We passed on a slightly taller (7′) vase that clocked in at 1.2 Million RMB. ($200,000). The work in the place was amazing.
A little lighter in cash, we travelled on to our next stop, The Sacred Way, a kilometer-long walkway leading toward the tombs of the Ming Emperors. The path is flanked by large stone creatures, both real and mythical and by human figures. (Photos) Surrounded by trees and gardens, the site had a certain serenity about it.
Finally, we moved on to the Badaling section of The Great Wall, purportedly one of the best restored – and busiest – sections. The whole trip took over an hour, but we were able to see some countryside and the mountains, so it passed quickly.
I’m not sure what I can say about The Great Wall that pictures won’t say better. We were so thankful for the previous day’s rain, which meant clear views and relatively haze-free pictures. As an added bonus, Fall colours were beginning to show on the sides of the mountains. We had decided beforehand that we would take our time and make the most of the opportunity, so we climbed steadily until we reached the 8th gate, the highest point on that section of the wall.
At that point, both Irene and Jenny, who had opted to walk with us, said I was more than welcome to continue, but that they would wait for me at the 8th gate. They weren’t interested in going beyond, which would have meant a descent and the inevitable climb on the return trip. So we made our way down.
Unlike so many historical tourist sites, which are mere monuments to megalomania, the Great Wall at least performed a function within the history and the development of a civilization, so, in that way it had a greater appeal to me than sites such as tombs. History is made by “great men” riding on the backs of millions of lesser men. I always prefer to view these structures as monuments to the millions of slaves and common people who gave their lives to their construction.
<steps off soapbox>
By the time we descended the warmer evening light bathed the mountainsides, making the wall stand out even more and enhancing the Fall colours. Unfortunately, the haze had also begun to re-establish itself, and by the next morning, it was hard to tell that the rain had ever washed the skies clear.
We took our time on the descent as well, so by the time we returned to Beijing, we had clocked another full day.
Supper was a visit to a restaurant down the street from the hotel. We had a bit of difficulty in negotiating our order with the waitress, who didn’t seem to agree with some of our choices. When we ordered a dish called “Spicy Fish,” she said, “No Fish.” We weren’t sure if that meant they didn’t have any fish or if she simply thought we wouldn’t like it. She kept pointing us back to the duck, but we were scheduled to have Peking Duck on our last night in Beijing, so we didn’t want to go along with her suggestion. After a bit of good-natured mono-syllabic tug-of-war, we managed to find enough dishes that both we and she could agree on. One more time, we ate far more than we should have, and waddled back to our hotel for the night.