Ming Tombs and the Great Wall

Resurrected on Thursday morning by some miracle, we go down to breakfast.  Breakfast at the Sunny Cafe in the the hotel lobby has been an example of how it often seems as if the entire state of China exists to serve us. At most there have been one or two business travelers in the restaurant when we are having breakfast. There is a woman at the door to greet you, there are two waitresses to serve us, there is a woman who handles the money, and an unknown number of cooks. All seem focused on us. One waitress escorts us to our table with a view of the street scene outside. She determines which style breakfast we want and brings us coffee and the paper. In less than five minutes, our breakfast is served, piping hot. Our waitress hovers (in a pleasant way), refilling our coffee and removing every plate or glass as soon as it has emptied. Another example was the dinner at California Shabu Shabu on Wednesday night. As we approached the door off the lobby, I could see two women acting as receptionists. They watched us and as soon as it became clear that we were actually going to enter the restaurant, they jumped to attention. One took a step forward to greet us. I could see the other woman motioning urgently to someone out of view to stand up! We are going to have actual customers tonight! As we are shown to our table, we note that we are indeed the only customers in the restaurant. One of the reasons I think the food was so good was that with that small number of customers, there surely wasn’t food sitting all day on some steam table. Again, it seemed all of China existed to wait on just us.

Back to the miracle of Thursday morning at the Sunny Cafe. We revert to an American breakfast more for the protein of two eggs and bacon than any cultural bias. We have developed a bit of a relationship with our breakfast waitress, the same young woman each morning so far. She wears a tag saying “trainee.” She is the epitome of sweetness; beautiful with a lovely smile. She is nervous about her English which is barely adequate to serve us breakfast. On Wednesday, I ask her to help me with my Chinese. I want to learn the Chinese word for “Thank you,” which I already knew was approximately “She She” but Kris and I disagreed on its likely pronunciation. This enquiry drew the cutest look of umbrage out of our waitress. She put on a stern face, incongruous in someone that young and cute, and told me that she would try to help me translate a Chinese word into English, but not the other way around. This Thursday morning, she appeared at our table and presented us with a small book on learning Mandarin, in fact the very one that Kris had considered buying at the Foreign Language Bookstore. She was so nice. And what a contrast to the service on most American restaurants these days.

We jump into the car. Today, everything we are to see is outside Beijing. We drive north from Beijing on a modern toll road. The scenery turns green once we leave Beijing as we pass through farmland and orchards. The orchards are of walnuts and peaches mostly. As we go further north, we start to see some foothills. We stop where the hills form a bowl with an opening at the southern end. This bowl is sacred to the Ming Dynasty and its emperors are buried here. At the entrance to the bowl is gates and a stone walk arranged on a north-south axis. Historically, no one, not even emperors, could enter the bowl on horseback, only on foot. The tomb of the first Ming emperor is due north of this path, of course, as he ranks higher than any of his descendants in a culture that worships its ancestors. We get back in the car and drive to the first emperor’s tomb, the tomb of Chang Ling. As one might examine, it is stunning. The emperor himself is buried in an enormous mound that covers a life-after-death palace. This mound has not been excavated yet because they are not sure that current technology can really do a good job of it. The mound is surrounded by a brick wall and is covered with a forest of ancient trees. The wall is overlooked by an ornate tower and the approach is guarded by several decorated gates. In one of the buildings are displayed artifacts excavated from the tomb of a later Ming Emperor. Most of the textiles shown are (gorgeous) reproductions because of the damage to the originals, but the intricately decorated jewelry, headdresses and gold cups and plates are original. I hereby express my desire to be buried in such a style.

From the Chang Ling Tomb, we climb up a winding, switchback road into the mountains. It is well past lunch time and I get a bit queasy riding in the back seat. So we stop until my stomach has caught up with the number of twists and turns in the road and I switch to riding in the front passenger’s seat. We arrive at our lunch spot and have a pretty good meal, again the star dish is the Kung Po Chicken. Again, we are almost the only people there and we are served with courtesy and dispatch. Again, this restaurant is attached to a “factory.” This time, the factory is a cloisonne factory. We are given a tour to watch workers do each of the steps in the cloisonne process. This is actually pretty interesting. A vase, say, is shaped from several pieces of copper soldered together. Then thin copper wires are shaped to achieve the desired design and glued to the copper vase. Then the colored enamel is put into the spaces between the wires and the piece is fired at 1000 C for five minutes. During the firing, the enamel shrinks, so the process of adding enamel is repeated until the enamel layer is just thicker than the copper wires. The piece is polished, first with sandstone, then a softer yellow stone, and finally with charcoal. The result is beautiful with each color outlined by a polished copper wire. Because copper tarnishes, gold is electroplated onto the copper to finish the piece. In the US, mostly I have seen cloisonne jewelry, and was not especially impressed. But here, they had enormous vases, as tall as me, finely decorated with incredible detail that are true wonders. The prices of such wonders were equally impressive, so we settled on a small bowl as a compromise.

Then it was off to the Great Wall at Mutianyu. This site is not for the faint of heart. We had purchased (Thank God!) with our tour a cable car ride to the wall itself which follows the ridge line of the mountains in this region which originally separated China from Mongolia. But the climb from the parking lot to the cable car building was just about too much for us. We climbed up a steep path between souvenir vendors. We were encouraged to keep moving because every time we stopped to catch our breath the vendors would swoop in to ply their wares. But we made it to the cable car entrance eventually and were treated to a ride in a Japanese built, modern cable car that took us up the mountain to the Wall.

And there we were. It is just like the pictures. It is stunning. It is beautiful. It is amazing. A thunderstorm was rolling in and periodic thunder added drama to the moment. For the first time in my life I said something nice about President Nixon for helping make my visit to this place possible. Once again, my words can not compete with the pictures in your own mind, so I will not try.

Coming down the mountain was delayed for a few minutes to ensure the storm would not effect the cable car, but ride down we did. It was all down hill to the car and we took a straighter road back to Beijing. We were treated to a Peking duck dinner (no, our tour guide assures us that it is still Peking duck and not Beijing duck, just as the three letter abbreviation for the Beijing airport is still PEK). I’m afraid my tummy was not in shape to eat much, but Kris tells me it was excellent duck. She tells me that the ducks in the US are not fat enough to make really good Peking duck, so apparently I missed my only chance to really enjoy this treat. This restaurant specializes in Peking duck and was very busy. Unlike our other restaurant experiences, while the food was good, the service was terrible.

Back to our hotel room, every muscle in our legs and feet aching, we fell over each other like Pick-Up-Sticks on the bed and did not move again until morning.




  1. John Pepple said,

    September 6, 2008 at 9:11 am

    This refers back to a previous entry. I hated the “blocks” in Taipei. As you say, they are long, but what was irritating about them was that there were no side streets breaking them up. There were only alleys, and the alleys didn’t have sidewalks. Even places like Cairo and Rio have side streets with sidewalks.

    As for breakfast, we had warm soy milk our first day in Taiwan. The woman we were staying with went out to a restaurant and they gave it to her in a baggy! I had never had soy milk before, but it turned out to be very good.

    Taiwan also has cho-do-fu, or stinky tofu. It smells like a sewer but is obviously beloved. We were not impressed.

  2. Kara LaSota said,

    September 7, 2008 at 1:38 am

    ” I hereby express my desire to be buried in such a style.”

    Hmmm…. I hereby express my desire to LIVE in such a style!

    I’m so glad you decided to write a blog on the trip & that you’re keeping up with it — I have to admit I’m living vicariously through your entries and I look forward to each new installment!

    Totally off topic, but I really hope you made arrangements to vote in the Nov election — it’s becoming a doozy!

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