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Empires and Empire$$

The Great Wall at Ju Yong Guan

Cathy Stripe LesterA visit to China just has to include the Great Wall. It’s part of the reason I went, and I wasn’t disappointed. To see it meandering off along the mountaintops was mind-boggling. George and I thought we’d walk quite a long ways, but it was all uphill, and we were surprised at how steep some sections are. We huffed and puffed the distance between four guardhouses before we turned back.

You really need the handrail in spots!

The Wall was famously built to keep out invaders from the North. Just as famously, it cost many thousands of lives, bankrupted more than one emperor, and never really worked quite how it was intended to. For most of China’s history, the wall was incomplete. When a really determined army wanted to get past it, it found a way, either by ferociously storming a poorly-defended section, or the easy-peasy, tried-’n'-true method of bribing the gatekeepers.

Tang period statuette of a foreign warrior carrying a hunting cheetah on the back of his horse. The horse looks less than enchanted.

One is reminded of the Berlin Wall and the Maginot Line, both expensive flops. One could also remark that any military establishment has a fondness for preparing for the war that happened when they were growing up. How else to explain our own fixation with cold-war-style weapons such as the F-35 Fighter (estimated cost: $1.5 trillion), which is not only plagued with problems but has no known effectiveness against terrorism? But I digress. The Great Wall actually may have been most useful for regulating and taxing trading caravans.

Loaded camel. Tang period.

China has always been a trading nation. This may explain why they took so well to the modern world of economic empires, which are equally cutthroat but don’t require the messy, uncomfortable business of saddling up your warhorse and going off to bash the enemy.

The Chinese have not only harnessed hydroelectric power, they’ve harnessed the tourist’s souvenir-hunting instinct. I was surprised (until I learned it’s standard on tours) at the number of “informative” places we went to see: silkworm cocoons being spun out, pearls being strung, etc., etc., where after a short talk we were then let loose in the all-important shop. (U.S. credit cards accepted.)

Silkworm cocoons being unrolled in a silk factory. The filaments are so fine you can't see them in the photo. It takes five filaments twisted together to make a fine silk thread.

A lot of tourists expect the shopping to be part of the tour, but I hadn’t budgeted for high-end purchases and anyway, don’t need a 3-foot jade Buddha competing for space with all the cheaper travel knickknacks I’ve picked up over the years!

Picture done in silk embroidery, about 2.5 feet square. I was afraid to look at the price.

I did have a lot of fun buying stuff from street vendors, who congregate like ants at a picnic wherever their antennae sense the presence of tourists. They bargain, but not like I was accustomed to in Iran. In Iran, the seller offers a high price, you counter with a ridiculously low one, the seller tears his hair and describes his coming bankruptcy, you both give way a little, and so on. In China, if your offer is way too low, the seller is offended and turns to the next customer. The trick is to act semi-interested and start to stroll on, at which point the seller reduces his price bit by bit. “Ten yuan! Eight! Two for ten, cheaper!” By the time you have one foot on the bottom step of the tour bus, they come out with their rock-bottom line. “Three for ten, good price!”

A coffer dam protects this pagoda from the rising waters behind the Three Gorges Dam. Hat from street stall: $6.

One vendor was so persistent he rode his bike alongside our caravan of pedal rickshaws. he was rewarded; I saw money and bags change hands up ahead of me.

George and me in a rickshaw. The fellow in the gray jacket was the one who followed us on his bike!

I did wonder how street sellers made a living. Their wares were intended (mostly) to look like they’d been lovingly crafted by little old artisans, but they were obviously churned out by the millions in some “Imperial Kultural Knickknack Fabrications, Inc.” Some in our tour bought $5 “Rolexes” and as far as I know they’re still running. But even if the goods were made cheaply, the sellers’ profits couldn’t have been high. I suspect what keeps them alive is the sheer volume of visitors. There were swarms of tour groups from all over the world, plus huge numbers of Chinese. The biggest draws were awash with tourists.

Entrance to just one of the buildings in the forbidden City, residence of the Emperors.

Crowds seemed most intrusive in the gardens. Traditional ones are meticulously landscaped to create a series of enchanting miniature views containing the four essential elements of a garden: interesting-shaped rocks, pavilions, trees and water features. On scroll paintings, one or two figures sit in such a garden, drinking tea and writing poetry. Or simply meditating. Fat chance of our meditating amid the jostling throngs!

I did find one pavilion that was off by itself in scenic solitude – but I only had time to think up one quick haiku and relish the moment:

This sheep is astray, / escaped from the rushing tour. / Listen – Birds singing!

Then I took a wrong turn getting back to the group, so they had to wait for me. Ba-a-a-a-ad sheep! (Sorry!)

The pavilion worth lingering in.

In the past, Chinese couldn’t travel even inside China without special permission. Gradually, the government opened up travel, and now Chinese can go most places in the world. They’ve taken with glee to seeing the wonders of their heritage, and they outnumbered the foreigners in most spots.

Artists in a corner of the Garden of the Master of the Fishing Nets. One of them is blocking out the sound of the trampling hordes by means of an iPod.

The government has put out guides for Chinese in “tourist etiquette” – don’t spit on the ground, don’t slurp your noodles, etc. One town, Suzhou, is laced with canals and known as “the Venice of China.” As we were enjoying our canal boat ride I was amused to see Chinese tourists taking pictures of us foreigners. If you ask me, they already know how to be tourists!

Smile! Getting our picture taken.

  • Bobdisqus

    CSL, are the camel & horse pottery from the Suzhou museum? They look like ones I remember from there. I have read that a very large percentage of exhibits at museums in China are fakes due to the vast destruction durring the cultural revolution. Taking pictures and talking loudly about the gaijin is always fun.

  • CathyStripeLester

    Bob, the pottery camel and horse were both in the Xian museum. They did say that it was common in the Tang period for people to put a pottery figure of their most treasured livestock in their tombs. So in addition to horses, I saw bullocks (one with a cart), sows with litters, and even a chicken.

    I don’t know what percentage of things I saw were genuine — it didn’t even enter my head. But what a tragedy the cultural revolution was. Our tour manager was commenting on how the generation that was school age during the cultural revolution didn’t get a good schooling and generally couldn’t get any University training. So then they were relegated to more menial jobs, and in turn they can’t pay for their children to get higher education.

  • Evelyn

    Cathy, Your China blogs are very interesting along with excellent pictures! Thank you for sharing your journey.

    • CathyStripeLester

      Thanks, Evelyn! Your own pictures are excellent, so I’m glad mine pass muster!

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