CAN THE MAN ON THE MOON SEE ME? HERE I AM, ON TOP OF the Great Wall of China, raising my arms heavenwards. I imagine I’m holding a sword in my hand like a Han dynasty warrior, looking out for the enemy. What I see instead is an army of tourists huffing and puffing their way up to my vantage position.
Those of longer breath and sturdy physiques are rewarded with one of the most compelling views ever. About 6700 km long, the wall snakes sinuously over mountain and valley, as far as the eye can see on both sides. Did Neil Armstrong really spot it from outer space? Who cares? Not the millions of tourists from around the world who come wall-a-climbing.
Classified internationally as a World Heritage Site, it straddles North China’s mountains and was originally built as a military defence wall to prevent nomadic tribes from entering China. Looking down at the steep slopes from one of the fortified tops, it’s hard to imagine savages slithering up instead of down in the dead of night, but this is what history reminds us.
Francis Yu, our historian guide, speaks perfect English and offers us pithy Chinese sayings like this one: “Not having been on top of the Great Wall, you are not a real man.” All thoughts of shopping from the neatly arranged rows of souvenir stalls forgotten, it’s the women who take this saying seriously.
The guide book recommends you wear sensible walking shoes and do not, repeat, do not climb if you have a bad back. You can take the cable car up to the higher point but then you run the risk of being labeled ‘lazybones’ or coward. Whatever way you take, the Great Wall is a powerful cultural icon and a stunning visual experience.
The best place to access the Great Wall is from Badaling, only 80 km from Beijing — a stunning city, where we have arrived at night. Our accommodation, the Beijing Raffles Hotel, is nothing short of luxurious. If you log on to www.beijing.raffles.com, you can get a peek into the 171-room historic hostelerie, which many regard as the prime luxury destination in the city. Equally fortuitous is its location.
Strolling out of the hotel the first night, I hear a cacophony of sounds coming from some place close by. I turn left. And literally stumble into Tiananmen Square. I immediately clutch my camera to my chest and look out for armed guards who might come rushing out and beat people senseless. But that massacre was years ago and my imagination needs to be fettered. The square is full of children running about, grandmothers seated side by side, men smoking and many people flying large, gaily-coloured kites. And all of this at midnight!
Chairman Mao’s huge portrait looks down upon his once-upon-a-time subjects in this, the largest city-square in the world, covering 40,000 square metres. Tiananmen (the Gate of Heavenly Peace) was the front gateway to the imperial palace in the Ming and Qing dynasties. It was here on October 1, 1949, that Mao celebrated the founding of the People’s Republic of China by hosting a grand ceremony.
Grand ideas and ancient grandiose monuments are everywhere. As are recent grand ideas. Like the expensive Olympic stadium. Corporate chieftains have also constructed architectural showcases that flaunt their newly acquired wealth. Yes, it’s true. In China, some are more equal than others. And entire traditional neighbourhoods (known as hutongs) are being pulled down to be replaced by towering glass and steel monoliths.
But for the first-time visitor, there is still, fortunately, a plethora of riches, beautifully preserved. We started our sightseeing at another of Beijing’s historic sites — the ‘Grand Temple of Heaven’. Built in 1420, in the belief that heaven is round and the earth square (I sometimes believe this too), this is where our Ming-Qing friends offered prayers for good harvests. Since a lot of people prayed a lot, it had to become China’s largest temple complex. There is also the Palace Museum, formerly known as the Forbidden City, a name I much prefer.
Burping after a spicy Indian lunch at the Holiday Inn Downtown Beijing, we marvel at some of the 9999 rooms in the Forbidden City, where commoners could not raise their eyes to look at their emperors. Over 1,00,000 artisans and one million workers took 14 years (1406-1420 A.D.) to build the magnificent legacy, where each emperor had three wives and 72 concubines. Where did they get their energy? MSG?
An hour’s drive out of downtown Beijing brings us to the Ming Tombs. An artistically laid out courtyard with mountain ridges on three sides nearby gives an amphitheatrical dimension to the complex. I purchase a small vial with frolicking pandas painted on the inside of the glass. No amount of cajoling can persuade the artist to reveal his time-honoured secret to me.
We then visit the Underground Palace, where all the unearthed cultural relics are displayed. Of the total thirteen Ming Tombs, all of which were discovered by chance a couple of hundred years ago, the tomb of Dingling is the only one that was excavated completely. I can smell the fragrance emanating from the apple trees that line the Sacred Road. I can visualise the stone-carved larger-than-life camels, elephants, lions and tall emperors that line the paved pathway. I admire the reverence that the Chinese hold for their ancestors and monuments.
I appreciate this city whose population matches that of Mumbai. It has over 10 million bicycles, and the effect tells on the large number of trim physiques and figures. I am amazed that most people have cheerful faces in public and equally, that it is so safe to walk around at midnight. I am impressed that every single aspect of the tourism industry works like clockwork. I am grateful that there are no beggars to pester the unwary tourist. I agree with Confucius who wrote, “Is it not a pleasure to have a friend come from afar?” The pleasure, Mr Sage, is entirely ours.
Quanjude and Bianyifang are two centuries-old establishments which have become household names. The most famous is the Da Dong, in the embassy area, a favourite of European Ambassadors who entertain frequently here. Others are Bian Yi Fang Roast Duck Restaurant and King of Duck Roast Duck Restaurant. I would say any Beijing But don’t leave Beijing without eating the Peking Roast Duck at least twice. Prepared since imperial times, now considered a national food. Eat the meat with pancakes, spring onions, and hoisin sauce.
Beijing’s international airport is choc-a-bloc with taxis, but the drivers don’t speak English. It is important that you have the hotel name written in Chinese. The ride into the city centre (US $20) may take over an hour, depending on traffic.
Get down to the metro. It’s fast, efficient, clean and cheap. An 20-rupee (approx.) one-way ticket gets you everywhere in the city. Taxis are cheap but you will run into the language barrier. Best to get your hotel receptionist to hire a taxi for the day.
There is hardly an international brand that doesn’t have a presence in Beijing. Then you have the likes of Yashow Market and Silk Market, five floors of imitation goods in varying degrees of quality.
Beijing International Airport