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September 01, 2005

Thursday in Beijing

Thursday in Beijing Originally uploaded by Donna & Andrew.
Well, we just finished Thursday, and the Great Wall. We started the day visiting a jade factory, where jade is carved and, more importantly, sold. They gave us a quick walkthrough of the key aspects of jade, from myths to science, and then took us to a counter where they demonstrated some properties of the three quality levels of jade bangles. Then, with the crystalline ringing of A-quality jade still hanging in the air, the tour guides were transmuted into howling furies reaching avaricious hands towards our wallets and demanding that we help slake their burning thirst to sell bangles. And who can refuse a howling fury? We bought an agate bracelet for when Gwen is older.

From there, it was off to the tombs. The picture shows our group outside the Ming dynasty burial site, where thirteeen emperors were buried. All told, I think everybody walked away impressed that Chinese emperors managed to avoid the excesses of their Egyptian counterparts. The construction of the underground grave was impressive, as was the machinery created to channel proper chi to the tomb's entrace, but the tomb itself was basically a few red wooden boxes in a little room. They had apparently rotted over time, and we saw duplicates instead of the real things (no complaints here).

After our two-hour hiatus from rampant commercialism, I think we were all happy to get to lunch at the government "Friendship" store, where they manufacture and, more importantly, sell cloisonne wares. Incredible process! They use vegetable glues to bond tiny pieces of copper that look like little fingernails to copper items like vases and plates. Then they lacquer over them, filling in all the interstices with different colors. Finally, they go through a thorough polishing step that fills and smooths the fingernails, and the results are fired. And sold to tourists. A large 5' tall vase takes one year to make. The results are pretty startling; suffice to say that we spent some time and money here too.

And then it was off to the Great Wall. Our tour guide Robert gave us some good history on the wall, which I will now mis-represent. Apparently building of walls of various degrees of greatness is a longstanding Chinese tradition. In pre-empire days, the seven warring kingdoms of China each built walls, which together totalled more than the 6000+ km we have today. Since then, various other groups built numerous flavors of walls in unsuccessful attempts to keep bad people from conquering them. Much of the current wall is about 400 years old, and random sampling techniques have been used to determine that approximately one life per meter was expended in constructing the wall. Old-school Chinese emperors apparently formed giant teams of workers (one in five people were assigned to wall duty during much of the construction of the present-day wall) and, unfamiliar with the teachings of "The Mythical Wall-Month", set unreasonable deadlines with dire punishments for failure to meet them. As a consequence, many workers died, and rather than expend additional resources burying them, their bodies were added to the base of the wall. At an average rate of one body per linear meter of wall. Bill Gates, are you listening?

Okay, enough offensive revisionist history lessons. We set out to climb the wall. I thought this would basically mean starting on one side, climbing one and perhaps two flights of stairs, celebrating briefly at the top, then climbing back down. Not so. Instead, the wall was placed in the most inaccessible and mountainous regions so that crossing the wall involved a healthy degree of mountain climbing. It tends to follow ridgelines. So climbing the wall involves, not a transverse approach of gaining the top of the wall, but rather a longitudinal approach of first gaining the top of the wall, and then following it along the ridgelines until a little immural is starting to sound pretty good. We climbed for an hour or so, until we couldn't climb any higher, along steps whose heights ranged from maybe two inches to fifteen inches or so. Along the way were various one and two story watchtowers, which we employed as griping stations. By the top, the whole valley was laid out before us, with the wall stretching off into the distance in both directions. The area was mountainous but covered with trees which had been planted by hand after the land had been artificially terraced. So many of the trees appeared in tiers, which leant a strange sculpted feel to the surronding nature. All told, the wall was extremely impressive.

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