Great Wall, Peking Duck, and Silk Road Shopping
Day 2 began with everyone recovered a bit from the long travel day and arriving at breakfast and the chance to try some new foods! Breakfast included some traditional items like eggs, bacon, and fruit, but also a variety of European pastries (with Nutella) and Asian items like noodles, fried rice, and a specialty item–dates wrapped in sticky rice & steamed in banana leaves—a special treat for the Dragon Boat Festival. Even familiar items had some Chinese twists—like finding moochi fruit and an Asian fried bread called Youtou that was a little like Churros. We also shared stories about how many us had already blown through our data plans—that’s what auto upload of photos will do.
We loaded the bus for the 1 ½- 2 drive from the hotel up to the Great Wall. William, our local tour guide, gave us some fascinating history along the way, including some details about contemporary Chinese life. Beijing is organized by 7 concentric rings—and property prices go up the closer you get to the center ring. Apartments in the city are unbelievably expensive—and very tiny—an average apartment is about 100 sq. meters—one bedroom, one kitchen/ living area and one toilet. Apartments also cannot be owned outright—“owners” get 70 years of “use rights” and any unused years can be passed along in the family. We drove past a portion of the Beijing wall & moat and heard stories about how it was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution.
We heard about a famous Chinese opera based on a folktale about The Woman Who Cries at the Wall. The story describes how her husband was pressed into labor to build the Wall the day of their wedding, and then died and was buried into the construction. Instead of taking her honeymoon, the young bride came to the wall every day and cried, until the gods took pity on her, destroyed part of the wall in a storm, and she was able to retrieve his bones for a peaceful burial. William told us about why the wall was built (to keep out assorted invaders over the ages) and how the section we were visiting was from the Ming Era to defend against the Mongolians. Construction was from several smaller walls that ended up combined to make the Great Wall.
Part of what was fascinating about listening to William was picking up the subtext and smaller comments that showed us some of the Chinese perspective. He mentioned that the Cultural Revolution was because “Mao got old and wasn’t making the best decisions anymore,” and that the U.S. does so well in the Olympics because “you have so many different kinds of people and you can put them in the sports they do best.” He also said the only thing Chinese people hear on the news about America is about discrimination—he mentioned police shootings especially. He noticed Megan’s necklace and mentioned that square is a lucky shape because for the Chinese, earth is a square and heaven is round (a dome.) He told us stories of some the discrimination within Chinese culture, too—especially in favor of people who who live in Beijing, who get preferred admittance with lower required scores to the best universities, for example. Passports have to identify your occupation—and people are treated differently based on it—for example, farmers get lower retirement benefits and have higher life insurance payment. Children must return to their parents’ home village for education—it’s not based on where the parents are currently living. He said, “We are Communist so you think all are equal, but we are not.”
Arriving at the Great Wall involved a shuttle bus, chance to stop at a public restroom (maybe a little longer because several of us were willing to wait to use one of the only 2 western style toilets vs the squat toilets) and a walk up to the snow-ski style chair lift. Arriving at the top we took a group picture and then split up, with some people venturing as far as tower 14 and even 22—about 10K steps and nearly a five mile total trip. Others explored at a more leisurely pace, stopping for lots of pictures, FaceTiming family from the Wall, and enjoying the breezes in the tower walkways. Most of us recaptured our youth by taking the toboggan slide down—little racer cars with hand brakes that took you through long metal runs to the bottom. Once everyone finally arrived back, another long bus ride through Dragon Boat Festival holiday traffic took us to the lunch restaurant.
William explained in a “Chinese tongue twister” that there are three things every visitor to Beijing must do: Visit the Great Wall, eat Peking duck, and see one of the three shows (opera, acrobats, and Kung Fu.) This day gave us all a chance to check off at least 2—leaving the third as an excuse for another visit. Arriving at the restaurant we were greeted with white tablecloths and dining set up to impress—wine, beer, plate after plate of food to try from the lazy susans on every table—we lost track of how many dishes were brought in total, but really appreciated the hands-on lesson in how to carve the duck and how to build these little sandwiches for traditional Peking duck: you take a small rice pancake, add some hoisin sauce, a few sticks of crisp vegetables (cucumber, bamboo shoots and radish) and fold it up like a baby burrito. Delicious!
A short bus ride and some tips from William and Tom on how to bargain took us to Silk Road—kind of big shopping mall with 6 floors of goods ranging from high end items (lots of knock offs) to little souvenir treasures. Salespeople waited at every door to grab your attention if not you actual arm to entice you into their shop. The group split up to shop for everything from pearls to small gifts for family—and a stop at the “Lucky Draw” on the way out earned some small items like tissues and bracelets—no one hit it big with the larger prizes of iPhones and iPads. People had different reactions to bargaining, ranging from real discomfort and confusion in asking for a lower price to glee in playing the game. Rain, exhaustion and a delayed schedule had us canceling the plan to visit the lake today and swapping it to later this week.
Arriving back at the hotel, some folks decided to call it a day and prepare for the BRS visit tomorrow, but a small group was still feeling adventurous and headed out by taxi to Nan Luogo Xiang for shopping, food, drinks and the chance to see a hutong—a great end to an ambitious second day.