Monday, December 30, 2013

China 2009: Beijing - Forbidden City, Summer Palace, Ming Dynasty Tombs, Great Wall

The Forbidden City was the imperial palace of China from the Ming Dynasty in the late 1360s through the Qing Dynasty ending in 1912.  We were impressed by the size of the complex, as well as the number of tourists (mostly Chinese) that could be packed into the place.

The palace has been home to 24 emperors over the centuries, including Puyi, who became the "Last Emperor" in 1908 at age 2 and "ruled" for 5 years, with his father as regent, until his abdication after the Xinhai revolution.  Taken away from his mother, the lonely little boy lived in virtual seclusion during his reign, with only his wet nurse for company.

Rich was very disappointed to find out that the Starbucks which used to reside in the Forbidden City had been closed due to public protest.  Unfortunately he was not able to get the "Forbidden Latte" that he so desired.

Initially built in the 1100s, the Summer Palace was added to over the years.  The Kunming Lake, Longevity Hill, and the surrounding grounds and gardens were all built on man-made land by hand, in a time before machinery and power tools were available.

One of the highlights of the palace was the Marble Boat, mad from stone and wood painted to look like marble.  The Empress Dowager Cixi had it renovated in the late 1800s after the initial boat was damaged in the second Opium War.  The boat has a mixture of European and Asian decor, with its paddle wheels modeled after old paddle steamboats, and its dragon heads at either ends.  The Marble Boat was not meant to sail but was used by the Dowager for entertaining purposes.

Named the "Spirit Way", the long path to the Ming Dynasty Tombs is lined on both sides with giant weeping willow trees as well as 18 pairs of huge concrete sculptures depicting warriors and government officials, animals such as elephants, camels, horses, and mythical creatures such as dragons and phoenixes.

Three of the thirteen tombs are open to the public.  We visited the Changling tomb of Xu Di, the third emperor of the Ming Dynasty (1360-1424).  Inside the tomb was a bronze statue of the emperor as well as many artifacts including clothing, head dresses, cookware, vases, porcelain china and more.

The Great Wall of China is actually a series of different walls made of stone, wood, brick and earth, built over the centuries as fortification against invaders.  The first walls were erected as early as 5BC and construction of different sections continued through the 1600s.  The first emperor Qin Shi Huang (221BC), who conquered all opposing warring states and created a unified China, tore down walls that separated the individual states within his empire and instead built new walls to connect with existing structures along the empire's northern frontier, forming one contiguous wall with watch towers and troop barracks.  Although much of the original walls have eroded away, the Great Wall is still the world's longest man-made structure, stretching over 6400km.

The stretch of the Great Wall near Beijing which we went to visit was teeming with tourists, again mostly Chinese visitors from the villages.  Having success in Xi'an by visiting the Terracotta Warriors early in the morning, we tried to repeat this at the Great Wall.  Unfortunately we found out that morning was when all the tour buses arrived and so the paths were packed.  Amusingly, many Chinese villagers were more impressed by seeing Caucasian tourists than by the spectacle of the Great Wall.  We had entire families ask to take a photo with Rich–and not just one photo, but one with just the father, then additional photos with more and more family members.

The sheer immenseness of the Great Wall has to be seen in person to be truly appreciated.  When I first strode up a steep vertical incline of one section, I actually experienced a moment of vertigo and felt like I would topple over.  The giant steps in some section also proved challenging.  I'm glad I got to see it before more parts of it erode away.

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