On April 21 I flew to Beijing to meet my son, Jimmy, after his lengthy flight to China from Washington, D.C. He seemed to recover quicker from “jet lag” than I did, as the next day we toured the Forbidden City in a steady rain. Even through the rain, grey haze and many umbrellas, the ruling place of Chinese emperors was quite impressive. Surrounded by a moat and 30 feet high walls, the Forbidden City was the splendid home and power center of many Chinese Emperors. Uninvited visitors were immediately executed.
The imperial city within the city of Beijing (Northern Capital), was first established by the Mongol leader Genghis Khan in 1215 AD. It afterwards served as China’s capital for all but the first 33 years of the Ming Dynasty and during 21 years under the Nationalists. The Ming forbid the construction of any building in Beijing taller than the Forbidden City’s Hall of Supreme Harmony, primarily used on ceremonial occasions.
There are three Great Halls, with numerous other buildings on the sides, all gilded with gold and adorned with imperial dragons—and baby dragons. Then one visits the quarters of the empress, concubines and eunuchs, often the center of palace intrigues. A grim visitor’s site is the Well of Concubine Zhen, where Empress Cixi ordered her competitor wrapped in a rug and thrown down the well because of political machinations. Palace politics were certainly “hard ball!”
Later that day we visited the Pearl Market, which tested one’s bargaining skills. On five floors of a large building all kinds of clothing, art, souvenirs and jewelry were for sale. From tiny booths or stalls hawkers literally tried to pull you into their “store” to give you great bargains. Thanks to my Chinese tutor, I learned that if interested in a product, you low-balled your counter-offer to about 20 percent of the asking price…and then haggled upward. And most importantly, if you felt the price was too high, you simply walked away. Usually that led the seller to agree to your last offer! The scene was a little overwhelming for Jimmy, after just arriving in China from Chattanooga.
The next day we traveled to the Great Wall near the city of Mutianyu, avoiding the crunch of tourists at the closer city of Badaling. We took a ski lift gondola to the top of the mountain, rather than hiking up 1,000 steps, and then climbed to the top of the incredible Great Wall, built to keep out the Mongol invaders from the north. Looking left and right, the Great Wall rimmed the surrounding mountain ridges, dotted by guard towers that could signal an approaching enemy. Construction began during the Qin Dynasty (221-207 BC), with subsequent emperors expanded it at great human cost to workers.
The Great Wall was wider than I expected, since it was built so five or six horsemen could ride abreast. A visitor could walk quite far—if one had considerable stamina in dealing with the stone steps and inclines. The view on this sunny day was spectacular, attuning one to China’s long history. After leaving the Wall, hawkers pushed “I climbed the Great Wall” T-shirts. Since the rear side was emblazoned with a dragon, Jimmy and I each purchased one—after considerable bargaining.
We then flew to Xi’an, the home of the First Emperor’s 7,000 man terra cotta army, a major interest for both of us. The ancient city of Xi’an pleasantly surprised us with its large city walls, also built in antiquity, and the layout and ambiance of the city itself. Downtown we visited their historic drum tower and bell tower, and then meandered through the Muslim Quarter shops, eventually locating the Great Mosque. By then, Jimmy had honed his bargaining skills for some nice “deals.”
I had hired a guide to take us the following day to the site of the terra cotta warriors, where in l974 a peasant digging a well encountered parts of these 2,200 year-old warriors. There are three large enclosed pits, with the largest (Pit 1) like an indoor football stadium. An imposing army faces you as you enter of 6,000 archers, soldiers, charioteers and horses lined up in battlefield columns facing East. Archeologists think Pit 3 represents the headquarters where the generals developed their strategies, guarded by warriors. The second pit with more soldiers and horses is still being excavated. The museum also displays two bronze chariots and horses.
Later that day we walked on the City Wall of Xi’an, which bordered the ancient city. Xi’an served as China’s capital for 1,100 years during thirteen dynasties.
The 40 feet tall walls, for nine miles, surround the city. Residents and tourists can even rent bicycles to tour the city from the wall. Since the city has grown to about 6 million inhabitants, buildings mushroomed on both sides of the imposing city walls.
The next morning we departed early for Chengdu since I had to teach my American Government class that afternoon. Before leaving the city, Jimmy and I visited the Panda Center, Jinsaw archeological site of the Shu Dynasty, the poet Du Fu’s Thatched Cottage (since Jimmy was an English major), and the Daoist Temple. After he flew back to Beijing, I suffered an acute case of homesickness!