Friday, March 28, 2008

Skiing The Great Wall of China

Chairman Mao once said, "If you haven't climbed the Great Wall, you haven't been a good Chinese." Well, I am happy to report that not only are we good Chinese, we are - in fact - great Chinese, since we climbed the Great Wall in the snow.

Northern Beijing City hovers somewhere in the mid-60's at this time of year. In the mountains where we climbed the Wall, it tends to be a little colder and less predictable. Now, I admit to knowing nothing about "Centigrade," but I'm fairly certain that today it was approximately 200 degrees below zero. Centrigrade. A natural fluke that can probably be described as less unpredictable and more global warming (or cooling, as the case may be).

We woke up at 6am (anyone who knows me well should note this, as of course it's unlikely to be repeated anytime soon...and only for love or jetlag). The air was crisp and cool but there was no indication we should've packed parkas. We boarded our bus at 7:30, sat in traffic for well over an hour (you think rush hour in LA is bad??), and were treated to what was surely a singularly rare opportunity to purchase jade from a government factory/store (hrmph. Zach spent the whole time repeating, "I want to goooooooo now. I want to goooooooo now" until Dan bought him a lollypop). After that we finally started the climb up the mountains. And then it began to snow.

I am pretty sure that time stopped when I finally saw the Great Wall peeking out over the mountain ridges - certainly, I stopped breathing. It's such a familiar site from movies, books and television I almost felt like I was having deja vu. Even after all of these centuries, it is still regal and formidable and huge (like all the rest of the Chinese dynastic architecture). Seeing it surrounded by soft snowfall was...unbelievable.

And really flipping cold. The vendors, no doubt, were thanking their lucky stars, as everyone on the bus loaded up on gloves and ponchos and winter hats - although we even noticed locals wearing new sweatshirts proclaiming, "I Climbed the Great Wall of China!" Poor Zach. We left the hotel with a fleece scarf and hat, a sweatshirt, a jacket and a windbreaker for him, and that child was still freezing. We bought him an extra pair of socks that we pulled over his shoes and pants, and a pair of child-sized gloves, but he just didn't get into the spirit of adventure... He made Dan carry him the entire time. (Thank goodness he's a Daddy's boy!). Trying to explain that we were visiting one of the 7 Wonders of the World, and that this 6000 km structure is the only man-made object visible from outer space didn't seem to placate him much. He was just "COOOOOOOOLLLLLLLLDDDDDD!" I'm sure he'll appreciate the photos when he's older.

By the time we left, the entire area was covered in white. Our guides told us that in the winter (when it's supposed to snow), the snow is much harder and thicker and it makes the roads impossible to drive. This snow was delicate and wasn't going to ice over, but it certainly made us feel like we were in the center of an ancient Asian snowglobe.

After lunch, still wet and freezing, we got to take a dragon the rain...across a lake. Then we toured the Summer Palace - so named because it's where the Imperial Family would go to escape the stifling summer heat. It was absolutely gorgeous, no question, but we wrapped Zach in plastic and headed back to the bus. I'm happy to announce that my Mandarin is now good enough that I was able to order a roasted sweet potato from a street vendor (!). This was the perfect thing to warm grown-up hands and baby feet. And it was delicious!

As a special excursion, we took Zach to "Kungfu Show" tonight. Zach's Kungfu is strong, but those guys were pretty badass. He didn't take his eyes off the action until he finally passed out during the final scene.

It's been a whirlwind, for sure. Yesterday we toured Tian'Amen Square, the Forbidden City, Hutong province and a local kindergarten. Speaking as someone who has visited Red Square - what this sister square was designed after - I have to say I was disappointed. Red Square was also cold (they got that part right), but aside from that... I dunno. Many of us agreed that it was very difficult to separate ourselves from prior associations of the square, and that made it a little hard to enjoy the experience. The famous portrait of Mao is, however, larger than life and pretty amazing in person.

As for The Forbidden City, well, one of my friends told me in advance that the thing to note is the scale of these buildings. Yes. Said to have 9,999 rooms, the palace is massive and extraordinary and unlike anything I have ever experienced. Everything is beautiful. All of China's ancient buildings are made out of wood, so the people were terrified of fire. As such, the buildings are topped with carved "water animals" (such as camels), to guard against their most dangerous enemy - symbolically, anyway. But in addition to the animal carvings, there are carvings for the Emperor, carvings for his wives, for the family as a whole, for the gods, and extra carvings for good luck and great aesthetics. The colors are so vibrant they look like candy.

Speaking of food! This is a foodie's Heaven or Hell, depending. I haven't gotten too crazy yet, but this morning I did try congee (watery rice pudding-ish), and a Hundred Day Egg. Remember the movie The Dark Crystal? That is what Hundred Day Eggs look like. The Dark Crystal, from The Dark Crystal. They're sort of a translucent, dark greenish-black color. And they taste like yucky fish. Good times!

I'm getting kicked off the computer now.


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