BEIJING, China—What would going to Beijing be without a field trip to the Great Wall of China? Stretching from one end of the country to another, over 6,000 kilometers in length – it is all at once intimidating and spectacular. There was no way I was going to miss it.
Monday morning started at about 8:30 a.m. for me, when my alarm went off to signal the beginning of this special day. After my morning ablutions and getting dressed in something warm, I headed downstairs to have breakfast.The buffet at my hotel isn’t anything to write home about, unfortunately. Having said that, it did provide much needed sustenance. We were going to spend a good couple of hours walking on the wall and I’d better eat something.
We were scheduled to depart the hotel at around 10 a.m. Many members of the “Cinderella” cast were on this trip, along with our Ukrainian musicians, musical director Michael Duff, his wife Priscilla (who organized this day tour), our sound guy and a guest. The drive to the Mutianyu section of the wall would take about two hours.
Backgrounder on Beijing
The bus rolled after 30 minutes cause we had to wait for a few latecomers. Our tour guide Kevin then introduced himself, and gave us a brief history of the Great Wall and a backgrounder on the city of Beijing, referring to the government’s numerous positive endeavors – which included ridding the capital of its famous pollution, easing of traffic problems during the Olympics and after, and the planting of thousands of trees – as “Communist Magic.”
The different warring states had already built their own fortifications, beginning at around the 5th century BC to 221 BC. Qin Shi Huang, China’s first emperor (the same man that had the Terracotta Warriors built to protect him in the afterlife), conquered the warring states, and joined these fortifications together.
Since then, sections of the wall have been rebuilt by the dynasties that followed. The stronger sections are those closest to Beijing. Mutianyu was one of them.
We arrived at the site close to 11:45 a.m. Our tour guide then gave us different options on how to tour the wall: we could either hike or take the cable car up, and then either walk or toboggan down. I decided on the cable car up to Tower 14, and then the toboggan from Tower 6. Fun!
After buying our tickets, taking a trip to the ladies room and passing several souvenir shops, all housing outrageously priced wares (haggling would come in handy on this day), several of us headed up to the cable car entrance. I rode my cable car with five other people: Steven Strafford (Herald), Janna Cardia (Queen), Richard Cerato (Steward), Abby Baum (Ensemble, and Queen/Portia Understudy) and Deniz Akyurek (sound engineer). We took photos of each other as the cable car made its way up the wall to Tower 14, ooh-ing and aah-ing as we got closer to the top. We found many of the other cast members and musicians there once we arrived.
The views from here, and from any point on the wall were breathtaking. The weather was perfect for a visit like this one. After taking a few photographs, it was time to head up, and walk the wall.
The wall is actually quite wide. Because it wasn’t so cold or windy, the two hours we spent up here were incredibly enjoyable. Many of the cast members would pose on other sections of the wall or the towers in the background. Others would climb into one of the wall’s notches and pose even more. I’m not one for daredevil stunts or risky behavior, so I opted to take their photos rather than pose in them.
The walk (or hike, which some parts of the wall would require) alternated from gentle to crazy. Some of the stairs were so worn down from overuse that made it difficult to discern where to step, while other sets of stairs were uneven or either unusually tall or short.
I kept close to a vertical structure, in case I slipped and fell (thankfully, none of that happened). Thank goodness I took Priscilla’s advice to wear a good pair of shoes that had traction because of how erratic this trek would be. It also helped that along the way of the wall, there were numerous food and drink vendors at almost even intervals. I bought a bottle of water, while a couple of others got soda.
Two hours later, we arrived at Tower 6. Our tour guide pointed us to the staircase that would take us down to the toboggan ride. We bought our tickets, then lined up to wait for a free toboggan. The instructions were quite simple – push the stick forward to accelerate, pull it back to slow down or stop.
I rode on my little black sled, and started my slide down the mountainside. I opted for a more leisurely descent (thank goodness no one was rushing me), erring on the side of caution, speeding up only when the track was smooth and straight. It took around 5 minutes to reach the bottom. I righteously dirtied my coat on the way down, but it was worth it. (When I got back to the hotel, I washed the dirtier parts of my coat. It’s now hanging up to dry and should be good to go in the morning.)
I had my eye on a red sweatshirt that reads, “I climbed the Great Wall,” and headed to a stall that sold it. I bought it for RMB 100, and in hindsight I could have haggled down further, but I wanted it badly enough and didn’t complain. Later I also got a Great Wall souvenir book to take home. (I like getting guide books from places I just visited.) Before leaving, I got myself a chocolate banana crepe, made fresh and hot. Thankfully I opted to get myself this snack … we wouldn’t be stopping to eat before heading to our next destination, the Ming Tombs.
We didn’t stay very long at this tourist spot as time was running out. But I was able to manage a few good photographs of some of the items excavated from one Ming emperor’s tomb. The Ming Tombs is the burial site of 13 Ming Dynasty emperors, this being the location with the best feng shui to build the tombs, according to our guide.
We saw some artifacts and antiques, including ceremonial hats and crowns, and replicas of clothing and robes worn by the reigning monarchs. We were able to take a nice walk and look around, and take photos of the surrounding scenery. As it was at the Great Wall, this site was beautiful.
Haggling for Pashminas
I walked to the row of souvenir stalls to see what they were selling and found Pashminas at almost every stall. One stall in particular sold some beautiful ones, and this time I haggled down far better. Each Pashmina would now cost RMB 15 (roughly 107 pesos), so I got a few. We then had to board the bus again to catch our meal reservation.
Our dinner was at the Jin Dian Cloisonné Factory and it was a treat!
Cloisonné is beautiful enamel-over-metalwork, and is used to make home decorations, jewelry, figurines, platters, and even Christmas ornaments. The first floor of the factory had shelves and shelves of various items: cloisonné jars, enamel works of art, silk carpets, jade and pearls, all sold at factory direct prices. On the second floor was the restaurant.
The food here was delicious! Stir fried pork with vegetables, lemon chicken, fish, dumplings, oxtail soup, red bean spring rolls and steamed rice. The restaurant also served Chinese “fire water,” a kind of clear white wine. I had one sip – needless to say, that sip would be my first AND my last. It didn’t stop the others from having their share of it though.
After dinner, I walked around to see if there was anything interesting to buy. By nature I’m a bit of a tightwad, but if I do see a piece that I know I would enjoy, I grab it. Here at Jin Dian, I found a beautiful small cloisonné elephant, sitting up with its trunk raised. It was so nicely done! It’ll make a nice addition to my elephant collection. (Oh, I found another pretty white one at the Ming Tombs, too.)
The drive home took about an hour. A lot of the passengers were exhausted. Many of us were asleep (yours truly included), waking up only upon our arrival at the hotel. We gave generous applause to Kevin and Priscilla for giving all of us such a fantastic day.
I have another full free day here before heading to Hong Kong (our next stop on the tour where “Cinderella” runs from Nov. 5-29 at the Grand Theatre, Hong Kong Cultural Centre). Hopefully I’ll make time for another tourist adventure. There’s a whole lot more to see in Beijing, and I regret not having the time to explore it more fully.