Beijing Day 6: The Great Wall

The Great Wall is certainly the most famous tourist attraction in Asia and it is a short drive from Beijing, so I knew we needed to see it during my stay here. Robert arranged a car to take us to the site and we went with a family that Robert knows from work. Roger, Tina and their daughter Samantha have been in China for about 6 months but Tina and Samantha had yet to see the Great Wall. We piled into the car (with Samantha on her parents’ laps) and headed out to the country.

Right after getting in the car I realized I had forgotten to put my battery in my camera! Fortunately Robert had brought two cameras (a pocket digital and a digital SLR), so we were covered. We climbed up into the mountains and after an hour and 45 minutes we arrived at Mutianyu, a section of the wall that is particularly well-preserved (and also restored in many parts). There were several options for getting up to the wall. The first was a enclosed tram which took you to the top. The second was an open tram. And the last choice (the one we took) was hiking up to the Wall. The first thing you learn about the Great Wall is that it is a well-established tourist trap, and that means “running the gauntlet” of stalls with tourist paraphernalia.


The second thing you discover about the Great Wall is that it is perched at the peak of the mountain chain, and that means a very steep hike to get up to the wall.


And the third thing that you learn is that the wall is, well, big. Great big, in fact. The only way to get a sense of it is to hike down it’s length for a bit, which was our plan after we managed to get to the wall. After climbing what seemed like 1000’s of steep stairs, we got our first glimpse of the Great Wall through the mist:


As you can see it was a particularly hazy day. I was not sure if it was just humidity or smoke from the coal plants or some combination, but it actually added quite a bit to the power of the Wall to see it appear magically from the mist


There are parts of the wall that are ridiculously steep, including places with steps that were 2 feet tall and 5 inches deep. The watchtowers were placed on a very regular basis in this section of the wall and we hiked through at least 6 of the towers. Eventually we found our way to the entrance of the aerial tram which was crowded with people. Many folks just take the tram to the top, hike for a couple hundred yards and then turn back. We decided to hike back to our original entrance although our legs were getting tired by now.


Then it was back into the car for a fast drive back into Beijing. I asked the driver to dropĀ  me off at the subway station as we got closer to town: I had decided to take one last shot at getting some silk for Meta’s dresses. I had found out about two high-end silk shops right near the center of town and since it was only 4PM I thought it was worth a try. The first shop had a large selection and very good quality (I had a sample I was using for reference). The silk I was looking for was known as “charmeuse” and needed to be fairly heavy-weight. In addition Meta had given me some color ideas to choose from (mauve, seafoam, rust and turquoise). I found the two stores and went back and forth between them comparing products:


The color choices were fairly random, but the prices were consistent (and fairly high). There is not the option of bargaining much in these sorts of shops, so I knew it was going to cost to get the right stuff. But the reason I was trying to buy this silk was not just about price: it is impossible to find heavy charmeuse in the US, especially pre-dyed fabric. Here are some of the colors I had to choose from:


It is a bit of a fool’s errand to send me shopping for fabrics, but I did my best. In the end I picked up two 5 meter lengths, one of mauve and one of rust. Or at least they looked like mauve and rust to me, but like I said, fool’s errand. Now the hard part will be finding seamstress back home that can handle dress-making with pure silk.

I made my way home, happy with the fact that I had managed to get the silk. I took the subway and then picked up Robert’s second bike near the station. The ride home was crowded with rush-hour bike traffic (even on a Saturday) and I noticed several tricycles carrying large loads. It is pretty amazing just how big a load some of these guys (and gals) can carry on their bikes:


Okay, Really amazing:


After seeing The Great Wall, Tienanmen Square and The Forbidden City I was starting to realize that the Chinese do big things quite well. I am considering using the phrase “China Big” instead of “Texas Big” from now on, but I think it will lose something in the translation.

That was pretty much it for my last full day in China. Tomorrow I will head to the airport and head out by Noon. I will arrive back in San Francisco at 8:30 AM or so. Crossing the date line in this direction allows you to perform a time traveling trick of arriving before you leave.

A full slideshow of the day’s pictures:

Beijing Day 5

Today was a mellow day, mainly making up for lost sleep and jet lag (just in time to head back home). I did head out in the afternoon to go shopping with Robert. I was mainly looking for stuff for the kids and we headed to a local indoor market that did not cater to tourists. The market had hundreds of stalls, with all sorts of specialties. Want shoes? Got ’em:


Girl’s dresses? Yep, with big dolls for models:


Tape? How much do you need?


I spent close to three hours in the place (Robert gave up on me after an hour and I shopped on my own after that). I did find quite a few choice items, all for great “local” prices. The kids should be happy with the spoils. The only thing I couldn’t find was the silk that Meta had requested for her Eurythmy dresses.

After shopping on my own, I went back to Robert’s place and then we headed out for an evening with Vivian. First we looked for silk shops to purchase the material for Meta’s dress (Vivian has a background in fashion) but they were all closed, so no luck there. Then we went to a well-known ex-pat pizza restaurant known as “The Tree“. It was packed with foreigners and we ordered two very tasty pizzas. The beer menu at the place was ridiculous with a wide range of Belgian beers including Chimay, Abbey doubles and tripels, Framboise, Kriek and even, yes, Delirium Nocturnum. I had a Framboise and Robert did as well after he tasted mine.

Tomorrow is my last full day in China and we will be headed to Great Wall of China!

Beijing Day 4

After a (fairly) late night at the Laoshe Teahouse, I slept in (after waking for a couple hours at 3 AM) and took it easy in the morning. Robert and I had lunch with a couple of his friends here. The food (vegetarian) was delicious. After lunch we headed down to Lama Temple, a working Buddhist Temple that is open to tourists. We took the subway (we have only taken two trips by taxi since I arrived) on several of the shiny new lines installed before the Beijing Olympics. The trains are equipped with a cool dynamic map that shows which stop you are headed towards with colored lights (red is stops you have passed, blue is stops along your destination path)
(click on photos to see enlarged version)

Once we got to the Lama Temple we met up with Robert’s friend, Vivian, who is a native Beijinger. Vivian speaks fluent English as well as Japanese and is learning French
We looked around the temple, which struck me as very different than Buddhist temples in Thailand. The temples in Thailand are ridiculously ornate, every surface covered with pictures and bas-relief. The Lama Temple was more subdued, although the Buddha statues were all gold:
There was one structure that held a giant turtle statue with a pillar on his back. I am not the significance of the statue, but it was interesting because it was crammed into the structure, making it difficult to even get a clear shot of it:


Perhaps it represents turtles all the way down.

The temple has a unique history, having been created as a home for court eunuchs in the early 1700’s. Eventually it was converted to a prince’s home. Later it became a “lamasery” devoted to Tibetan Buddhist Monks. The structure was protected by the Prime Minister during the Cultural Revolution, and that is why it survives today. It was reopened as a monastery in 1981, and is one of the most important Tibetan monasteries in the world.

After the Lama temple we took a bus to a shopping area which I think is called Hou Hai. The shops surround a large lake and it is very tranquil (by Beijing standards). It’s the same place where Robert went ice skating in the Winter. On our way to Hou Hai we noticed a man flying a kite, which, according to Vivian, was on over 800 meters of string! I zoomed in as far as possible with my camera (10x) and you can see just how small the kite still appears:


We wandered around the lake for at least an hour or more.


We also stopped into a Starbucks for a break (where can’t you find a Starbuck’s anymore?).

This is for my daughter, Anna. As we walked along a side street we saw a little bunny in a cage. Vivian and Robert went to say hello:


Then it was back on the subway to pick up our bikes for a speedy night-time ride through Beijing (no photos or video of that, I did not want to crash)!

Tomorrow (Friday) will be devoted to shopping for gifts and Saturday is a trip to the Great Wall of China. Here are the rest of the pictures from today:

First Photos from my Beijing Trip

I arrived in Beijing today at 2PM on Monday, totally jet-lagged but still excited. In a funny coincidence there was a contingent of students from Sacramento Waldorf School also on the plane. I knew a couple of them and we chatted during the flight. They were clearly very excited about the trip and many had never been overseas.

Robert met me at the airport and we took the train to the subway to get back to his place. Also a quick dinner and then it will be off to bed! A 33 hour day can be wearing on a guy.

Below is a slideshow of a few of my experiences on the short first day. It includes pics of the SWS kids getting off the plane in Beijing, video of Robert and I heading to town from the airport and then walking around in Beijing on our way to dinner. More to follow.

Never-Before-Published Photos: The Day MLK Died – LIFE

LIFE Presents: Never-Before-Published Photos From Memphis, April 4, 1968
On April 4, 1968, LIFE photographer Henry Groskinsky and writer Mike Silva, on assignment in Alabama, learned that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., had been shot at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. They raced to the scene and there, incredibly, had unfettered access to the hotel grounds, Dr. King’s room, and the surrounding area. For reasons that have been lost in the intervening years, the photographs taken that night and the next day were never published. Until now.

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