We’d arranged a driver to take us out to the Great Wall and we went downstairs a few minutes early to see if he was there. I saw a Chinese man with one of those goofy Bluetooth earpieces and thought for a moment that it might be him but he made no sign of knowing us so we went outside to wait. The pickup time was set for 9:00 and at 8:45 my kid Gwynn asked me if that was my phone ringing in my messenger bag. It was, and when I answered it a Chinese person began talking and I got flummoxed and told him that he had the wrong number. While I can generally get things done face to face, phone conversations with strangers remain beyond my ken. I hung up and went back to waiting. Thirty seconds later it rang again and this time it was someone speaking a mixture of English and Chinese. I tried again and they told me to speak English which I did. The man on the line told me that my driver was here waiting in the lobby. I told him we were standing outside. Gwynn told me to turn around and there, 15 feet away was the doorman talking to me on the phone. He waved; I waved back and hung up.
I’d been expecting Mr. Gao but we’d ended up with Mr. Yang. Not a problem, just a shift in plans. He did have a nice car – a brand new Volkswagen Jetta that had polyester rope macramé seat covers. Something to fiddle with on the way out of town. Leaving the hotel we were instantly mired in the morning rush hour but the crush only lasted for a short while and we were on our way.
Mutianyu was our destination, a nicely restored section of wall that’s far enough out of town to keep the tourists at bay but not so far as to make the car trip unpleasant. The route takes you out along the Airport Expressway and eventually onto peaceful country roads lined with poplars. We passed a large reservoir just before arriving whose marshy far end was home to a lot of Great Egrets and cows, feeding in the grass. It took us about an hour to get there; we left Mr. Yang at the ticket office and took the steep hike up to the cable car depot where, after climbing one last set of stairs I remembered that I had to buy separate tickets for the ride up. Down stairs for a quick stop at the ticket window, back up and we took off, a car to just the two of us.
The thing that struck me immediately as we cleared the station and began our ascent was how much the woods had changed in only two months. Aidan and I were here back in mid-March on the day after a snow storm – spring was a long way off then. Today the hillsides were almost jungle like with deep green stretching as far as we could see. The car came to a halt at the upper station and we got out for our first look. Even though this is my third time on the Wall, that first when I step out onto the top of the first tower is always breathtaking. The scope and grandeur of the place is enormous, and looking at it as it stretches off into the distance makes you instantly appreciate the human scale. The thousands of workers carrying the stones up to this ridge, dropping their burden and heading back down to another load. The soldiers standing guard, the feathers on their helmets fluttering in the breeze, the candles in their lanterns flickering. Standing in place at each portal scanning the ridges in the distance for any signs of an approaching enemy. Now, it’s people in running shoes and sportswear, and the occasional American couple of which one seems to not be wearing a shirt.
In March we’d slipped and slid our way to the east along the icy path. Today we considered talking the much steeper western walk but it was simply too hot and humid. Where you go on this Wall you must return as both directions lead to dead ends. So we went off to the east and enjoyed the sights before finding the path through the woods down to the parking lot.
Rather than head back to the hotel we stopped at the 798 Art District to grab a bite to eat and to take in a few galleries. Lunch was an oven-fired pizza in a little café and the art was as it tends to be – really strange and in some cases very dark. The art scene here is a little odd, I think the creative spirit has been subjugated for so long that what is coming out now is still reacting to that pressure. While interesting, I can only take so much of it and coupled with the heat, we called it quits and went back to the hotel to regroup.
Peking duck was the dinner plan and I wanted to try that restaurant that I’d gone hunting for. I asked the young woman at the lounge desk to make a reservation but they said that were full. She and I and the other manager did a little searching and found a second one, closer to the hotel – also full. I was left with two options, the hotel duck (I hate eating in hotels) or Gou Bu Li, the restaurant in the Qianmen hutong across town by Tiananmen Square. We opted for the latter and caught a cab which brought us almost where we wanted to go. For some reason we left him on bad terms, perhaps he wanted a tip or maybe he was reacting to me telling him to just drop us when he realized we couldn’t make a left turn when we needed to. Who knows, the East is called “inscrutable” for a reason I guess.
Dinner was excellent – duck, sautéed lily roots and celery, a pot of Pu’er tea. It couldn’t have been scripted any better than it was. I took Gwynn down one of the back alleys to appreciate the neon and the tiny hole-in-the-wall restaurants away from the more commercial area where we’d eaten. Many of the restaurant owners were sitting out on their stoops, beckoning us in for dinner. At a place that caught my eye on an earlier trip, I stopped and chatted with the young woman who was soliciting diners. Seeing us talking, the chef came out and joined the conversation. I told him I would come back next week and he went back inside, returning with a business card for both of us. I thanked him and we went on. It was now raining so we scuttled our plan to walk across Tiananmen and headed instead for the subway which was crowded, hot and dank, but infinitely preferable to walking.
A lot of people have asked me why I bring my dearest guests to these particular places. China is loaded with sights, and yet I use a very circumscribed plan for these trips. In my mind the way to get introduced to China is to start with the history and the people. Beijing is simply the best place in the country to walk though tiny neighborhoods, to eat interesting food and to get a good dose of the past between the Ming and Qing monuments and the most wonderful Yonghegong Lama Temple. The subway system is excellent, easy to use and cheap. And the hotel is great. Simply put, it’s the perfect great place to start.
In contrast, Xi’an represents China of a thousand years ago – the start of the Silk Road and so the blending of all the cultures that have affected this region. This is the place where you can see Chinese Muslims going about their everyday lives and visit an 800 year old mosque. You can see the two most famous pagodas in China and learn about how they were built to house the Buddhist scriptures brought from India more than 1500 years ago. You can visit the Beilin Museum and see a stone tablet announcing the arrival of the first Nestorian Christian monks in 900AD. You can walk on the city walls and you can hear Tang Dynasty music played in the parks. And then there are the Terracotta Warriors worthy of a visit to this fair city for their magnificence alone. Xi’an unites ancient China with Middle China. A second trip might involve the sophisticated glitz of Shanghai, or the mysterious minority cultures of Yunnan. But for a first trip, Beijing and Xi’an give you the experience that might make you want to come back for more.