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The Silk Route - World Travel: Great Wall, Mutianyu, China
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China: Beijing to Xi'an
June 2007

Beijing: Tian'anmen Square & the Forbidden City The Great Wall: Mutianyu The Great Wall: Badaling
Beijing: Parks, Temples and Towers - not forgetting food! Xi'an: The Terracotta Army City of Xi'an
China

One of our most interesting holidays. Though I'd been holding off for years because of the situation in Tibet, this didn't seem to be doing anybody any good and the lure of this fascinating country became too great.

In this first part, we explored Beijing and Xi'an, including two undoubted highlights of the whole holiday: the Great Wall (so impressed we saw it twice!) and the Terracotta Warriors.

Beijing

Tian'anmen Square & the Forbidden City

Beijing Books Building
The Beijing Books Building
Zhongshang Park
Colourful Zhongshang Park tickets.

The day of arrival was spent recovering, but we did manage a walk into Tian'anmen Square and a visit to Zhongshang Park which was very peaceful compared to the bustle and rush on the main thoroughfare.

On our return to the hotel (the Xidan - very good food!) we went into the Beijing Books Building - an enormous block of a building, 6 floors crammed with books! The building is very typical of the "blocky" type of architecture in Beijing.

Tiananmen Square

Inside it was very busy and many people, including lots of children, were sitting around on the floors just reading.

Tiananmen Square
Beijing
A bit smoggy and very bright in Tian'anmen Square in front of the Forbidden City.

Our first guided visit was next morning to Tian'anmen Square: truly vast but singularly uninspiring - too big, I think. At the south end is the Chairman Mao Memorial Hall with wonderful heroic figures at all four corners.

Beijing
Tian'anmen Gate at the south side of  the Forbidden City.
Beiking
Stone lions guard the Tian'anmen Gate.

It was smoggy here, and very hazy. The major road between the north end of the square and the Forbidden City was a sufficient width to make for a very hazy impression. We returned a few days later to take more photographs on a clearer day.

Beijing
Fantastic stone carving at the Chairman Mao Memorial Hall.
Forbidden City
Five white bridges cross the Inner Golden Water in the Forbidden City.
Forbidden City

The Forbidden City is again vast - nothing is on a small scale here it seems! Reputed to have 9000 chambers its name derives from the Chinese people being forbidden to approach even the walls of the complex. Begun in the reign of Kublai Khan - descendant of Genghis Khan - in the thirteenth century, the buildings today date mainly from the fifteenth century Ming dynasty. It is a built to a rigid geometric plan at the centre of a city considered to be the centre of the universe.

Beijing
Outside the Forbidden City at the (southern) Meridian Gate.
The Forbidden City, Beijing
Beijing

One or two of the buildings were under wraps being renovated/decorated for the Olympics in 2008 but most are finished. The colours are fabulous - mostly blues, greens and gold set off by the dull red painted walls.

The buildings are set on a high red-walled base to give an impression of power. Visitors are not actually allowed into any of the buildings but several interiors can be seen from the outside, including the throne room. The Imperial yellow silk shines out in the dimmest interiors.

The Forbidden City, Beijing

The layout is a symmetrical succession of courtyards with red-walled, yellow-roofed buildings on all sides. The Golden Water canal winds through the complex, crossed by pristine white bridges. the whole complex being enclosed within a rectangular moat.

Beijing
Forbidden City
Beijing

The corners of the roofs are occupied by a procession of figures - the more numerous they are, the more important the building.

Beijing
Beijing



Beijing

The Forbidden City, Beijing
The Forbidden City, Beijing
The Forbidden City, Beijing
The Forbidden City, Beijing
Rock features in the Imperial Garden.
The Forbidden City, Beijing
Beijing
Hall of Mental Cultivation
The Forbidden City, Beijing
The Forbidden City, Beijing
The Forbidden City, Beijing
Dragon Sculpture
Beijing
Throne Room
Hall of Preserved Harmony

The Forbidden City, Beijing
Beijing
The Forbidden City, Beijing
Lion, Hall of Mental Cultivation.
The Forbidden City, Beijing
Lioness with a cub beneath her paw, Hall of Mental Cultivation.

Beijing
Beijing

 

Later, on our own, we took the subway to the south gate of Tian'anmen Square and wandered through the hutongs - apparently in danger of being completely wiped out in order not to present a poor impression come Olympics time.

Beijing

This is a shame, because these are fascinating places, more really Chinese than anything we have yet seen. Here are the people, in their shops and stores - selling everything from slippers to silks (or maybe not!).

One evening we returned to Tian'anmen Square and the Forbidden City was lit up and the fountains were illuminated with coloured lights - very beautiful.

The Forbidden City, Beijing

The Great Wall

Mutianyu

Great Wall

We were most looking forward to two things on this holiday: the Great Wall and the Terracotta Warriors. So it was with a great sense of excitement that we set out early with our guide for the Mutianyu section of the Wall, and increasing worry that it was going to be too misty to get a good sense of the spectacle.

Great Wall

We needn't have worried, even though the mist cleared only slightly on the ascent in the cable car, it continued to clear through the morning and gave an incredibly atmospheric introduction to this immense structure. With the farther hills shrouded in mist you could get a real sense of the isolation of the soldiers posted here to guard the empire.

Great Wall
Great Wall



Great Wall

 

Great Wall

 

Badaling

at Badaling
At Badaling: rather more tourists here than at Mutianyu!

 

We were so impressed, and keen to see more of the wall if possible, that the following day we visited the Badaling section. We were lucky to be able to do this having a car, guide and driver to ourselves in all the places we visited - highly recommended!

At over 13,000 miles long it is by far the longest wall in the world. Essentially a defensive structure, sections were begun in the third century B.C., extending westward in later times. The wall we know today was mostly built during the Ming dynasty at the end of the fifteenth century.

The Olympics were due to be staged in China in 2008 so there was some publicity on the hillsides with the distinctive running man logo.

Great Wall
Great Wall heading east at Badaling.
Great Wall
Some sections are extremely steep!
Great Wall

 

It is almost impossible to appreciate the immensity of the task of those ancient builders, the wall stretches literally as far as the eye can see.

We walked the western stretch as far as it was possible to go, gradually leaving behind most tourists - though some very game elderly Americans also made it to the end!

Great Wall
Great Wall
Great Wall
Great Wall
Great Wall
Further on from the point where we could go no further, the wall is broken and in disrepair.


Great Wall
Great Wall

 

Great Wall scrap book
scarp book forbidden city







Colourful pages from the scrap book for the Forbidden City and the visits to the Great Wall

 

Beijing: Parks, Temples and Towers - not forgetting food!

Beijing
The Drum Tower

We had some really good food in Beijing - in our hotel, restaurants and in a family home, which we were a bit apprehensive about, but we needn't have worried. This was run by the family, a lunch time spot for Chinese as well as tourists, and the food was excellent. We variously had, throughout our stay in Beijing, dim sum, king prawns, duck (and other meats) freshly griddled to order at the hotel, pork ribs, squid, meat balls, fried aubergine. Not to our liking is tofu and one or two vegetable dishes.

We also visited the Drum Tower in Beijing - the drumming was fantastic, apparently an ancient method of letting the citizens know the time!

A kindergarten was on our schedule too, again a little apprehensively visited, but the children were all asleep.

The Temple of Heaven, Beijing
Temple of Heaven

 

Beijing
Temple of Heaven
The Temple of Heaven, Beijing
The Dragon Panel on the central staircase of the Temple of Heaven.
Beijing
Inside the Temple of Heaven.

 

The Ming Dynasty Temple of Heaven, freshly painted, is another beautifully colourful structure regarded by many as the supreme example of Ming design.

The Temple of Heaven, Beijing
Fabulous decoration on the Temple of Heaven.
The Temple of Heaven, Beijing
Beijing
Cow statues inside the Temple of Heaven.

 

Heaven was considered to be round and the earth square, so the round temple sits on a square platform.

The Temple is amazingly built entirely of wood without the use of a single nail! Cows were ritually slaughtered here, hence the cow statues inside.

 

Beijing Beihai Park
Beihai Park
Beijing Beihai Park
Dagoba in Beihai Park

 

Beijing
Beihai Park

 

 

Huge Beihai Park is pleasant to wander through and is curious for the white dagoba, built in the seventeenth century to commemorate a visit of the Dalai Lama.

Beijing Beihai Park
Beihai Park
Jingshan Park
Jingshan Park
Beijing Beihai Park

East of Beihai is Jingshan Park - created from the spoil from digging the palace moat. From the top of the hill here the views of the Forbidden City are fantastic - looking right down over all the buildings spread out south and giving a real idea of the huge scale of the place.

Jingshan Park
Jingshan Park
Beijing
Pagoda at the Summer Palace.

The Summer Palace is another beautiful spot to wander, very much the creation of the notorious Empress Dowager Cixi. She was infamous for creating a huge marble boat (which remains at the summer palace) with funds originally destined for the navy! Though the superstructure is wooden the hull is solid marble.

summer palace
A solid marble-hulled boat!
Beijing Summer Palace
In the Long Gallery, Summer Palace.
Beijing Summer Palace
summer palace
At the Summer Palace.

 

 

The 900m Long Gallery, decorated with paintings over its entire length, is said to be built so that Cixi could walk outside even in poor weather.

 

Beijing Summer Palace

 

De rigueur to take a Dragon Boat across the lake which has a beautiful seventeen arch bridge.

dragon boat
Dragon Boat


summer palace
summer palace
Lioness with cub at the Summer Palace - detail below.
summer palace

 

 


Qangjude

A final recommendation for food in Beijing: the Beijing Qangjude Hepingmen Roast Duck Restaurant. Vast is, again, the only word to describe this place, 15000 square metres of dining including banquet halls and more than 40 separate dining rooms.

It's impossible not to have the Beijing (Peking) Duck. Wonderful pancakes with plum sauce and fabulous roast duck carved at the table.

Xi'an: The Terracotta Army

Xi'an

 

An early flight from Beijing to Xi'an for a much anticipated visit to the Terracotta Warriors. We were met by our next guide and driver - throughout these were very friendly, though our Xi'an guide was less efficient than the others, though very knowledgeable in the museum in Xi'an.

We departed immediately for the Warriors, being told that the afternoon would be less crowded than tomorrow morning.

First a visit to a factory with an interesting description of how the warriors were made. Solid only up to their thighs, the hand and heads were made separately and attached to the mass produced bodies. Each face is different. At the back of the factory, and obligatory to walk through, was a large shop - I really wish they'd drop this kind of thing! We had an atrocious meal in what is supposed to be the best nearby restaurant - what on earth must the others be like!

 

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Vault 1
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The Vanguard

Created to guard the tomb of the emperor Qin Shi Huang (who began the construction of the Great Wall) around 200BC, the underground vaults of the Terracotta Army were discovered in 1974 when peasants were sinking a well. We were indeed very lucky as the place was almost empty and we had unrestricted access to the edge of the viewing platforms. Entering the first large vault is unforgettable - a stunning experience. This is one of the greatest sights in the world.

xian
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Traces of paint (yellow collar on the figure at the right) can still be seen. These warriors have been renovated in the hospital area and are ready to return to the lines.

There are two large vaults and one smaller one. Vault 1 is the largest with over a thousand figures facing as you enter. The rear of Vault 1 is a 'hospital' area where warriors are reconstructed ready for redeployment.

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Warriors in Vault 1.

The soldiers are depicted wearing knee-length tunics, those in the vanguard have no armour or helmets - most seem to have a topknot of hair. We were told that if the vanguard soldiers survived warfare they were given armour and moved back in the lines. The warriors originally carried real weapons such as spears and bows and arrows and there were chariots, of which only the horses remain.

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Vanguard warriors at the front wear no armour - armoured warriors are behind them.
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The Command Post in Vault 3.
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An archer.

The second vault gives a better idea of how badly damaged most of the warriors are on excavation, lying smashed into many pieces. It also has four figures exhibited for visitors to see close up, the most beautiful of which is the archer. The only archers we saw in situ were broken ones in Vault 2 .

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Broken archers in Vault 2.

Vault 3 is smaller but interesting: this was the command post for the soldiers in the other vaults.

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The Command Post in Vault 3.
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Broken Warriors in Vault 2
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Broken Warriors embedded in rock in Vault 1.

The colours in the photographs are a little tricky because of the artificial lighting colouring the scene in different shades.

The museum is absolutely essential for the two half-life-size bronze chariots it contains - absolutely stunning. The Imperial Fleet Leader's chariot, has four horses and a driver, the one in the rear was the Emperor's and is furnished with beds and seats. The detail is incredible - according to the Rough Guide even the fingerprints are delineated on the fingers!

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The Imperial Fleet Leader's chariot.
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The Emperor's chariot.


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The Emperor's chariot.
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City of  Xi'an

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Xi'an's massive city walls.
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The impressive Drum Tower with red-sided drums.

Xi'an, at the start of the Silk Road, has very impressive Ming Dynasty walls. Inside the walls is a Muslim quarter, which bears very little evidence of traditional Islamic art or architecture. A fine Drum Tower stands imposingly at the south-east corner of the Muslim quarter.

xian
In the Muslim Quarter
Big Wild Goose Pagoda
Big Wild Goose Pagoda

It was so tremendously hot when we visited (indeed has been so far throughout the holiday) that we eventually retreated to an air-conditioned shop before meeting up with our guide.

It was another stiflingly hot day when we visited the Big Wild Goose Pagoda. It was built as a storehouse to protect precious Sanskrit sutras from fire and is not particularly attractive. There is a very beautiful jade carving, however, depicting the life of the Buddha.

The Shaanxi History museum is really rather good, illustrating the history of the dynasties. I particularly like some wonderful models of people.

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At the Big Wild Goose Pagoda

On this day we had lunch at the Theatre restaurant, which was better than yesterday's (couldn't possibly be worse!) but not as good as the food in Beijing. However, on the evening of our stay we had the Sofitel buffet - highly recommended! And the Dragon Seal Cabernet is not so shabby either.

A flight from Xi'an took us effortlessly to Guilin.