More about China

Ed came with me on this trip, and we scheduled some time both before and after the convention to see stuff. We arrived on Wednesday evening, had Thursday and Friday to see things, the con was Saturday and Sunday, and then we did some more touring on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday before flying home on Thursday.

One of my friends from the Danzhai trip, Tang Fei, offered to meet up with us on Thursday to tour the Temple of Heaven. She said she’d show it to us correctly. Apparently a lot of people who visit come in via the East Gate and that’s wrong, you should enter via the South Gate because when the Emperor of China came in for the twice-annual rituals, his procession went south to north.

Me and Tang Fei, standing in front of the Imperial Vault of Heaven at the Temple of Heaven, Beijingt of

Something I’ll note here is that it was an extremely hot day that day. Like 100-ish F. Minnesota had a really cool spring, with only one day when we hit 80F. I joked that we left 40F and arrived at 40C and I was only exaggerating very slightly.

Possibly my favorite bit at the Temple of Heaven was the “Seventy-Year-Old Door”:

A fancy door, topped with fancy blue tiles on the roof, with a barricade in front of it.

This door was installed as a shortcut for an aged Emperor in 1781. He greatly appreciated the convenience it offered but was worried that his descendants would take advantage of it out of sheer laziness so he decreed that no one could use this door until they had reached their 70th birthday. No later Emperor reached the age of 70, so it was never used again.

The Temple of Heaven is in a very nice park, which we walked around; then we went for lunch. Tang Fei had a dentist appointment in the afternoon, and we decided it was hot enough that we wanted to go to a museum, so Tang Fei flagged down a taxi for us and we said goodbye. (I was expecting to see her at the convention, but unfortunately, her grandmother died, and she made it only for her scheduled panel on Sunday. I’m hoping to see her again at WorldCon in August.)

Something I appreciated about China: air-conditioned buildings are generally cooled for summer-level comfort, and no further. In the US, on a 100-degree day, if I walked into a museum, I would probably be unhappy without a sweater. In China, I was comfortable in my shorts and t-shirt. (I would really like to see us move away from over-air conditioning indoor spaces. It is ridiculous to have to tote around a sweater on hot days in July.)

We went to the National Museum, which is in the same central area of Beijing as Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. It’s free, but confusing to get in; Chinese citizens show this universal ID card they use for everything, or use an online version of it. I was supposed to show my passport, but had absent-mindedly left it back in my hotel room. I decided to try my driver’s license, and if that didn’t work, well, I guess our day was over? (Or mine was, anyway. Ed had his passport.) The ticket person looked at my driver’s license and issued me a ticket without hesitation, so either a driver’s license was fine, or she didn’t have the energy that day to explain to the foreigner who spoke no Chinese that I was supposed to bring my passport. 

If you go to China and visit the National Museum, I highly recommend it, but I’ll also advise you to just plan on some wrong turns (we got dropped off several blocks away due to the security zone, got turned around in a pedestrian subway, and wound up in Tiananmen Square when that wasn’t our destination. We then stood in the wrong line and had to backtrack to go get our tickets, then stand in line again. There were fewer signs in English than we were hoping for).

Ed visited Tiananmen Square without me while I was at the con. He said it was kind of fascinating. In America, Tiananmen Square is a place that a massacre happened to demonstrators. In China, it’s their National Mall; there are multiple monuments, there are flags, there are tour groups that are not allowed to mention the demonstrations in any way. On Thursday, we popped out, realized we were in the wrong location, looked around, and went back down to the pedestrian subway to try to find our way to the museum. (For added confusion, there’s the National Museum, the National Palace Museum — which is the official name of the Forbidden City — and the National Art Museum, all fairly close together.)

The National Museum was very interesting. There were displays of things like ceramics and carved jade, and a display of the history of Chinese money, including examples of early paper money. There was also a big exhibition of diplomatic gifts — you know, the gifts that get presented during state visits. Featured (on the signage, as well as in the exhibit itself) was a large sculpture of swans that was presented by Richard Nixon during that fabled first trip to China:

A detailed, realistic sculpture of two white swans, inside a glass case.

(That trip also included a memorable exchange of live animals, which were not on display in the museum for obvious reasons.) The diplomatic gifts exhibit was pretty fascinating. A diplomatic gift is kind of the essence of “what do you give to the person who has everything” — they’re often symbolic, either of the country doing the gifting, or the relationship they wish to have with the country receiving the gift. Some are beautiful, some are really not to my taste, some are so unattractive (there was a really kind of hideous sculpture of Abraham Lincoln, presented by the US) I don’t know what the gifter was thinking. In posting this, I discovered there was a Wikipedia page about the swans; they were commissioned originally as a symbol of peace that would be an improvement over doves (clearly the person who said “swans!” has not spent a lot of time around swans), and originally it sounds like Nixon was thinking “nice White House decor” but decided partway through the artist’s process that it would make a terrific gift for Chairman Mao. (And as a diplomatic gift it’s pretty perfect: symbolic of the relationship you want, impressive and attractive to look at, crafted by an American artist…)

On Friday, we went to the Forbidden City, heading out early in a (somewhat futile) attempt to beat the crowds. The Forbidden City is a walled city-within-a-city that was used for many centuries as the palace and grounds of the Emperor and his family. It was forbidden to either enter or leave the grounds without the Emperor’s permission.

Foreground: flowers and fountains. Background: wall and one of the palaces of the Forbidden City.

The Forbidden City is huge. It made me think repeatedly about Versailles, which we visited in 2015, which is also huge. (Although Pu Yi, unlike Louis XVI, was imprisoned and eventually declared rehabilitated — in 1959, he returned to Beijing, bought a ticket, and toured the Forbidden City as a tourist.) It’s also very crowded on the big central corridor, although if you split off to the stuff on the sides it gets dramatically less crowded and you see some really interesting things. I missed the Hall of Literary Brilliance (I think my thought was “maybe we’ll see it later” — it was both too far, and too much in the wrong direction against the crowds, to loop back). Possibly my favorite thing that we saw was this enormous piece of carved jade, sculpted to portray Yu the Great Controlling the Waters:

An enormous sculpture, carved to a high degree of detail with teeny tiny people on cliffs and things like that.

Yu the Great is one of those incredibly interesting figures of Chinese history/legend. He invented flood control about 4,000 years ago. Possibly with the assistance of a yellow dragon and a black turtle. He’s been worshipped as a water god for a number of centuries.

Friday was still hot, but less hot than Thursday. We’d come early to beat the crowds, but it was more crowded in the morning — as the temperatures rose, a lot of people left for the day. There was not a lot of shade, though in various locations they’d built a bunch of seating so you could sit down for a while.

On Saturday and Sunday, Ed went off on his own. He visited the Sandalwood Museum, which had a bunch of nifty furniture, and the National Art Museum, and Tienanmen Square. He had to plan for some time indoors on Sunday, since it was going to pour rain. He also visited Jingshan Park, which is just north of the Forbidden City. It has a walking path up a hill to give you a beautiful aerial view of the Forbidden City, and several of my Chinese friends groaned and said “you missed the best part!” when I said I hadn’t gone up it. (I was too tired.)

Monday, we went for our first trip to the Great Wall.

Something I was not aware of prior to going to China is that while it’s a continuous wall, each section of it has a name. The section that western tourists are most likely to visit is Mutianyu Great Wall; the section that Chinese tourists are most likely to visit is Badaling Great Wall; there are many other sections. (I’ll get to our second visit to the Great Wall in a bit.)

Crystal Huff organized, and the trip included me and Ed, Samantha Murray, Lawrence Schoen, and Taiyo Fujii. Also a guide. We went to Badaling.

A thoroughly restored section of the Great Wall of China, winding its way over verdant hills. In the foreground, steps down, with a railing.

Badaling Great Wall is thoroughly restored, relatively accessible (though we’d planned to take the cable car up, and that didn’t end up happening), picturesque in a “oh YEAH, I have seen PICTURES and now I’m here in PERSON!!!” sort of way, and crowded enough that on our way home I was reading about it and ran across the information that China is going to be capping daily visitors to Badaling starting this week (we were there on a weekday, so I don’t think we’d have run into trouble).

The base area (below the wall) of Badaling is well-equipped with restaurants, bathrooms, and gift shops. This was just as well, because Ed couldn’t find his baseball cap but was able to stop to buy a hat.

I am not sure why the westerners go to Mutianyu and the Chinese tourists go to Badaling. My best guess: Badaling is the easiest to reach on public transit, and people who have arrived from outside the country as tourists are more willing to pay for some other way to get there. (You can get to Mutianyu on transit, but apparently it’s a bus, whereas Badaling is accessible by train.)

Anyway, we quickly discovered that we were a novelty. If we gathered for a group photo, we attracted enthusiastic photo bombers yelling at their friend or family member to take their picture, quick. Crystal is very blonde, and was everyone’s FIRST pick, but they’d settle for any of us:

Ed, posing in a brick window overlooking the Great Wall; next to him is a Chinese lady, posing with Ed but smiling for a camera off to the side.

(We had been taking turns posing in the window.)

The heat broke with Sunday’s rain, thank goodness, and Monday was an absolutely fantastic day to climb the wall (people in China talk about “climbing” the wall, because even in Badaling there’s a lot of steep stair-climbing you have to do just to get up on it). We hiked along it until we got to a barricade — the next segment was under restoration, and it was blocked off.

On Tuesday, Sam and Taiyo both had to leave; Ed and I went with Lawrence to the Summer Palace, which is a park-with-palaces that was used by the Emperor and his family. If you’re visiting Beijing and are short on time, I would unhesitatingly recommend the Summer Palace over the Forbidden City. The both have palaces but the Summer Palace’s grounds are absolutely gorgeous.

Me and Ed, in front of the Tower of Buddhist Incense, a tall, fancy building.

Pictured: the Tower of Buddhist Incense, which is near the top of Longevity Hill, which conveniently we walked up at the beginning of the day. There are stairs leading down from here, and later we had a view of this tower from the lake.

The Tower of Buddhist Incense, which is set into a big hill, seen from out on a lake.

The Summer Palace also has a marble boat. It’s very cool looking.

A giant fancy two-level ferry boat jutting off the shore, except it's all carved out of marble.

Something I’ll note is that many of the things we saw had been destroyed and reconstructed at some point. Large numbers of buildings in the Summer Palace had been destroyed in the 1860s during what the west calls the Second Opium War and China calls something like the Anglo-French War, then rebuilt in the 1890s. The marble boat was partly destroyed, and when it was rebuilt, they added the paddle wheel so it would be more modern.

One of the questions I wondered while walking around the Forbidden City was how it survived the Cultural Revolution. The answer is that Zhou Enlai sent the army there to protect it.

For lunch, we were pretty sure there was a restaurant nearby but couldn’t figure out where, so we wound up buying food at a souvenirs-and-convenience-store-stuff shop. I thought I was picking out a microwave meal, but it was self-heating. Having never encountered these in the states, I thought maybe we don’t have them here, but I looked on Amazon and they’re totally available. They’re shelf-stable and you open a thing and it heats up to full-fledged stovetop temperatures in about 15 seconds, it’s simultaneously nifty and kind of terrifying if you’re a klutz (I am a klutz). They’re marketed to backpackers but I’m not sure why — they’re much too heavy (due to the heating element) to be good a good option for backpackers, especially since you’ll have to pack out the heavy heating element.

For dinner that night we decided to go for Peking Duck. (Which really is a specialty of Beijing.) On Monday, we’d been lucky enough to have Taiyo with us — he can speak and read a little bit of Chinese. On Tuesday, we had Google Translate. The restaurant was a five-minute walk away, but it took us a while to find it — we wound up on the main street instead of down an alley. I finally resorted to asking someone (I used my phone to translate the word “duck”) and they pointed back the way we’d come. We did finally find it! The restaurant staff also didn’t speak any English, but between Google Translate and the translation app on their phone we successfully ordered the duck, along with a side vegetables and waters. Early on the most complicated question was how much this would cost per person — they had pictures of the duck in their menu, and a variety of prices, and we had no idea which price was going to apply to what we were ordering. It turned out that the price we’d thought was per person was actually for the three of us.

On Wednesday, Ed and I went with Crystal and a guide, Linda, to the Great Wall again. This time, we went to Jiankou Great Wall.

The Great Wall sections are classified as either “restored” or “wild.” The wild sections are the unrestored sections, and Jiankou is possibly the wildest (certainly it’s the wildest of the sections near Beijing).  It took a while for the guide to find the dropoff spot, which was a basically a gravel parking lot. We took a trail uphill for about 20 minutes to reach the wall, then paid 20 RMB/person to use a ladder staffed by a guy from the nearby village:

Crystal and the guide, Linda, are standing at the base of a homemade ladder leaning up against a section of the Great Wall.

Once up, the scenery was breathtaking but the wall frankly did not even look climbable.

A selfie of me, with Linda in the background and a section of wall that looks like a vertical rockfall, basically.

Once we were up a bit closer you could see that it wasn’t quite as steep as it looked (close, but not quite), and although it looks like a tumble of loose rock it’s actually a bunch of well-cemented-in rocks and if you try, you can find hand and foot holds and go up. You’re definitely climbing up, though.

We arrived at sort of a dip in the wall and it rose up on either side. This picture was taken from the top of the first bit we climbed to. You kind of can’t see the way down, you’re seeing the way up on the other side. Also a recycling bin, because there was a recycling bin.

The Great Wall of China, looking a lot more ruined and wild than at Badaling, surrounded by green forests.

At Badaling, we saw tourists; at the Jiankou, we saw hikers. After Ed and I turned around (Crystal and Linda kept going for a bit), we ran into a couple from Utah along with their guide. We mentioned that we’d gone to Badaling on Monday and the guide laughed and said, “that is the DISNEYLAND Great Wall.” We’d wondered on Monday how much of what we were seeing was original and how much was the modern reconstruction and this section definitely gave us a sense of the answer. There’s a lot of wall here. But if you’re walking on a smooth, well-defined path or using stairs? Those are reconstruction. (Although, to be fair — the Jiankou Great Wall was also reconstructed, it’s just that the last time it was reconstructed was during the Ming Dynasty, I think?)

Here’s why Ed and I turned around:

It looks like a giant rock has fallen onto the wall, blocking it.

Not shown: the drop on either side. (I still don’t quite understand what happened her. It looks like a rock FELL onto the wall, but there’s nowhere for it to have fallen from; it’s an outcropping from underneath.) But there was no way I was climbing over that. Crystal, on the other hand:

Crystal and Linda, climbing over the rock.

On those steep and precarious parts, going down was harder than going up. I did a bunch of it on my butt. Here’s Ed coming down (with Linda — Crystal and Linda did not go all that much further, and caught up with us before we made it all the way back.)

A tumbled, precarious, steep bit of wall. Linda and Ed are still pretty high up, and sitting down to descend.

I like this picture because it lets you see that up close, some of the rockfall resolves into stairs (sort of) and you can kind of see how it might be climbable. That said, we found out (when I looked it up after the trip) that it is considered the most dangerous section of the Great Wall. It was, in places, pretty terrifying coming down. I can’t imagine doing this in wet weather, that strikes me as an incredibly bad idea. If you’re contemplating a trip to China and a rugged hike along the Great Wall is your cup of tea, definitely hire a guide. You can actually through-hike from Mutianyu if you’d like. (Or at least there are websites mentioning the possibility.)

It was an absolutely perfect day for hiking though, and the scenery was stunning.

Rocky hills towering over a valley, more hills in the background, blue sky.

For dinner on our last night in China, Crystal suggested a restaurant that had performances, including a “Change-Face Dancer,” who did a dance performance that involved swapping out masks so fast I’m honestly not sure how he did it? There was also a unicyclist, a magician, and an opera singer. We met up with her friend Marten, who’s the FAA staffer who handles a bunch of the foreign translations of Three-Body Problem.

We were flying out at four, so there was no particular rush to the airport the next day; we ran into Leary (another FAA staffer who’d been sort of the guest liaison) at the hotel and after chatting with us for a few minutes he said he wanted to get us a final gift, wait here, and ran down the street to the fruit store. He came back with waxberries:

Round, dark-red fruits with what looks like a bumpy skin.

I am pretty sure I’ve seen these at Asian groceries, but I’ve never been sure how you eat them. They look a little like lychees or longan, with a skin you’d peel, but no, you just eat them; there’s a pit in the center. They’re sweet and drip a lot of bright magenta juice. Here’s the wikipedia article for the fruit. Anyway, we were fans. I’d have brought back several pounds, if it were legal. (We did bring it onto the plane, but finished all of them before we got back to the states.)

We got to the airport the recommended three hours early and were through passport control, bag check, customs, and security in maybe an hour.

A few miscellaneous additional notes, for anyone reading this who’s planning to travel to China:

  • I should have gotten the AliPay app. There are a surprising number of people selling things who don’t take cash, just AliPay and WeChat. Setting up WeChat pay is complicated without a Chinese bank account, but you can do AliPay with a credit card, and it would have been handy.
  • China is a lot more generous about providing public bathrooms than most of the other big cities I’ve been in. Bring your own TP, though.
  • Beijing was less polluted than I’d feared/expected. This was partly seasonal (it’s much worse in winter) and partly because they’ve started taking steps to clean up the atmosphere, including rationing out when you can drive your private car in the city. You get one day a week when you’re allowed in between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. with your private car, determined by the last digit on your license plate. Every three months the day changes. This has apparently improved traffic a lot. It’s still pretty bad, and Beijing also has some of the most homicidal traffic I’ve experienced.
  • The food is SO GOOD and SO CHEAP.
  • A lot of taxi drivers are chatty, and very adept with their translation apps. Sometimes they’re trying to sell you on transportation later in your stay (“Have you been to Beijing’s Great Wall?” asked one taxi driver and when we said we hadn’t yet, he added, “May I be of service to you?”), other times they’re just pointing out interesting landmarks. (The Ancient Observatory, for instance.
  • Last time I tried to take money out at the airport and while I did eventually find a place to do so, it was a pain. This time I got yuan at my own bank in advance; it took a day to order it, but it was totally worth it not to have to track down an ATM while exhausted from a sleepless international flight. (That said, ATMs that will let you take out money from your US bank are pretty easy to find in Beijing.)

Anyway, this was a great trip, and I’m really glad we went.

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