Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Day 4 - This Tour Goes to ELEVEN!* Part I - the Ming Tombs

 Looking back to the night before.  

At about 9pm (after we had all fallen helplessly into bed) we got the promised call from our tour guide for the next day.

"My name is Eleven.  I chose my English name to be the number 11.  I'll see you at 8am!" 
"ok.  see you then."  (I was very tired and groggy... hence the small letters)

And so the next morning after doughnuts and our morning beverages, there was Eleven, ready to escort us to the Great Wall of China, to some of the tombs of the Ming Emperors, north of Beijing, and as we were to discover later, so many other places.  
The tour we signed up for was a bus tour under the banner of Gray Line (tm),  so we were expecting a bus, a group tour,  sights on a bus.  The tour was also billed as including lunch and a visit to a jade factory.  Our one "group thing."  And since I was (and continue to be) more or less mute and illiterate in any Chinese dialect, this seemed to be the best way to visit sights so far outside the city.

When we got outside we were greeted by a minivan (Buick, by the way) and a driver, Mr Ai.  Apparently, the downhill side of winter, right before the Spring Festival (Lunar/Chinese New Year) is a very low point in the English speaking, Beijing tour bus trade.  With the Spring Festival less than a week away, less and less business is getting done, so business travel is down.  It is bloody cold everywhere you go, so going out into wide wind whipped plains or climbing the side of a mountain are not high on many people's lists that time of year.  So if you are looking for the least crowded time to see the sights around Beijing, I can say, the last week of January is a good bet.  Just pack all your warm stuff.

We climbed in the van, and headed north, working our way up one of the spokes, passing the ring roads.  We passed the statue of the "dumpling Emperor" on the way to the Ming Tombs - a peasant who lead an uprising, and claimed the throne.  His version of 'bread and circuses' was to exhort the people to eat new years dumplings every day so they would feel like it was New Years all the time.  Apparently this worked for less than two months.

We arrived at the Ming Tombs about 10 minutes before they opened.  Apparently when you only have 3 people to look after, rather than a bus load, things go much faster.  This was to be one of the day's themes.  And we enjoyed it quite a bit.

Once the site was open, we got out of the van... it was still just as cold as it had been in the city.  We went into the "museum" portion of the tomb exhibit.  The most interesting thing there was a cut-away model of the construction of the wooden pavilions and palaces used at the imperial sights (the tombs, the Forbidden City, and palaces sprinkled all over the Chinese Empire).  Though these things look monolithic, they are actually a clever three dimensional jigsaw puzzle of staggering proportions.  This pavilions are built without nails, and with the intention of shimmying and swaying with the earthquakes, rather than standing firm and crumbling. 

A cut away wooden model of the palace/pavilion construction.
Due to the lack of nails and all those wooden joints - very earthquake hardy.
         The view from the tombs - for the guards and the enormous numbers of "Imperial Laborers" was spectacular.  I suppose it was for the spirits of the various emperors, but based on what we were told of the grave goods, I'm guessing they had tons (literally) of stuff to distract them from the view, including the large selection of concubines dropped down a hole into the tomb.  
The spectacular view  (didn't get a picture of the concubine hole)
Check out the close up of the sign though.

Yes, the dead emperor and a favored/selected concubine (playing the part of the empress) entered the impressive and splendid front doors dead. 

 She "commited suicide" for the occasion.  However, there was a tiny square hole (I'd say no more than 18" on a side) several other concubines were dropped down to join the emperor in his final residence.  If I EVER saw a better reason to be large and fleshy rather than tiny and delicate, that was it.  ("Well, she can't be killed to join the Emperor, she'll never fit down the concubine hole.")

The walls were interesting for the variety of style they encompassed.  And the paving was intriguing for despite the fact they are comprised of a variety of stones, and now hundreds of years old, they are in far better repair than the sidewalks around our hotel that were less than 4 years old.

1 wall, at least 4 construction styles!

1 style - up close - I've never seen this fashion

I only wish the NEW sidewalks were half this nice.

On the way out we passed by an alter where we could submit wishes and prayers to the spirit of the emperor and/or the gods who watched over him/he joined.  

And to leave at last, we passed over, you guessed it, a massive spirit step to ensure the dead stayed on their side and the living left unaccompanied.

(* This is a reference to the movie "This is Spinal Tap" for all of you born into a different version of the world than the one I was born into.)

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