Across the Middle Kingdom

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9 August

25 July 1998 - Beijing

An early morning, heading out to the Ming Tombs. This was preceded by a stop at a pearl factory/shop-- I wonder what kind of cut the tour company receives. Kat haggled for a pearl ring. I wrote in the diary.

The tombs, while of an impressive size, were not that interesting to me. The undergrounds chambers were very plain, and with most of the relics removed, there wasn't much to see. I did manage to pry up some of the rubber matting in one chamber to get a look at the original floor. Its pattern was dimly visible, but still far more interesting than almost anything else in the chamber.

The one thing that did impress me was the engineering involved in creating these tombs. Even though they were cut out of the rock centuries ago, they were still smooth-walled and well-constructed. I don't know that we modern humans, with all our machinery and skill, could do much better. I especially appreciated a large, multi-story staircase made of marble, and still standing and solid enough to handle the heavy tourist traffic day in and day out.

Above ground, the fog (quite thick) didn't help matters a whole lot either. Apparently, the terrain around the tombs is very impressive, as is the scale of some tomb structures, but we couldn't really see it. There were some nice displays of items which had been removed from the tombs-- silk, coins, jade, and so on-- but there really wasn't much to see. I'd sort of been hoping for large displays or photos of newly-opened tombs or something, but no such luck. The gardens around the tombs, however, were a nice synthesis of open space and closed sightlines, giving one a feeling of quiet and privacy without even a hint of claustrophobia. More like how I'd assumed the Forbidden City would be, as a matter of fact.

Lunch was very nice, as was the tour of the cloissone factory and shop in which the restaurant resided. Kat bought some cloissone burettes, but we had to draw the line at buying a vase, mostly due to the difficulties in getting it back to the United States in one piece. Then we headed off to the Badaling section of the Great Wall-- and got caught in an epic traffic jam. I'm not kidding; this was the sort of thing you see on an interstate behind a twenty-car pileup. This, on the other hand, seems to have been merely a matter of too many people trying to go see the Great Wall, despite the fog.

An hour or so of halting progress later, we actually reached the Great Wall. Sadly, the fog here was so thick that you could stand halfway between two watchtowers and not be able to see either. This somewhat diminished the impact and majesty I would have expected, although I suppose there was an enhanced air of mystery to compensate. Trying to make the best of it, we bought a certificate of wall-climbing (which, roughly translated, says something like "He who climbs the Great Wall is a plucky hero": corrupted from a Maoist saying), and then headed back toward the bus. We ran into Brenda, so she and Kat promptly engaged in a full-scale shopping frenzy: Kat haggled, and Brenda bought. I even pitched in on one haggle, just for the fun of it. We also found Jarret & Carol's present (unless a better one comes along). Haggling here can be interesting, given that some merchants don't speak a word of English. Negotiations are conducted by punching numbers into a calculator, and laughing at the audacity of the other party's insulting offer.

The ride back to Beijing was uneventful. Dinner, on the other hand, was wonderful. There was Peking Duck, but also pork in an orange sauce, lemon chicken, a very nice soup (possibly miso), and shrimp fried rice. We ate with George and Mickey, who were great fun to talk with, and who didn't even look bored when I got pedantic about information technology. Now that's friendly.

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