Mao Zedong once said that unless you have climbed the Great Wall, you are not a real man. I'm very glad I was able to achieve that level of masculine maturity on my visit to China.
Almost as equally impressive as the wall is the Forbidden City right in the heart of Beijing. From the outside, you can't imagine how expansive it is until you purchase your ticket and enter through the gate. The Forbidden City covers an area of about 178 acres with a total floor space of approximately 1,600,000 square feet. It consists of 90 palaces and courtyards, 980 buildings and 8,704 rooms. The architecture is deeply symbolic and intended to create an auspicious environment for its inhabitants.
Home of 24 imperial emperors between the Ming and Qing dynasties, the once imperial palace is now a thought-provoking museum of surviving treasures, thrones, gardens and incredible tiled art. We wandered for an hour through almost the entire complex looking for a tiled wall depicting nine dragons. We finally found it in front of the Palace of Tranquil Longevity. Created in 1773, the screen is more than 96 feet long and 11 feet high and very cool.
Regrettably, we didn't have time to visit the distant city of Xi'an and see the Terracotta Warriors, but we did see several of them, as well as some horses, in the National Museum of China on Tiananmen Square. Not quite the same experience as seeing hundreds of them lined up in excavated ditches, but it was still profound and thrilling.
The Llama Temple was one of my favorite stops. The colorful artwork and architecture of the various buildings was really exciting to see. There were prayer wheels and places to burn incense outside and golden Buddhas adorned with silk, flowers, food and gifts from the many kneeling worshippers on the inside. It was encouraging to us to see that their faith was still practiced.
We also saw the scenic Summer Palace with its beautiful man-made Kunming Lake. In the northwest corner of the water sits the Marble Boat, which actually never floated and is the reason why some refer to it as the land boat. It was constructed by order of an emperor's wife at great expense with money that was intended for the imperial navy. The long, covered corridor around the lake is painted with thousands of pastoral scenes representing the four seasons; the incredible details on each painting are just riveting.
A stroll down the sacred way toward the mausoleums of the Ming Tombs was also rewarding. We walked between giant pairs of marble sentries, elephants, lions, dragons and mythological creatures guarding the path. At the end we patted the hind quarters of an enormous Bixi, or dragon-headed turtle, which the Chinese believe brings good luck.
On our last afternoon, we visited the Beijing Zoo just so Amber could see real pandas. The pandas were well taken care of but, by American standards, the rest of the zoo was a little depressing. Most of the other animals were in paddocks that were too small for their species. No trees, toys, and in some cases very little water was available.
Our last stop before returning home was the enormous Bei Hai Park just north of the Forbidden City. The Chinese are a very communal people, and it was so much fun to watch them dance and sing in full costume, do Tai Chi and play poker. We were thoroughly entertained to watch older masters of Chinese calligraphy practice and teach their art technique to younger students with large water brushes on the pavement.
Public dancing can be found everywhere in Beijing and on a nightly basis in front of the Catholic church near our hotel. Kim even participated after studying the steps for a few moments and fit right in; at least I can admit I wasn't embarrassed.
China is an amazing place to visit. The food, well I guess the best way to describe it kindly would be to say it was interesting. If scorpions or silk worms on a skewer are your idea of good food, then China is for you. As for me, I was grateful to return to America and have real Chinese food again. My wife, on the other hand, thought it was great.
Our visit to China was definitely a rewarding one. We enjoyed getting to know the people and their very different way of life. We hope to be able to go again soon to experience more of a fascinating country.
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