Beijing airport at 8:45 PM is a strangely quiet, forsaken ghost town at least in the arrival hall for United Airlines. Halls
echoed only with the footsteps of tired deplaning travelers, airport shops were closed and barred for the night, the only
airport personnel in sight were young Chinese women wordlessly pointing the way to customs and two stands with
silent women selling phone cards. Where we wondered was the hustle and bustle of the typical international airport? It
was a weird and eerie feeling.
We had wondered what customs would be in a Communist country. A hassle? Cumbersome? Intrusive? Reality was
that it was uncommonly common. Passports were stamped, we were waved through and on our way in under two
minutes. No questions. No forms. Nothing.
We immediately connected with Miracle, our Beijing guide. (Guides in China pick their own English names, often
selecting words that simply appeal to them.) A brief walk to our van and we were on our way to the first night in
beguiling China. It was strange to ride along unpopulated streets in a major international city. The only cars on the road
were taxis. We saw few people--maybe it was because we arrived at the end of the seven-day National Holiday and
people were home resting for the upcoming workweek. We drove by big buildings, modern stores, colorful displays and
lots and lots of lights. Beijing is a city of lights at night. Roadways are sculpted with colored fluorescent lights, buildings
are decorated and outlined in neon, advertisements glare in garish rainbows. So much color was not what I expected in
China. I wondered if such visual display was the government's attempt to promote gaiety and freedom of spirit in the
to make it to at least the first level which was as far as my troublesome knees could
make it. Ken went much further and Dawn, our in-shape traveling companion, bounded
up to the very top. We stood in the watch towers, surveying the scene around us--
wondering what it was like for the soldiers of long ago and the thousands of men who
had spent their lives building it.
On the way to the wall, we strolled the lovely Emperor's Walkway and Sacred Tomb Avenue lined with statuary of
strangely formed animals and ancient soldiers. Graceful trees swayed in the wind around the huge gateway through
which only the emperor could pass-one of many such passages throughout China. From here we stopped at the first
The Ming Tombs are entered via
a magnificent park-like
environment. Unfortunately, many
of the tombs, temples and other
structures were destroyed during
the heyday of the Cultural
Revolution--a tragedy for China
and the world. Mao's legacy of
cultural and environmental
destruction is horrendous
throughout the country. But the
Note: During several of our drives, we had interesting and enlightening discussions
with Miracle, ranging over several topics. Many of them underscored the degree to
which China's Communist government has controlled knowledge not only in the
realm of politics but in areas that we in the Western world call "general knowledge."
As with other guides, Miracle began asking us questions about our religious beliefs.
These discussions usually began with "Are you Christians?" Miracle had absolutely
no knowledge about Christianity or other religions and no understanding or concept
of "God." Later she asked, "Who was the person on the cross?" In other
discusssions, it became apparent that she was totally unaware of Greek and Roman
history, having never heard of Zeus, Apollo, Mars, Hera or any other gods from
ancient cultures. Miracle finished high school and has been to college.
As she explained her own views and philosophies, this quote summed up what we
heard many times. "I don't really care about government and politics as long as I can
live and buy the way I want to. Young people really don't care." As we learned
throughout our trip, Miracle is a good example of the post-1989 generation.
beautiful trees, remaining statutes and the reconstruction of some of the buildings made this a lovely setting. Miracle told
us that "people did not know anything about the burning of buildings, coffins and the bodies of the emperor and
empress when it happened."
Thirteen of the sixteen emperors are buried on these grounds. We visited the Dingling Tomb the tomb of the 13th
emperor and the only one which has been excavated. Deep under ground, walking through mammoth doorways, we
saw replicas of the gigantic burial boxes of the emperor and empress residing in a simple, sterile, cavernous room. Other
rooms had extraordinary, large vases, thrones, and other treasures. Considering the value placed on beauty in the
Chinese culture, we were surprised by the sterility of the rooms in terms of color and wall decoration. The stone walls
were bare of ornamentation of any kind.
of many Chinese tourist
authorities obligatory stops--a
jade factory this time. It was
interesting to watch the jade
carvers and polishers at work
and to view the exquisite results
of their art. It gave us the
opportunity to buy a pretty jade
Buddha requested by our son's
girlfriend--and to take a great
picture of a little boy.
Soon we were at the doorstep of the historic Beijing Hotel--the scene of many
momentous occasions in this ancient city. The hotel is lovely and elegant and our room
on the 17th floor was beautiful with views of the Forbidden City rooftops. Dawn was
breaking over the Forbidden City when I awoke in the morning--a lovely, magical sight.
My notes tell me that "I am anxious to start the day."
Beijing is a city with "things one must do." So, the first time traveler spends most of the
time being a tourist with little opportunity for the more delightful pursuit of exploration. I
wanted to see the sights but I long for the knowledge that exploration brings.
The first glimpse of the Great Wall brings home the reality of all the pictures one has
seen forever and ever. It is awesome in scope and execution--also seemly rather
pointless. We stood below, stretching our necks to view the serpentine path it took along
the mountain ridge. Then we began the climb up uneven, steep, crowded giant steps. It is
an arduous climb, particularly the first morning after a long flight. But I was determined