Today was an incredible introduction to the city of Beijing and its role in the Chinese history. We began the day with trip to the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall, which is roughly 45 miles north of the city. As we navigated through the busy streets of Beijing, I was struck by several features of the surrounding city. First, there appears to be much more vegetation, such as parks and public garden areas, than I initially expected. This is made possible by a more considerable spacing between adjacent buildings as compared to major United States cities. This, in turn, is largely a result of the vastness of the Beijing, which spans over 6500 square miles. Second, automobile travel seems less structured than in America. In other words, the rules of the road are much less restrictive. Third, the constant construction in Beijing is more proactive and forward-looking than large urban centers in America. Massive clusters of skyscraping apartment complexes provide an excess of living spaces in the case of a population influx. Enormous highway projects have begun in anticipation of Beijing’s next Olympic games with the intent of minimizing travel times and alleviating traffic.
While approaching the Great Wall, our tour guide Uncle Joe imparted the historical events that precipitated the building of one of the most widely known structures in the world. Beijing served as the capital of Jin, Yuan, Ming and Qing Dynasties and is currently the capital of the People’s Republic of China. In 1368 a successful peasant uprising lead by Zhu Chongba resulted in the collapse of the Yuan Dynasty and the formation of the Ming dynasty. It was during this time that the formal construction of the Great Wall began. This defensive structural project continued as power transitioned from the Ming dynasty to Qing dynasty, with over 4,000 miles of the wall being completed during the later. The Great Wall is not entirely continuous and was built to prevent Mongolian invasions. Although I expected the wall to be astonishing and awe-inspiring, it is difficult to articulate the impressiveness of this structure. Standing atop the wall and seeing it extend for miles as it winds along the peaks of mountain tops hundreds of feet high is really a sublime experience.
Achieving this view, however, was not without effort. Nearly the entire group climbed the seemingly endless number of steps from the base of the mountain to the wall. After reaching one of the many watch towers that lie along the great wall, our fatigue from the trek subsided quickly. We eagerly walked along the wide pathways through steep inclines, many more steps, and several additional watch towers. Looking down into the far away valleys from the casements of the watch towers, it was difficult to imagine even transporting the materials that compose the wall, let along building a wall of this size that would last hundreds of years. Several hours later, after many pictures and miles walked, it was time to descend the mountain. Our descent, however, was much more entertaining than our ascent. Each one of us took an alpine slide down the side of the mountain, speeding along the curves of the metal track. Within minutes, we had reached the bottom and began to head for the bus.
After the Great Wall excursion, we continued to the Summer Palace. The summer palace was built as a gift to the mother of the fourth emperor of the Qing Dynasty, Emperor Qianlong. Uncle Joe explained the events surrounding Empress Dowager Cixi (who is also referred to as the Dragon Lady) as her reign influenced the current layout of the palace. The cultural details explored in this story are very different from the United States from both a social and political lens. At age 14, Cixi became a nominee for the position of imperial concubine at age 14. Several years later, she was accepted and within four years of attaining her position gave birth to Ziachun, the emperor’s only son. The Dragon Lady was the wife of the seventh emperor of the Qing dynasty, Xianfeng. Following the death of Xianfeng, the Dragon Lady staged a coup that would ensure herself a more unilateral control over the country, as her son Emperor Ziachun was five years of age at the time. After the death of Ziachun at age 19, the Dragon Lady appointed her three-year-old nephew to the position of emperor in order to maintain her power over the kingdom. In the early 1900s, the Dragon Lady fought to suppress a democratic revolution orchestrated by Sun Yat Sen. The actions of the Dragon Lady in Chinese history are a matter of contention in modern China. Her devious, totalitarian tendencies attempted to silence a more progressive political movement that would soon come to characterize the Chines government system. Cixi’s reign, nonetheless, shaped certain aspects of Chinese culture, including cuisine and horticulture.
Entering the palace, we walked along the long corridor (the longest in the world) and through the intricately painted wooden pillars could see the beautiful Kunming Lake. The group convened at the Marble Boat, which is, as the name suggests, a boat built entirely of marble that lies on a stone base in the lake. Here, we took several group pictures just before we left for the hotel. All in all, the first day far surpassed my expectations, and I can’t wait to see what lies ahead in the following weeks of the trip.