At last it was the turn of the Great Wall to have our feet pattering over it. There are several places to view the wall and we were taken to the most popular, crowded and touristy – Badaling. A garrison was stationed beside this sanitized bit of wall plus lots of tourist stalls. Originally 1200 km long, (only 600 km now remain) built between the 5th century BC and 16th century AD to keep out invaders from the North, the Great Wall is one of the most awesome manmade sights in the world. (And it’s NOT possible to see it from the moon!) We were given 2 hours to wander up and down. Enthusiasm soon turned to red puffing as we climbed enormous steps and small steps in random order; it really was quite an effort as the temperature was well in the 30’s. Having climbed to the second Watch Tower we took our obligatory ‘self-timer’ photo, rested, admired the view, watched others struggling with the climb and then descended. What a good job there were railings to hold on to as the downward trek was much harder, especially on the knees. An amazing concept, the Wall. How many men died during its construction? How many feet have trodden the same path? It’s one of the wonders of the world, but at what human cost? (Must remember to look up details of Hadrian’s Wall for comparison.)
One thing that isn’t mentioned on the itinerary is the number of ‘stops’ made for the guides to get a bit of commission. Here are some samples:
River Pearl Factory: starting off with a short demo of how up to 25 pearls are seeded into oyster shells and subsequently harvested, then a ‘half hour to look at the finished products’. The shops all seem staffed at very high levels and as soon as you show any interest in an object, a girl is beside you offering to put it on you, wrap it up and get you to sign the chit! (Mrs PC bought a string, which had to be re-threaded and knotted – while we waited!)
Sea Pearl Factory: This came a few days later and the girl introducing the pearls was at pains to say how superior these pearls were in every way to the river pearls, so Mrs PC had to have a string of those as well!
Cloisonné Factory: this one was highly interesting as we saw the complete process for making one of the most attractive souvenirs available. A brass or copper base is shaped, a complex pattern is traced on to the outside and then a whole battery of young women painstakingly glue pre-formed metal shapes to the outside of the object. The formed shapes are then filled with liquid enamel paint and the object is fired for the enamel to harden. This painting and firing process can be repeated up to four times until finally it is ready for the last phase – polishing with a mild abrasive under running water. The showroom was a feast for the eyes, ravishing colour combinations, elegant traditional designs and a remarkable range of artifacts from small round dishes to huge vases and even a 3 ft high Bactrian camel! Very tempted to buy the stuff as it is so eye-pleasing.
Silk factory Shop: the Chinese have been making silk for thousands of years (Silk Road…) and we were promised a demonstration of how thread is unwound from cocoons but it turned out to only be a shop! There was some nice stuff – uncrushable Pashmina shawls in glorious colours for £78, beautiful warm Cashmere wraps for £120, but sadly the silk shirts, blouses and dresses were in dowdy styles and outdated patterns so the quality was immaterial.
Jade Factory and shop: another talk at the beginning – how jade colour varies, how to tell if something is really made of jade (it scratches glass), how it is carved and then another half an hour to look around the showroom. More girls on hand. We were quite staggered by the different items that can be made of jade: teapots, jewellery, bas-reliefs, carvings and there is a great deal of difference in the quality and precision of carving as well as the price!
SCI-TECH Plaza: this is a bit different, a very modern air-con shopping mall with high prices and designer labels. Obviously for the upwardly mobile Beijinger and there were plenty of them!
Friendship Stores: More on the lines of ‘Pile it high, sell it cheap’ jack of all goods stores. Here there was a mix of all the goods mentioned before – and more! Carved or lacquered furniture, Cloisonné bowls that were very tempting, original paintings and painting sets with stones for grinding black inks, and long calligraphy brushes. Beautifully carved ‘chops’ that make the signature of the artist on their work and miniature crystal bottles with minute detail painted on the inside. Brian bought a ball shaped miniature with a famous scene of bridge and road. Here the Pashmina shawls were only £58 and infinitely better quality than the £99 ones from Marks!
Art and paintings shop: Here one is treated to a brief explanation about the way Chinese art differs from western art, the techniques used, the paper and the brushes used. Rice paper is nowadays made from straw. Weasel hair, mouse whiskers and even baby hair are used to get really fine results. Every painting has a ‘signature stamp’ made with a ‘chop’ and details who the artist is, when and where the painting was done etc. (Mrs PC bought 2 paintings – a Tiger and a bunch of cherry blossom, $450 each.)
Hospital Scam: Here’s a story that should get a wider audience.
Our group was asked if we would like to go to see ‘The Health Care Consultative Center of Beijing Chinese Medical College’, a local Hospital specializing in Chinese medicine, for a free lecture and diagnosis by doctors using ‘traditional’ methods. There was a unanimous ‘Yes’. The Hospital smelt like all hospitals and in the hallway we were shown specimen jars of Ginseng, mandrake root, various herbs and barks. We were ushered into a small ‘classroom’ with acupuncture posters on the walls and three rows of desks. We had an interesting talk by a Health professional about the perception of medicine – East v. West and how the Eastern tradition with thousands of years of knowledge about herbs and their restorative properties was the natural way to heal the body.
Time for a demonstration – and two young men in white coats came in (Ding and Dong). Ding stood to attention, breathed deeply, stretched arms, folded arms, closed eyes, swelled his chest and concentrated hard. Dong then gave Ding a live wire in each hand and demonstrated that he was ‘live’ by putting one of those screwdrivers on him with a light bulb at the end and it lit up! Ding then linked hands with us in a circle and proceeded to send ‘live current’ around the group. Exit young men. (Quite what all this was meant to illustrate to us we were not sure)
Then in came two Chinese doctors – looking the part in white coats and they first sat down in front of Phyllis and Tom. There followed some intense ‘looking, smelling, touching and feeling’, taking 3 deep pulses in each wrist and conferring through a translator about various symptoms and finally their ‘diagnosis and solutions’ were conveyed. I was told my liver was possibly a little congested and I probably had slightly high cholesterol. Brian was also told he had a congested liver plus a blockage in his nose. At the time he was suffering from the final stages of a cold! We didn’t buy anything, but on the strength of their suggestions Phyllis, Elizabeth, Tom and Ina all bought pots of herbal pills. They were not told how much the pills cost before handing over their Visa cards. I only know how much P. paid for her month’s supply of pills – 1600 Yuan (£120!)
Normal, rational people would never normally spend that amount of money on the basis of a complete stranger, whose only qualification was a white coat, making a diagnosis after only a brief external examination and not speaking a word of your language. I cannot conceive that the local Chinese can afford prices like that.