China is home to 50 UNESCO World Heritage sites, second in the world only to Italy, which has 51. On our recent trip, Helga and I were fortunate enough to see 10 of them, including one of the 7 Wonders of the Modern World.
The Great Wall exceeded our already high expectations. Of course, we had seen any number of pictures of, and films about, the wall – none of which were able to communicate the sheer enormity of it. The Great Wall snakes over deserts, hills and plains for 5,500 miles. It was created only after the unification of China under the first Emperor of China Qin Shi Huangdi (221-210 BC), but the majority of the existing wall dates from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 AD).
It is an enormous construction and nothing can prepare you for the thrill of actually being up on it and able to walk along it for miles. It is a myth, however, that the Great Wall is visible from the moon, or even from low Earth orbit, with the naked eye. It is not.
Despite its impressive battlements, the wall ultimately proved ineffective at keeping out undesirables (Mr. Trump please take note); it was breached in the 13thC by the Mongols and then, in the 17thC, by the Manchu.
There are several places near Beijing for a day’s excursion to the wall. We went due north to Mutianyu. We had a really lovely day – cloudless sky, no wind and temperatures about 24˚C. Getting up to the wall was a bit of a climb, but once there we could see it extending uphill and down dale for miles in either direction. It was a truly awe-inspiring and unforgettable sight. No photograph can ever really do it justice. The appeal of Mutianyu lies in its dramatic hilly setting.
The wall here dates from 1368 and was built on the foundations of the wall built in 550-577 AD. You can walk as far as you want, or are able, in either direction.
Back in Beijing there were three other World Heritage sights for us to see. Certainly the best known is The Forbidden City, which was the Imperial Palace from 1420 to the end of the Qing dynasty in 1912. The complex is entered from the south, from Tian’an Men Square through the Ming dynasty Tian’an Men Gate, which leads through a large courtyard to the actual entrance, which is the Meridian Gate. You then have 72ha of 980 buildings, surrounded by a 7.9m high wall.
It sounds overcrowded and oppressive but, in fact, there is a lot of open area and, of course, the buildings are a unique example of Chinese imperial architecture.
Not far to the south lies The Temple of Heaven, one of the largest temple complexes in China and a perfect example of Chinese architectural balance and symbolism. It was built from 1406 to 1420 and used by the Emperor to pray for good harvests. The main building is, in fact, the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, a magnificent triple-gabled circular edifice 36 metres in diameter and constructed of wood but without nails. The entire park complex is huge (267ha) and is a favourite spot for elderly Chinese to come and play cards, Mahjong or Go.
Just outside Beijing to the northeast lies The Summer Palace, the last of the Beijing area World Heritage sights that we saw. This is a vast ensemble of lakes, gardens and palaces that serves as a popular tourist destination and recreational park. The area is dominated by Kunming Lake and Longevity Hill. The lake was entirely man-made and the earth that was dug out was used to create the hill, which now is dominated by the Tower of the Fragrance of the Buddha.
Although the Summer Palace’s origins date from 1153, it owes its present appearance to the Empress Dowager Cixi, who misappropriated a large amount of money meant for upgrading the Imperial navy and used it to renovate the Summer Palace instead (1886). To celebrate her 60th birthday she even had created the ultimate luxury – a 96 metre-long marble boat.
When we were at the Summer Palace, we came upon a large group of Chinese in a pavilion up on a flank of Longevity Hill being entertained by a small brass band. Everyone was singing quite heartily, following music and words that had been handed out. It was quite an enchanting scene and totally “untouristic”. A banner even read (in Chinese and English) “Heart to Heart Chorus”.
There are six more Chinese World Heritage sites, away from Beijing, to tell you about, but that will have to wait until next week.
By Larry Hampton