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Chinese national flag and Bird's Nest stadium, viewed from the Convention Center

The Bird’s Nest viewed from the Beijing Convention Center

(This is Part Two in a series of photography blogs about my recent travels to China.)

During my last business trip to Beijing, I stayed at The Beijing North Star Continental Grand Hotel, which is connected by a sort of maze-like afterthought of a hallway to the Beijing Convention Center. The hotel sits about two blocks from Olympic Park (Aolinpike Gongyuan – 奥林匹克公园), the site of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. To get there, one takes one’s life in one’s hands and scurries as quickly as ever so possible across Bei Chen Dong Lu, pausing on the traffic island under the entrance ramp to Ring Road 4, then ambles through a cluster of food vendors, takes the slightly wooded path around the public restroom building, and thence through the turnstiles to the main entrance to the Park. This, you’ll recall, is where the breathtakingly phenomenal Opening Ceremonies of the 2008 Olympics were held in the striking Bird’s Nest (formally “National”) stadium  (Niǎocháo – 鸟巢). You remember those: 2,008 drummers beating illuminated drums in perfect unison; a synchronized salute to movable type; the deflating sense, that grew as the evening unfolded, that the phrase “Opening Ceremonies” was being redefined right before your eyes, and that a dozen grinning children in traditional national costumes performing indigenous folk dances while rhythmic gymnasts twirled long ribbons and a pop singer sang something about this-is-the-moment were just not going to cut it anymore, opening-ceremonies-wise. This was where that happened.

Bird's Nest stadium in Beijing at night

Beijing National Stadium, Olympic Green (Aolinpike Gongyuan), Beijing. Architects: Herzog & de Meuron,Stefan Marbach, Ai Weiwei, and Li Xinggang (2008).

Sometimes a famous landmark fails to live up to one’s inflated expectations when seen in real life. I remember my first impression of the Coliseum in Rome being, “but it’s so small…”, my mental image of the ruin having been forged by movie sets and CGI models that made the Coliseum appear, well, vastly more colossal than it actually is. The Bird’s Nest, not so much. It really is quite a gorgeous piece of architecture, carefully placed in its surroundings with an eye to the Chinese fondness for feng shui.

Bird's Nest stadium reflected in Main Lake, Beijing

Beijing National Stadium, Olympic Green (Aolinpike Gongyuan), Beijing. Architects: Herzog & de Meuron,Stefan Marbach, Ai Weiwei, and Li Xinggang (2008), viewed across Main Lake.

“Feng shui” (風水) is an interesting, ancient concept that I shall proceed to butcher through simplification here. Basically, it’s a philosophy governing the mindful placement of structures and their components in a way that is both aligned with the natural elements of their surroundings and harmonious with more esoteric considerations. The result of successful feng shui design is the creation of auspicious conditions for the inhabitants and a generally more pleasing environment for everyone. The idea dates back, like practically everything else in China, it sometimes seems, to before 4000 BC. So it’s not a trendy new idea despite its current popularity with some interior designers. The phrase feng shui refers to wind and water—elements that naturally flow when unimpeded, or back up and create unpleasant pressures and inconvenient consequences when blocked. Feng shui attempts to enhance the free flow of elemental energies through and around structures.

You can see feng shui at work in the Olympic Park, where architectural and natural elements are intentionally placed to interact with one another. A winding, lily-lined, man-made lake (that’s designed to resemble the 2008 Olympic torch) reflects the Bird’s Nest in about as perfectly aesthetically balanced a way as one could want. The Bird’s Nest itself is an artificial concrete and steel object made to resemble a natural, nurturing one; an open structure that allows air and light to flow freely through its body, creating constantly changing patterns of light and shadow. (You can also see feng shui at work in the rhythmic flow of progressing through the Forbidden City (more on that later), and, as I wrote about here, in the way the Great Wall hugs the mountaintop terrain over which it winds.)

Beijing National Stadium, reflected in Main Lake at night,

Beijing National Stadium, Olympic Green (Aolinpike Gongyuan), Beijing. Architects: Herzog & de Meuron,Stefan Marbach, Ai Weiwei, and Li Xinggang (2008), reflected in Main Lake at night. There’s a convenient fence surrounding the lake that makes a serviceable tripod for long-exposure night photography.

Back at the Olympic Park, you can see feng shui at work in the Beijing National Aquatics Center (popularly referred to as the “Water Cube”), where Michael Phelps swam to multi-medalled glory. A building that physically embodies the “wind and water” of feng shui, it’s a high-tech construction of more than 4000 thin, inflated plastic bladders mounted on different sized frames surrounding a pool: literally a box of air containing water. Unlike the Bird’s Nest, the Aquatics Center’s ETFE walls have not aged particularly well in the punishing weather and pollution of Beijing, and now have the powdery dullness of a grocery bag snagged in a tree when viewed in the harsh light of day. At night, though, the Center glows with a blue iridescence.

National Aquatics Center, Beijing

National Aquatics Center (“Water Cube”). Architects: PTW Architects (Australia) (2008).

Bird's Nest and Water Cube at night

Beijing National Stadium, Olympic Green (Aolinpike Gongyuan), Beijing. and the National Aquatics Center (“Water Cube”), at night. Note how the wall around the stadium resembles the Water Cube’s geometry.

Coming soon: Forbidden!

Detail of beaded crown

Ming Ritual Crown (detail), Changling Tomb, Yongle Emp. Zhudi (1360-1424)

(This is Part One in a series of photography blogs about my recent travels to China.)

I like going to China. I like watching the constant chaos of Beijing, where affluent modernism and something akin to centuries-old village life are all jumbled up together; where impressively aggressive sidewalk salesmen insist that I must buy five designer knock-off wallets right now, steps away from Burberry and Versace and in sight of a big red banner that extols us all to “Respect Intellectual Property Rights; Be Law-abiding Vendors;” where there’s food everywhere, and most of it delicious. Where western consumer-capitalism, Mao’s little red book, and 5000 years of civilization are all stirred together into something that’s clearly…well, that’s clearly something happening, although it’s hard to tell what, exactly, it currently is or may turn out to be.

Of course there are inevitable downsides, in human and political terms, to being the engine that feeds the world market’s insatiable desire for inexpensive clothing and shiny new electronics. And the air in Beijing can sometimes be so thick and gray that tunneling tools are necessary (the government insists that it’s “fog,” but it’s “fog” that’s been subtly scented by the five million cars currently clogging Beijing’s highways, and the coal-fired factories that ring the city). We’ve seen all this before, of course, with equally appalling results, in 19th century Europe and America when they were becoming the centers of world industry.

Anyway, maybe it’s the social effect of having forty years of isolation lifted (in historical terms) overnight, or maybe it comes from living in an economic behemoth that owns much of the rest of the world, or the confidence that comes from having had a thriving civilization at the time when my ancestors painted themselves with mud and threw rocks at each other, but I’ve found the people to be unfailingly polite and friendly and welcoming. And that’s nice for a yi-traveler like myself.

(This is as good a place as any to note that “yi”  is  , a term for “non-Chinese easterner” or “non-Chinese” or “foreigner” that was unfortunately (and perhaps not entirely accurately) translated by English missionaries as “barbarian.” As a result, the word became a bone of much offended contention between the British Empire and the Qing Dynasty. Eventually, its use was strictly banned by the British under Article 51 of the rather one-sided 1858 Sino-British Treaty of Tianjin. [John Keay, China: A History, 2009])

So I just got back from another business trip to China. While I was there, before the conference began, I had the good fortune to do some sightseeing, both on my own and with a personal guide named Jet.  (The Olympic Park was in the immediate area of my hotel, so there was that, too, which I’ll write about in a later post). Jet drove me out to the area north and northwest of Beijing to see sights outside the city: the Ming Tombs and what he assured me would be—and definitely was—a “non-touristy” part of the Great Wall. Photos happened. And thus, this blog.

So for part of the Great Wall to be “non-touristy” pretty much means it will be difficult to get to. Many of the “touristy” sections of the Wall, like Badaling and Mutianyu have cable cars to comfortably carry visitors up the mountainside to where the Wall sits nicely perched along the ridge, crowded with tourists and loud, flag-carrying guides. Not so where Jet took me, and I couldn’t be happier about that. We drove past the Ming Tombs (more on those later) into the countryside, stopping in the village of Heishanzhai (“Black Mountain Village”) where we accessed what could be optimistically referred to as a trailhead by passing through a farmer’s backyard and paying a small entry fee to the family. Then began a hike that was frequently up a 60° to 70° slope with a minimal path comprised of mud, big rocks, and brambles.

Dam in the village at the trailhead to the "Wild Wall"

Dam in Heishanzhai at the trailhead to the “Wild Wall” about an hour north of Beijing.

Doorway in Heishanzhai

Doorway in the small farmstead at the trailhead up to the “Wild Wall” in Heishanzhai, about an hour northwest of Beijing.

The climb to the Wall was not so much a climb as a scramble along a quasi-clearing in the underbrush that was, I suppose, a “path” in the broadest sense. Rocks were climbed over, and young trees were clung to, and bad words were possibly muttered by Your Humble Narrator from time to time. About a quarter of the way up I was chiding myself for failing to engage in more cardio work  at the gym. About halfway up the mountainside we encountered the family’s elderly grandmother, to whom we paid an additional small fee. It shamed me deeply, with my sweaty shirt and panting breath and pounding heart, that somebody’s grandma had trotted up here ahead of us, and I resolved to redouble my visits to 24-Hour Fitness in the future. (I should mention that at all points along this challenging climb, my guide was patient and considerate and did not point at me and laugh at any time, or make me feel like anything other than a seasoned mountaineer. I should also mention that I undertook this little adventure of my own free will.) At the base of the Wall, I was confronted with a near-vertical stone stairway, and that was deeply disappointing.

What was definitely not disappointing was the Wall itself. Once up the mountainside and up the stairs, panting and sweating in a most yi-like manner, everything was worth the effort. There, sprawling across the ridges, running horizon to horizon, sat the Great Wall. And this was no postcard-prettified, cosmetically-restored Wall, either: unreconstructed, marginally maintained, it’s sat there since the 15th century growing gracefully old. I loved that it was a little crumbly and worse for wear: that’s what a structure that’s 500 years old should look like, not the postcard-perfect version. Much as I’d cursed on the way up, I blessed my guide for getting me here. This “Wild Wall” was, in fact, pretty great. (It was Richard Nixon in 1972 who, during his historic visit to China, stood on the Wall at Badaling and announced, “This is indeed a great wall.” He later faced impeachment for obstruction of justice, but I think the phenomenal banality of that quote could have been sufficient on its own to justify removal from office.) I was even more impressed when Jet reminded me that people had carried each of the stone blocks up the mountainside to build the Wall’s 6,000 miles of fortification. “Many died during the work,” he said. “They are buried in the wall.” I stopped whining about climbing with a Nikon around my neck, silenced by the ghosts of an estimated 5 to 6 million builders.

China's Great Wall ("Wild Wall" area) near Heishanzhai

China’s Great Wall (“Wild Wall” area) near Heishanzhai

View from a watchtower on the Great Wall

View from a watchtower on the Great Wall

Watchtower on the Great Wall

Watchtower on the Great Wall

Our trip up to the Wall was bracketed by visits to two of the Ming Tombs (明十三陵; Míng shísān líng, “Thirteen Tombs of the Ming Dynasty”) . These are the last resting places of the Ming Dynasty Emperors: the Wanli Emperor Zhu Yizhun (1572-1620) at Dingling, and the Yongle Emperor Zhudi (1360-1424) at Changling. Architecturally, they look a lot like the Forbidden City, which was also built by the busy Mings, who if nothing else were aesthetically consistent. The Mings were intent on carrying their goodies with them into the next world, and so the tombs were crammed with the pottery, jewelry, decorations, and royal paraphernalia now on display in the Hall of Eminent Favor.  The Hall covers over 21,000 sq. ft, and  each of  its 32 huge pillars is made from a single tree trunk.

Ceiling and columns in the Hall of Eminent Favor, Changling

Ceiling and columns in the Hall of Eminent Favor

Empress's crown

Empress’ crown, unearthed from Dingling Tomb, displayed at Changling. The crown features blue bird feathers and over 3500 pearls.

jade tea kettle

Jade Kettle unearthed from Dingling Tomb, Wanli Emp. Zhu Yizhun (1572-1620) and displayed at Changling.

The Tombs are scattered over a pretty vast area, but there’s a common entrance that is suitably formal and serene, called the Sacred Way, or Divine Road. The willow-shaded road is lined with statues including a dozen large-than-life human figuress representing scholars, civil officials, and generals, along with  lions, camels, elephants, horses, and mythological xiezhi and qilin, each depicted in multiple standing and sitting poses. The archway at the entrance is the largest such structure in China. Needless to say, it was a photo opportunity.

Statues lining the Sacred Way, Ming Tombs

Statue representing a Civil Official, Sacred Way of the Ming Tombs (Changling Sacred Way)

Statue of a horse on the Sacred Way, Ming Tombs

Statue of a horse on the Sacred Way of the Ming Tombs (Changling Sacred Way)

One final word about my guide. Jet was friendly and casual, knew his history (and his way up a mountainside), and was constantly thoughtful of my interests and comfort. He didn’t lead me on a rote tour, but lingered where I wanted to, passed by what he (usually rightly) suspected I didn’t really care about, and was unfailingly delightful to travel with. (He was also a very safe driver!) For me, traveling with a Chinese person was invaluable: he knew what restaurant to go to out in a rural village and what food to order; he knew how to negotiate with souvenir vendors and farmers by the roadside selling dates and chestnuts and persimmons; he wasn’t shy about leading me past (or through) the large group tours that clogged the Tombs—he was just generally terrific. If you’re planning a trip to China, and have time for a tour, I couldn’t be more enthusiastic about recommending him. You can get in touch with him here or by clicking anywhere on the photo below.

Jet at the Changling Ming Tomb

Jet patiently waiting while I take pictures of things at the Ming Tombs, Changling

Next time: Evan Goes to the Olympics

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