Our tables are set with linen, wine glasses and a centerpiece of white roses which contrasts sharply with their location in a 15th century grey stone watchtower of the Great Wall of China. We are having a rarely permitted private lunch in the Jin Shan Ling sector of the wall. This 12,000 kilometer barrier once attempted to protect the Qin dynasty from the barbarians but now sits as a testament to a civilization’s past greatness and a reminder of the temporary nature of all things.
There are very few people here as we climb up and down the many uneven steps linking the watchtowers, providing us exceptional views of this engineering masterpiece. Although we have a hazy day, the receding mountain visas are beautiful and it is gratefully cool for this strenuous exercise. My physical therapist would be proud of me, taking on an extra ascent to a further watchtower after our excellent catered lunch (all the materials of which had to be carried up and then back down again) although descending with shaky legs but a contented heart.
The 2.5 hour drive took us just beyond the limits of Beijing, past great tracks of suburban dwellings and fully contained retirement communities. The swaths of green trees, planted in the last 30 years to provide a sand break for the great city, are broken up by huge partially built concrete elevated vaults where a light rail system is being constructed at record speed by armies of construction workers laboring 24/7 to meet their deadline. This decisive swiftness toward change is indicative of the current reshaping of China through the power of absolute control. While we in California have been waiting decades for a fast train between our two great cities.
But then there is a price to be paid for clean streets and full bellies for 1.4 billion people. Surveillance is everywhere. I understand the cost of the security police is greater than that of the military budget. The BBC News on the television screen suddenly goes black when a report on the Hong Kong crisis is about to begin. And people here can not get Google, YouTube and certain other social media sites unless they can afford to purchase a workaround which the urban Chinese all have. It is the rural poor who are left without a wider perspective.
Yesterday, the 9 of us, together with our China tour coordinator and local guide, travel through the intense traffic to the complex containing the Temple of Heaven and Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, their perfect proportions still stunning. There were large numbers of Chinese tourists although we were told the site was relatively empty today due to the light rain which did not dampen our visit.
And later we drive outside the city and walked with crowds of local visitors around the lake around which sits the Summer Palace of old, where nowadays families rent boats and children enjoy the park. I can’t help thinking of classic science fiction where the lower classes are occasionally allowed a viewing of the riches of the elite. The disparity here, like everything in China, comes in large proportions. We were told there are now more billionaires in Beijing than in New York.
And today we walked through Tianamen Square to the main gates and massive imperial buildings of the iconoclastic Forbidden City. We were permitted a special private visit to the small Hall of Adoration where a Qing emperor once lived as a child, filled with antiques and wooden carved screens and cabinets that looked untouched from 200 years ago, too fragile for mass viewing.
A most impressive part of this tour so far has been the food: a welcome group dinner at a french restaurant, a Chinese small plate lunch with artful presentations, an then an Italian dinner.
On then today, on our way to the airport, we are taken to a surprise spectacular lunch venue, Green T, in an ultra modern country setting with food centered around tea with creative plating and flavors. I am not going hungry here, even as a vegan.
And now, on to Xi’an, further south, and home to the famous clay warriors.