When I booked the trip from Moscow to Beijing, I never pictured tobogganing down a metal slide from the top of the Great Wall of China. But neither did I expect the options up to the Wall to be chair lift, cable car, or hour+ trek. Wonderful Rebecca, my guide, immediately dismissed the hike option with, “We don’t need to climb every mountain.” I appreciated the sentiment even though that attitude will get you caught by the Nazis every time.
I’ve been home a month now, struggling with how to write up Beijing. I’m at a loss when things go too smoothly and I was the ultimate tourist, picking four sights to cover in three days.
What struck me most about my final destination was how big everything feels in China. Tiananmen Square is almost 3 times longer and 7 times wider than Moscow’s Red Square and can hold a million people. Lenin’s squat, marble tomb in Moscow is tucked into the middle of the Kremlin wall — Mao’s tomb in Beijing is a massive white pillared mausoleum that occupies one side of Tiananmen Square.
Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City follow the IKEA model of a single mandatory pedestrian flow, past enormous monuments and street peddlers, while a loudspeaker shouts official warnings in Mandarin to shun street vendors, whose main goal is apparently to cheat us and pass off counterfeit money. The tourist tide continues into pedestrian tunnels and up though Arc-de-Triomphe-sized gates, winding by temple after temple: this middle one for the emperor, that side one for his staff or the military that lived on site, and past long dorms for the concubines. Our guide translated that into “girlfriends,” attributing the custom with more charm than was likely the case.
Everything is painted blue, gold, red and green, symbolic of the elements, with gargoyles and yellow halfpipe roof tiles giving the buildings lacy edges. The side gardens are decorated with dragon statues, natural limestone sculptures and crinkly, twisty trees, like bonsai all grown up. And just like that the Forbidden City was behind us and two attractions were checked off.
My new guide for Great Wall Day had chosen “Wonderful” as her English name for its “strength and awesomeness” but changed it to Rebecca five years ago on the advice of an early client who told her Wonderful was “too weird and braggy”.
Rebecca had the driver take us 90 min north of Beijing to the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall, known for smaller crowds, and the chair lift and tobaggon. The Wall itself is a 15′-wide path raised 25′ high and built of grey stones with crenulated walls. It follows the landscape so we walked up and down ramps and stairs that slanted significantly from left to right, taking pictures of the surrounding mountains and trees and distant parts of the Wall. There are 23 watch towers along this section and we climbed them all so I could take endless castle-like pictures with the view framed by arched windows.
As we panted up and down, Rebecca was so easy to talk to that I slipped up and used the word “revolution” without thinking, when asking about how Mao Zedong came to power in the 50s. Rebecca spun around and practically leapt at me, looking at the other tourists in panic. I apologized immediately through the hand I’d automatically clamped over my mouth at her reaction but when no one paid any attention, she relaxed, “Don’t worry. I don’t think anyone here speaks English.” The rest of the walk was silent. And the answer to my question about what it was called when they moved from imperial dynasties to Mao? They say, “And then there was the government.”
My final stop in China was a day trip to Xi’an to see the Terra Cotta Warriors, a 2-hr flight from Beijing. For some reason I’d pictured little chubby red clay trolls, clearly a holdover from some children’s cartoon in my brain. Instead they are row on row of lifelike, lifesized figures in three warehouse pits, wearing uniforms and hairstyles according to their rank and role: infantry, cavalry, acrobat (yes, really), etc. After 2,200 years, they are faded to dusty pinks, greys and tans, some darkened with soot from a long ago fire. They were found in full colour, which faded away in a few months once exposed to air. The estimate is 8,000 of these soldiers exist, buried in battalion formation to protect the first emperor’s tomb.
The pits are impactful on their own but even more impressive when you realize only one soldier was found intact. The other 7999 were painstaking fixed in a soldier hospital set up at one end of the largest pit. The “hospital” is comically equipped with real hospital beds and Pixar-style lights that curve overhead. And there is a ban on photographs presumably to protect the clay soldiers privacy.
China was a smooth, easy end to a long, challenging-in-the-best-way trip. People have asked if they’d like the Trans-Siberian Railway and my advice is to read up on it first. I’d originally thought it would be like the Orient Express but less murdery. But it is nothing like that. It’s a working train, not a tourist trip.
For the most part you spend consecutive days and nights in the same cabin, with strangers with whom you have no common language. There is no bar car and only occasionally a restaurant car. There is no observation car or plush red velvet seating. You eat cups ‘o noodles and drink cups of black tea. You sit and sleep on the same hard bunk mostly in your clothes while carefully timing toilet access, and staring at the passing view of birch trees broken up by the occasional pine. And I loved every minute.
The view is peaceful and unassuming, absolving you of having to keep your eyes glued to the window for fear of missing out. You are surprised by how interested strangers are in your pictures or the daily details of life in your country (salary, rent, tuition). You become a master at charades but also philosophical when the concept is too hard to get across so you both just smile and fall silent. Eating isn’t a problem because you aren’t doing anything all day. Plus your cabinmates are solicitous and share their food regardless of how little they have.
If you aren’t social, you can keep to yourself and sleep, read or entertain yourself with all the stuff you brought. I had 60 hrs of podcasts, 16 Kindle books, and 6 hrs of downloaded Netflix. On my phone I had the music of Carmina Burana, the Russian national anthem and I tried to find the Hunt for Red October soundtrack to set the right mood. Other than the first day with the narcoleptic model, I didn’t use any of it. I was enjoying how easy and natural it felt to communicate without words.
And most of all, I was fascinated by the depth of history in the countries we traveled through and how much we had in common despite vastly different life experiences and cultures across this big, big world.