Viking’s Imperial Jewels of China diary – Day two

Viking’s Imperial Jewels of China diary – Day two

Cruise Adviser’s Joe Mofrad is currently on Viking River Cruises’ Imperial Jewels of China cruise. He’ll be sharing his thoughts and experiences over the 13-day trip in this online diary. 

Follow his adventures in the Far East here and on Twitter and Facebook.

After day one in Beijing, it’s time to explore one of the most famous tourist spots in the world…

Day two – The Great Wall

It’s our second day on Viking’s Imperial Jewels of China adventure, and today we’ll be fixing our eyes on what must be one of the country’s most fabled historic attractions: The Great Wall.

The tour plan is to visit the picturesque Badaling portion of the wall, where it snakes through the mountains, almost poking the heavens as it goes. This section was constructed by the Ming Dynasty around 1505 and, having been recently restored in both the 50s and 80s, is probably the most consistent and scenic stretch one can visit. A 7am start means, despite its popularity, the queues on arrival are minimal.

We jump into the cable cars and hurtle towards our starting point in the peaks. From there, one can choose to embark on a challenging walk up the wall, taking in the towers and the elevated views, or a much more relaxed route down its winding path.

The ebbing tides of mist cling onto the wall like a rolling wave of ghosts

At first, it seems like the sweltering mist that’s blanketed across the mountains of Badaling might just ruin our view today. In fact, it does the opposite. As our tour guide explains, the Chinese regard a thick and misty day as far closer to perfection than a clear and sunny one: when you’re looking down across The Great Wall from the tenth tower of the north side you can see exactly why. The ebbing tides of mist cling onto the wall like a rolling wave of ghosts, and it makes for both an eerie and romantic sight, only adding to the mystique of this titanic construction.

Cable cars leading up The Great Wall

This, after all, is the wall that aggressively protected China from the outside world. This is the wall where Genghis Khan led his legion of Mongols in their 13th-century invasion of China. When your head is loaded with all of this historical context, the thought of a clear and sunny day seems quite inappropriate really. It’s the dramatic weather that helps you imagine the thousands of soldiers marching ten abreast across, pummeling the very stones we’re on right now.

The Badaling section is breathtaking, but it’s also rare. The Great Wall was once thousands and thousands of miles long, but now much of it is in a ruined state, only worsening as time and tourism takes its toll. The opportunity to see this wonder in all its glory is slowly slipping away.

It was only in the late 80s that Deng Xiaoping’s reformist policies broke down China’s heavy protectionist attitude, and allowed travellers to start entering modern China again, and that’s part of what makes this place so magical. The fact The Great Wall is crumbling is symbolic of this new modern China. Once a country that forcefully locked itself away from the rest of the world, behind this mighty wall, it now has its arms wide open, and there is so, so much to see.

Every five metres we glimpse little children all with the same dark green lollies. In the end, we locate them in the little shop by the cable car station. It turns out they are green tea ice creams, and we can confidently say that after a gruelling march up and down the wall’s unforgiving inclines, these jade-tinted treats feel like the greatest taste on the planet.

Jade is an ongoing theme today. We leave Badaling for a short trip to Run Ze Jade gallery in nearby Chang Ping District, which operates not only as a gallery, but also a studio for jade carvers, a shop and even a fine Chinese restaurant. The carvers let us watch as they craft whole jade rocks into intricate shapes and designs, ranging from wild animals to ornamental orbs, using techniques passed on through generations of family. Jade has been held in high esteem by the Chinese for thousands of years, usually representing peace or longevity and it’s affirming to see that tradition continued so creatively here, right in front of our eyes.

We conclude the afternoon at the Ming Tombs, wandering the path up to the burial chambers, encountering the towering statues of 32 soldiers, animals, military officials and mythical beasts. Emperor Zhu Di, who contributed so greatly to The Forbidden City we explored yesterday, is buried right here, and these statues stand to protect him in the afterlife. The final beast we encounter, a gigantic turtle, apparently gives good luck if you rub the head, so we duly oblige.

A military statue at the Ming Tombs

The crazy turtle magic seemed to rub off pretty quickly, because soon after our tour guide told us that Viking would be treating us to dinner at the exclusive Hua’s Courtyard in central Beijing tonight. Once a restaurant notorious for being the fine dining hangout of corrupt government officials, it has now been rescued from controversy and reopened to the public, and when you experience the Peking Duck banquet you can see why the crooked elite tried to keep this place under wraps. An action packed day finally draws to a close with a swollen belly and some jasmine tea.

Tomorrow we’ll head to the famous hutongs of Beijing, before departing the city for the ancient capital of Xi’an in northwest China, to begin the next chapter of Viking’s Imperial Jewels adventure.

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