23 March 2012, Friday
Today was the Great Wall day, which had been planned from our very first day in Beijing. We woke up bright and early, and at 7.30 am were all ready, as instructed beforehand. But unfortunately, the other tour participants were not as punctual, so we didn’t hit the road before 8 am.
Our hotel staff had advised us to choose the tour to the Mutianyu section of the Wall, together with a part of the Sacred Way. Later we found out that the programme also included visits to jade and silk factories. Our guide was a small nimble lady of indeterminate age, named Hui Liang (Melanie for foreigners), who definitely earned her bread honestly and conscientiously – during the day we learned a lot more information about China than in all the previous time.
For example, while our coach was heading to the Sacred Way, we learned that the tombs of the Ming dynasty, to which the Way actually led, were located so far outside the city in accordance with feng shui requirements. As the Dragon used to be the symbol of the Emperor, all buildings associated with the Chinese ruler were constructed so that they lied along the so-called “dragon line”, where the Forbidden City symbolised the dragon’s head and the Ming Tombs were his tail. We also learned a lot of details about the mutual harmony of yin and yang, e.g. that in addition to well-known pairs like the Sun and the Moon; the earth and the sky; male and female, even fruits are divided into those related to yin (watermelon, pear) and those related to yang (lychee, orange), and it is not recommended to eat too much fruit of either category, it’s better to strike a balance.
The part of the Sacred Way, which we saw, was, of course, interesting, but not really stunning. It represented a cobbled alley, lined with tall trees, with stone statues on both sides. Dourly towering officials and generals were followed by animals: elephants, camels, lions and mythical sons of the Dragon. In accordance with yin and yang principles each pair of standing animals had a corresponding pair of the same animals, seated.
We walked two and a half kilometres along the alley, right up to our coach, which was already waiting for us on the other side. This time, our talkative guide Melanie regaled us with stories about the famous Chinese jade. In fact, there are two kinds of jade. One of them, the nephrite jade, also known as “soft jade” is used primarily for carving handicrafts. The other variety – “hard jade” or jadeite – is rarer, and therefore, more expensive, so it is used for jewellery. Jade is also referred to as “living stone”, as it changes colour over time, depending on the temperature of the human body. Raw stones, potentially containing jade, can be the subject of gambling (called “gambling stones”), for even a trained eye can hardly detect whether an ordinary-looking grey stone conceals the precious mineral inside.
Right at the Long Di jade factory entrance, stood a stunning huge solid piece of jade, representing a mountain with finest carved openwork in the form of trees, flowers and pagodas. The composition had different colours: green, wine-red, yellow – all of which formed part of the jade block’s natural play of colours, so skilfully used by the carvers. It’s worth noting that the handicrafts at the factory were much more beautiful than those we had seen the day before in the imperial treasury, and the articles were sold for far less than in shops and, of course, hotels.
Among various figurines, we saw a lot of “cabbage”. The name of this vegetable in Chinese (báicài 白菜) sounds similar to “cái” (財) which means “wealth” or “money”, so figurines in the form of cabbage are believed to bring prosperity to the house, if properly located (the leaves should point to doors or windows, and the roots should point inside the house, otherwise financial fortune will smile upon your neighbours instead). By the way, another charm that brings wealth to its owner is one of the Dragon’s sons named Pi Xiu, the figurine of which we didn’t hesitate to buy. We were told that in China every self-respecting businessman possesses one, and in Las Vegas those with a Pi Xiu in their pocket aren’t allowed in casinos.
At the factory we were taught to distinguish real jade from fake jade: if you hold it up to the light, you would see something like swirling clouds in a real piece of jade, while the fake one would either look totally homogenous or have air bubbles. To tell the quality of the jade it’s enough to strike it with a piece of agate and listen to the sound it makes: the higher the pitch, the higher the quality of the mineral.
We had lunch at a huge restaurant right at the factory. Apart from our group, there were at least a thousand people dining simultaneously, without exaggeration. We hadn’t had the chance to talk to any of our fellow travellers in the morning, but during lunch we met those of them we were sharing the table with. It was a couple from Australia and a brother and sister from Turkey. Another couple, sitting at the other table, was from Brazil, and the rest (a company of three) remained unfamiliar to us.
After the meal we drove and drove to the mountains, towards Mutianyu. The road would probably look much more beautiful in summer, with leaves on the trees. Upon arriving, Melanie told us that we would have to go up to the Wall by cable car. So we did, and, I have to say, riding in an open-top shaky cabin at a height of twenty metres was quite scary!
It should be mentioned that the information desk staff at our hotel hadn’t deceived us when recommending this tour: the Mutianyu section of the Wall was not too crowded (unlike the Badaling section, which is the closest one to Beijing), and the view was just spectacular. Walking the Wall basically meant constantly going up and down the stairs, most of which were not very steep, although there were some difficult sections. Here and there, all along the way, there were enterprising local merchants, attacking tourists even more intrusively than on the ground, sometimes just to chat and with the obligatory question: “Where are you from?” The same question was sometimes asked by other tourists too, though, for example, a Burmese guy – and when he heard the word “Azerbaijan”, he cheerfully told us that he had lived in Baku for four years and worked for BP’s ACG project. It felt quite funny to meet a colleague on the Great Wall of China!
If it hadn’t been for the strong wind, which spoiled the journey a little bit, we would have walked even more. We went back by cable car as well (although there was some kind of a wheel sled too), and this time we felt calmer and jumped off the seats with greater agility.
After visiting the Great Wall, we were already full of impressions. But that was not the end yet, and we drove to the Dong Wu silk factory through the Olympic Village. On our way, Melanie provided us with another batch of background information. Well, of course, we did have some general knowledge about silkworm larvae, cocoons and silk production. What we didn’t know was that in China (and nowhere else) there exist unique and very rare double cocoons, containing two worms. Such cocoons are unsuitable for yarn reeling and, consequently, for silk fabric production (as the two threads are bound together), but they can be stretched. These cocoons are used as fillers for pillows and blankets, which are extremely hygienic, warm in winter and cool in summer. First, the cocoons are put in boiling water, cut open, and the worms, which have completed their “work”, are thrown away (later they might end up at the Donghuamen snack market, fried and skewered!). Each cocoon is then stretched first over a small frame, then over a larger one, and, finally, four workers stretch it into a large square of the desired size. One cocoon can be stretched into a layer for a queen size blanket! A blanket usually contains about fifty layers.
On the whole, it was an excellent day – very interesting, very informative, and not too tiring!