Yes it is a bit of mouthful, more than a little Chinglish, and otherwise known as the Ming Temple Tombs and Great Wall Tour, the C Tour or The Great Wall (Badaling) with Shopping. The tour begins just off Tiananmen Square where the coach company, a state owned business and the official tour company of the city, runs its coaches from. According to the online discussion the tours are guided and can be given in English. Upon arrival, however, I learnt that it would be in Chinese only and that it would cost more than advertised.
As I am currently studying Mandarin at a Chinese University I have an official student card valid here in China. I have heard that it can be difficult to get student prices for things if you merely have a foreign student card, indeed probably best to replace difficult with impossible. However, I confidently thrust my Chinese student ID at her, handed over a note, the saleswoman took one look at my face and charged me for a full-price ticket as I was a foreigner. This tour begins with racial discrimination.
Next thing is we had to sign a disclaimer form making the company not responsible for accidents or injuries and we also had to provide a phone number. With this done we got aboard the bus and a took a seat while it slowly filled up. The TV was showing one of the anti-Japanese TV dramas, which are popular right now. These TV shows are generally set during the Sino-Japanese War of 1937-45 and tell the history from a firmly Chinese point of view. In a way their rise reminds me of the torrent of WW2 movies that filled British TV when I was growing up in the 70s and 80s in which the Germans took the role of the Japanese. Maybe one legacy of victory is to have the war replayed endlessly on the nation's TV screens for years to come, and with this, to gradually fall victim to your own rhetoric. I watched for a while until finally the guide, a rather tough lady, handed round identity passes we were to wear and made some announcements about sticking together and getting back to the coach on time. We pulled away and slid through wide avenues lined with large buildings.
The guide, microphone in hand, started telling us about tours she had given and celebrities who had taken the tour. This led her onto some bad things that had happened before and which she didn’t want replicated like the eating of tea eggs on the bus or wearing of too much perfume. She asked us if we were here to sleep or here to travel and got us all shouting back in chorus that we were here to travel and see things. Well, all of us except the one or two who really were sleeping. She then moved onto Feng Shui and how the corporate headquarters that we saw along the road were designed according to these principles. She then settled into talking about traditional Chinese culture and in particular about pixiu (貔貅).
I have noticed that you can often find pairs of creatures outside the entrance of buildings in China such as these two lions that were waiting for us at our first stop. Out guide told us that with the pixiu their mouth is held open in order to collect money and good fortune and that because they have no anus, the money and fortune accumulates rather than dissipates out the rear end. She even told as about a time she was playing mahjong for money and she took two miniature pixiu with her and placed then in front of her facing her opponents. Apparently she won a considerable amount of money in this game thanks, she told us, to the pixiu.
She strung out stories such as this a little longer until finally we arrived at our first destination the Ming Tombs. Nestled under mountains to the North of the city, the smog had cleared enough for it to be a pleasure to be outside rather than a cause of concern. We assembled outside the bus and were encouraged to use the four star toilets in the car park which were built to communist party official’s standards. They turned out to be reasonable but not particularly glamorous and certainly not up to the standard of those in up-market commercial centres. Refreshed and with identity badges displayed prominently we made our way into the tomb complex and passed through security who inspected many of our group’s identity papers.
The tomb was set in an attractive park with historical stone staircases, sculptures, tress and a conspicuous absence of vendors. Smoking was forbidden and when stepping away from the group there was a sense of calm about the place. That quickly ended when descending to the underworld which consisted of a series of stone chambers though which we shuffled in line. On display were funerary objects upon which lay layer upon layer of bank notes. It was a custom amongst visitors to throw small quantities of money over the exhibits as this would presumably also bring good fortune. We were told that when in the tombs we should not take pictures that included any living people, I don’t know exactly why that should be so but I, in any case, respected those rules when taking these snaps.
The bus was scheduled to depart quite soon so there was no time to absorb things further, just a brief spin inside the exhibit hall, which looked lost somewhere in the 1980s, before jumping back aboard. Our guide launched back into more pixiu theories and told us we’d now be arriving at a museum above which lunch was waiting for us. The museum tour was included in our ticket, she happily told us, and we filed inside where a distracted middle aged man showed us the highlights of the collection. This was a slightly odd museum tour as the space was run-down: pictures were hung crooked, there were empty display cabinets and a general air of neglect. What’s more, he told us there was little time so we only gathered around two items to hear about them before emerging into a large, modern, brightly lit jade shop. He told us that this was an excellent place to buy pixiu and bracelets and he reassured us that, as a government business, it was reputable and the jade authentic. This switching from heritage tour to shopping seemed fluid and unsurprising to the tour group; many even seemed to welcome the chance to have a bit of the action for themselves. It also made me reconsider the things that the guide had been telling us earlier about the pixiu and see this heritage commentary in a new light as a part of the sales pitch, a warming up act to wet the buyers’ appetite.
Lunch upstairs was functional to say the best. We sat as a group of strangers around a round table and silently put away the decidedly bland dishes that were served up. In a little over 10 minutes the table cleared and we took a look at the stalls outside selling a bit of everything including broken plastic toys.
This is my group and our next destination was The Sacred Way, another part of the Ming Tombs area. We had a new guide here who she came with the destination. Wearing sports gear and with a relaxed approach to guiding, she explained the history and importance of the location underlying this by showing us some of the famous visitors who had visited, like Kissinger and the presidents of Poland and The Netherlands. She rather exaggerated the location’s claim to significance by saying that if you visit The Great Wall you’ve been to China and if you visit The Scared Way you’ve been to Beijing.
Without constant translation I would have been well and truly lost and while I may know enough to know when to get and off the bus this would have been a very different experience if it were not for the assistance of Miyi for whom I am extremely grateful. The sculptures were rather beautiful and in spite of the piped music the place did have a presence of its own. Just as it was almost becoming serene we were led us into a gift shop located in the centre of the Sacred Way and the guide tried to sell us some amulets. There were no takers.
Back on the beat she led us past more animal sculptures and explained how they symbolized the different parts of the emperor’s kingdom, hence the camels and elephants marking out the lands to the South and West. One young woman was climbing on the elephant and had to be asked to climb down upon which she shouted to the guide, ‘are you crazy?’ to which the guide replied, ‘are you crazy!!’
Returning to the bus we were given a talk on how best to be a tourist. The basic idea was, “when you are on holiday you are there for pleasure so you shouldn’t be too careful with money, you should spend and enjoy your time. You don’t do it often so make the most of it.” The bus then arrived at the Great Wall but stopped short of the entrance. We were asked to get out as this was the cable car terminal and we were told that we should take the cable car, which would cost an extra 100 rmb. When we asked if it was really necessary, as we wanted to walk, we were told it was necessary as there would not be time otherwise. There was, after all, a Great Wall 3D film which we could watch at a discounted price once we had done the cable car. This all seemed like a bad idea and finally we decided to walk instead, while the rest of the group bowed to peer pressure and took the cable car. The coach did not take us to the entrance of the wall, we had to walk there ourselves which was a bit mean spirited as the bus was heading that way anyway, but we were quite quickly there and then up on the wall.
The wall is to me an ambiguous symbol which is at once impressive but also a testament to fear of the outside and a monument that relied upon forced labour whose construction was the cause of a great many deaths. For it to have become quite such a tourist attraction is odd but Badaling certainly is that. It is the most developed of the wall’s official visitor locations, it has rails to help you up and stalls selling everything under the sun. Visitors come in great numbers wearing all sorts of costumes: there was a lady in thick pink pyjamas and heels for instance. It is a place of many photographs as the scenery really is quite something with peaks stretching out into the haze that replaces the horizon.
I visited the Great Wall back in 1997 and it seemed to me that the industry around it has increased a great deal since then. There are complaints that the site is a reconstruction of the wall and not authentic and I can understand that point of view but I can also see how there is a different relationship to history here and an alternative way of experiencing monuments and nature. This historical question is complicated as there is both a neglect even active destruction of many of the physical sites yet this is accompanied by a fetishisation of the historical culture, which remains very present in the language and sense of pride in the age of the civilisation. The side that I feel I can see more clearly is how tourist sites are more typically enjoyed collectively rather than as an individual. If the site is important, so the logic goes, then it will be popular and the presence of many people a testament to this and validation of your own personal decision to come. For instance, the vast majority of the Great Wall is unvisited by tourists and often and in a state of some disrepair. As such, to the group visitor, it does not constitute an important site as it does not show the wall at its best. I have heard of alternative tours, popular with Westerners, which take small groups of 3 or 4 people to unofficial sites where the hiking is far more strenuous and views unmediated by the Chinese mass-tourism industry.
The journey back into the city was for the most part quiet, the selling having being done, though a sting in the tail still awaited. We were told that there was an optional visit to the Bird’s Nest Stadium and Olympic Park if we wanted it. As this would also take us to the subway station and the coach was getting progressively snagged up in Beijing traffic it seemed like a good idea to get out here. The bus pulled over on a busy highway, some of us spilled out, far from the Olympic park with no directions given. This led to a trek through darkening streets before finally coming to what has become a kind of pilgrimage site amongst Chinese citizens, The Bird’s Nest Stadium. I visited it back in 2009 so did not feel the need to repeat that tour so the Great Wall (Badaling) with Shopping Tour came to an end on the efficient and economical Beijing subway.