From there one gets a stunning sight of the Wall continuing onwards and the surrounding country-side. As we came down more and more tourist batches had arrived and were going up in a crowd.
To say that the Wall was impressive would be an understatement. The widest wall I had seen till then was that of Bhuj in Kutch in 1963 which was, if my memory serves me right, was about 10 to 12 ft wide. This is about 30 ft wide and can very well accommodate a truck leaving enough space on both sides. No wonder, people had come in thousands travelling over long distances to see it and tuck away in their consciousness the sheer feel of this Great Wonder, a World Heritage Site to boot.
Like the Great Wall we had heard since childhood of the Forbidden City in the Chinese capital where commoners were not allowed to enter. Located in the centre of the city, the Forbidden City is also known as the Imperial Palace which hosted a couple of dozen emperors of Ming and Qing dynasties for almost 500 years until 1912. Exemplifying the Chinese palatial architecture, its influence can be seen elsewhere in East Asia. It is a mammoth place and cannot be covered in half a day.
Built over a period of 14 years in early 15th Century it is spread over an area of more than 700,000 square feet accommodating about a thousand monuments. Well fortified by about 25 feet high wall that is as wide as 15 feet at its base and a wide, pretty deep moat, it served as not only as residences but also as political and cultural centre of the Empire. A profusion of walls, gates and pavilions dominate the landscape. I found very little greenery in such a big complex which was mostly paved.
The beautifully laid out Imperial Garden in the surrounding grounds compensated for the lack of greenery in the Palace. A museum was established in the complex in 1925 after the last of the emperors, hanging on in a corner of the Palace, was ousted from it and the whole complex is now known as Palace Museum, another World Heritage Site, displaying some exquisite pieces of Chinese art and craft.
I do not remember much about the Ming Tombs where we went one noon for a brief visit. About 50 kilometres away the tombs of thirteen emperors of 14th to 17th Centuries of the Ming Dynasty are situated over an area of around 120 square kilometres in a scenic area at the foot of a mountain range. It is difficult to cover all those tombs unless one is a fanatic and tombs buff. In any case only one or two tombs were open to public.
Nothing spectacular about the place except that it is scenic, but there must be more to it than what we saw as it is another World Heritage Site. I, however, remember the lunch that was hosted – about the finest lunch that I had during my brief sojourn in China.
Looking at the facilities at the Great Wall and the Ming tombs and later even at other places one must appreciate the Chinese efforts and that nothing of this kind is available in our country even now at the tourist places. Neither there are decent eating places, nor are there shops selling curios or memorabilia for tourists.
We have all heard about the Tiananmen Square. It was made more popular outside China by a revolutionary rush for democracy spearheaded by students in 1989. The Square, however, has generally been famous for demonstrations and marches.
The Chinese official parades and military displays are also held here. Constructed in the 15th Century by the Ming Dynasty adjoining the Forbidden City, it is the largest square in the world covering around 450,000 square metres. Chairman Mao’s mausoleum is located here as also the Monument to the People’s Heroes. Apart from the Gates it is flanked by the Great Hall of the People and the National Museum of China. The place is spectacular and one cannot but get amazed by its sheer scale.
We also had a taste of Chinese performing arts. One evening we were taken to a piano recital – by the musician who, we were told, had stood second in the world piano playing championships. The recital started on a slow note but towards the end it became slightly athletic, ending in a crescendo of sorts.
On another evening we were at a circus. Chinese are known for their acrobatic acumen. What interested me most was the sight of a panda – white, furry and roly-poly with two black blobs for eyes. We also were lucky to visit the famous Peking Opera. Conceptualised in 18th Century, it became popular in the Qing Dynasty, incorporating as it did music, mime, dance, acrobatics and, of course, vocal music.
Silk Route was being played out with lavish sets. As the travellers passed through the Indian portion of the Route the dancers broke into a semblance of Bharat Natyam and our interpreter, Liu, sitting next to me gave me a nudge asking me to take photographs. I did her bidding and the results are in the album – not satisfactory because of the darkness and distance.
The Beijing stay was rounded off with a banquet hosted by the Vice Minister of Communications. We sat at a huge round table with the typical Chinese rotating centre. The food was excellent and every dish was beautifully presented. The Chinese are very good at food presentation.
The food in China changes from region to region and we went through several types of cuisine during our travels. In Beijing I did not find much to choose but as we progressed to Shanghai we came across more familiar tastes and flavours. In any case, I was mostly on continental food, tucking away steaks and things.
It was at this banquet that I first came across that tough, stinging and fiery Chinese spirit Maotai. The hosts insisted on finishing it in one gulp from the little wine glass. It assaulted you in the throat and burned the insides as it went down. Maotai was, kind of, de re-gueur at the end of formal dinners everywhere we went.