Toasting the Great Wall
Vail, CO, Colorado
Editor’s note: This is the eighth in a series of stories about local resident Luc Pols’ trip on the Trans-Siberian Railroad.
What a difference a day makes. I think I have neglected to mention that my friend Rob is the Canadian Consul General in Shanghai and his office has set up a meeting with the Mayor of Harbin. We are being met at the Railway Station by two Mercedes Benz limos and driven to the Shangri La hotel. The per night stay at this hotel is probably more than what Peter and I paid for our hotel rooms in the previous four weeks combined! Anyway, we freshen up and put on our blazers, have breakfast with the hotel manager and go to the Mayor’s office, Peter and I being the “Canadian Delegation accompanying the Consul General.”
After the meeting and an exquisite lunch (no ramen noodles this time), we are given a sightseeing tour of the city. Harbin used to be under Russian influence and the Russian architecture (not Soviet!) is still quite clearly visible. We visit the Church of St. Sophia, beautiful from the outside, but neglected inside, even though the Chinese made an Architecture Museum out of it. The town is located on the bank of the Songhua River and the downtown area is definitely worth a visit.
The limos are dropping Rob and Sandi off at the airport for their flight home to Shanghai, where we will see them in a week or so, and Peter and I are off to Beijing. We were warned, by the Russians, that the Chinese trains would not compare to the Russian trains and they were right, although not the way they meant it … they are a lot better than the Russian trains and we sleep beautifully through the night on our way to Beijing, where we arrive at 8 a.m.
Through Sandi’s efforts, we have a car and driver waiting to take us to the Great Wall of China and the Ming Tombs. There is a bit of a haze hanging in the valleys, but the Great Wall is, as ever, just great. What an incredible sight, what an incredible accomplishment. It is about 4,500 miles long (7,200 km) and it is said that since the wall was started in 200 BC, during its construction one person died for every meter. That means over 7 million people died putting up this wall. Incredible. Peter and I toast the Great Wall, because as Mao said “If we fail to reach the Great Wall, we are no heroes.”
Now our driver takes us to the Ming Tombs, but unfortunately it has started to rain and we do not see but a small fraction of this. We do walk the famous sculpture lane, but beyond that, the weather is just too lousy.
We are staying at a Hutong Hotel in a magnificent local neighborhood (Hutongs being the small houses built by the government after the revolution and for this hotel, they have combined several). Not the Shangri La, but what do you want for $12/night for a single. We are close to the Forbidden City and in the ensuing days we visit it, the Temple of Heaven, Tiananmen Square, Mao’s Tomb, the Summer Palace and the Lama Temple (Yonghe Gong) with its more than 100 foot Buddha, made out of one piece of wood, to mention but a few. This city is rich with history and sights to see and it would be easy to spend more time here, but the train and Xi’an are calling and we buy our tickets for the overnight train there. Next report from the Terra Cotta Soldiers city.