Fortress opens window to ancient China

I imagine it got lonely up here at night in the darkness, 12 meters off the ground. It was probably quiet too with the entire city sleeping, and with no cell phones, no radio, no TV. Just a bow and arrow and maybe some food and water to tide you over till the morning.

The sunrise must have been brilliant, with a view extending several kilometers into the countryside. Even the most indecisive minds likely had ample time to make judgments about the intentions of men approaching the gate. Business or battle. Friend or foe.

The towers where the first protectors of Xi’an patrolled in the 14th century are today home to merchants peddling cheap souvenirs and renting bikes to tourists. There is no view of the horizon anymore, thanks to scores of high-rise apartment buildings and air pollution from factories. The silence is gone too, as cars and buses lined bumper-to-bumper rumble through the wall’s gates all hours of the day, entering the heart of a growing city with a population of already 8 million.

A street in the city center that leads to one of the wall's gates.

The wall is now a tourist attraction, one of many sites that draw visitors from around the world to Xi’an, in northwest China’s Shaanxi province. The wall, shaped like a rectangle,¬†surrounds the city center. It was built in 1370, during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), and is one of the best preserved ancient walls in China. Continue reading


Where there’s a Wall, there’s a way

One of the first places I visited after moving to Beijing was the Great Wall at Mutianyu. It sits above a charming village that has benefited greatly from tourism. Group buses from Beijing, only 70 km away, whiz past farmers carrying wood and crops on narrow roads all day long.

The road that leads to the Wall has been taken over on both sides by vendors hawking T-shirts (I climbed the Great Wall!), Chairman Mao hats, poster prints of the Wall and dozens of other souvenirs. There’s even a Subway restaurant, but sadly no McDonald’s or Starbucks. I thought about turning around but kept going.

To get on the Wall you can either walk a steep trail or ride a ski lift. I chose the ski lift and as I waited in line, I walked past pictures of foreign dignitaries who had visited Mutianyu. One of the pictures was of a sweaty Bill Clinton boarding the lift (“Must have been sitting behind some young co-eds,” an American in front of me quipped).

It was a clear day, and the views of the mountains were spectacular. But the Wall, still intact in most places, had a sanitized feel. Many of the towers and bricks at Mutianyu have been restored. I wanted to experience the Great Wall in its natural, crumbling state.

View from a tower window.

Sunset at Mutianyu.

Several months later, I went with three friends to an unrestored section called Huanghua (Yellow Flower). We hired a cab driver named Mr. Li to take us there. Our only request was that he get us to the Wall before dawn so we could take pictures of it at sunrise. Continue reading

Where emperors galloped

I went to Chengde on a whim, and it turned out to be the best city I had never heard of. My mother and brother were visiting Beijing from Kentucky, and I wanted to take them somewhere outside the Chinese capital so they could experience a different part of the country.

I picked Chengde because it was close and had a lot of history. During the Qing (1644-1911), China’s last dynasty, it served as a getaway for the royal family. Situated 250 kilometers northeast of Beijing, Chengde with its rolling mountains and thick forests provided a cool and scenic escape from the capital’s blistering hot summers and flat landscape.

Pule Temple, with downtown Chengde in the distance.

This pagoda, located inside the imperial summer resort, houses a statue of the Buddha.

We went in the fall, when the leaves had turned brilliant shades of red, yellow and orange. Chengde’s main historical site is Bishu Shanzhuang, an imperial summer resort that began construction in 1703. Admission was pricey – 120 RMB ($19) – twice what it costs to tour the Forbidden City in Beijing. But the resort’s impressive mountain lookouts justified the expense. Continue reading

What, there are still stars?

Needing a break from Beijing’s cold, dry winter, I traveled to the Philippine city of Puerto Princesa for Christmas. It’s located on an island called Palawan, a place where Chinese families migrated from the mainland in the early 20th century in search of a better life.

The Immaculate Conception Cathedral is near the Puerto Princesa port, which gave the city its name, meaning "Port of the Princess."

White-sand beaches outline the island. The seas are rich with grouper, snapper and blue marlin. And no matter the season, sweet mangoes and fresh coconut milk are just a short climb away. Continue reading