No self-respecting Chinese person is deterred by the elevations of the Great Wall. Toddlers and the elderly equally enjoy the challenge at their own pace, never using the walking sticks that us North Americans of a certain age considered mandatory instruments of ascent and descent on most days. Spotting us with walking sticks, Chinese people in their sixties and seventies sometimes politely waited until we drew even with them and offered to help us up the next set of steps!
Chinese emperors accompanied by impressive entourages made an annual pilgrimage to visit ancestors at the Eastern Qing Tombs. Having strode purposefully for close to an hour along the same marble walkway as former regal footsteps, we reached the buildings and tombs themselves, where the Campbells of Calgary, Alberta felt it was only right to have their photos taken in the proper regalia.
Having heard rumors that Chinese city folk gather in parks to enjoy group exercises between six and seven each morning, we set our alarms for 5:30 and went in search of action with our guide and driver. At a large park in QinHuangDao city, we found more than a dozen well disbursed exercise groups, some using fans or swords in choreographed unison, others practicing tai chi or a variety of martial arts, still others gracefully ballroom dancing (yes, at six in the morning) or doing disco steps. There were also small groups singing or playing instruments in corners of the park. All ages of adults joined together in this community of good health, the younger ones leaving for work and the older ones returning home to enjoy retirement.
Live long and healthy!
The Chinese culture, past and present, focuses a lot on how to live a long and healthy life, both physically and mentally. Physical exercise is emphasized for all ages and a healthy diet is maintained with some of the most creative and tasty cuisine I have experienced anywhere in the world. Symbols of longevity, such as the crane, turtle, and elephant appear in many designs, peaches and lotus roots definitely add a few years each, and jade in many colors is collected and cherished for the same reason.
Chengde city offered a packed two day’s worth of temples, summer palaces and gardens to visit, including the extraordinary PuTuoZong Cheng Temple built by one Chinese emperor as a perfectly modeled smaller version of Lhasa’s Potala Palace, the seat of Tibetan Buddhism. The original must be truly enormous, as this construction spread over many city blocks in its apparent modesty. Built to celebrate the emperor’s 60th birthday, it was supposed to make his Tibetan subjects feel comfortable and not homesick whenever they came to pay him homage for several months at a time.
Chinese royalty did nothing by half. Summer palaces featured many hundreds of acres of natural and artificially created landscape, palace structures, and remote lodges on the property. There were artificial lakes of impressive size and beauty, with bridges and watercraft to explore them. There were dozens of small temples and gazebos at strategic points from which to contemplate life and matters of state, manicured gardens, and many gifts of art and sculpture from far flung peoples of the empire. Those were the days!
Sledge Hammer Hill, visible on the horizon from all neighborhoods of Chengde city, offered our group a vigorous morning’s walk through fragrant pine forests and up the stone slope to the natural platform of this impressive geological curiosity. How many more centuries until the mighty sledge hammer falls?
Colors with a cultural twist
In China red has traditionally meant happiness and prosperity. White has symbolized funerals, sorrow, death, grief and sadness. Brides have traditionally worn red for obvious reasons, but western influences are now overcoming tradition with designer white wedding dresses a hot sale item in every city we visited.
The cities of the northeast are very modern, noisy and under new construction, while the countryside seems largely caught in a time warp of a different era. We followed a lot of “county” backroads, so we observed that what little farm machinery there is has long passed its shelf life. People power serves essential roles at all stages of preparation, planting, and harvest. The young and the elderly serve important roles as shepherds and crop sorters for winter storage or selling in local markets. As we drove through small villages, soya bean and grain crops were often spread across the main street for passing vehicles to help winnow with their tires.
Temples and palaces are exquisitely designed and painted, and much restoration is presently under way. By counting the number of small animal sculptures on each corner of a roofline, one can tell the importance of the building and the people who used it. The emperor’s real estate always featured nine animals on every corner.
With two weeks as our shepherdess and national guide, Natalie Han shared excellent English jokes she had learned in guide school, and answered a steady stream of questions about life in contemporary China with frankness and personal insight.
A huge modern reservoir/lake guarded by a dam no longer in use offered the unique perspective of a largely ruined segment of the Great Wall marching down the slope and into the water. We spent a morning skirting the shore of the reservoir aboard a rented boat, navigating between dozens of netted fish farming platforms, and spotting the steep cliffs, postage stamp farms, and remote villages accessible mainly by water.
Alison Gardner is a travel journalist, magazine editor, guidebook author, and consultant. She specializes in researching alternative vacations throughout the world, suitable for people over 50 and for women travelers of all ages. She is also the publisher and editor of Travel with a Challenge Web magazine.