After my unusual experience while visiting Egypt (DUO, Fall 2008) I was eager to continue exploring culturally rich countries with a long ancient past. It was with this in mind that I planned my trip to China. I had no idea this visit would be life-changing.
Filled with excited anticipation, I arrived in the Chinese capital the same day I had left thanks to crossing the International Date Line. After quickly clearing Customs, I met our guide, Herb, along with other tour members. We retrieved our checked luggage and were on our way to the hotel.
Beijing is a modern, sprawling city where a recent construction boom leading to the Olympics has resulted in some of the most beautiful buildings in the world. As a result of itʼs explosive growth, Beijing is now world class with shopping, mass transit and infrastructure to match any western city. Herb joked that so much construction is happening in China that the official bird is now the Crane.
We checked into the ultra-luxury 5 star Palace Hotel and the group met for orientation. Herb introduced himself and proceeded to list his impressive credentials, including a PhD in Chinese history. He described a network of contacts he had developed over his years as a tour guide. We would come to understand the importance of these contacts as the trip progressed and we saw that nothing gets done in China without some sort of financial encouragement.
After boarding our bus, we traveled to the famous Tiananmen Square. This vast area is surrounded by official government buildings and connects to the entrance of a World Heritage sight, the Forbidden City.
Built as a home to the Ming and Qing emperors and their families in the 15th century, the Imperial Palace within the Forbidden City complex is the largest palace in the world and the most popular tourist destination in the city. Though not all 8,707 rooms are open to the public, one can see the areas where the Chinese emperors lived and governed for hundreds of years. Tourists can also visit an impressive collection of imperial jewelry.
As we walked the same paths once reserved for Royals, my mind drifted to the movie, The Last Emperor, which was filmed here. Hundreds of eunuchs and concubines attended the emperor in palace buildings with names like Earthly Tranquility, Supreme Harmony and Heavenly Purity. The walled compound encompasses acres of open courtyards that easily contained the thousands of people who participated in the many grand ceremonies held here. After the fall of the last emperor, the Forbidden City became a museum. Restoration work is ongoing and additional buildings will open when completed.
The next day we headed out of the city to the Summer Palace. Built in 1750 as a retreat for the Royal Family, this sumptuous complex contains a huge lake with a covered frescoed footpath around it. The 17 Arch Bridge connects the main area with an island in the middle of the lake. The Royal Family enjoyed pagoda-shaped temples surrounded by lush landscaping and formal gardens cooled by lake breezes. It is said that dynasties rose and fell within these walls.
For a change of pace we then visited the Beijing Zoo with its famous Panda exhibit. We had many photos taken of us! The Chinese people love Americans! A photo of their children with a group of Americans is a prestigious possession for them.
From there we visited a silk rug and embroidery factory and a multi-level flea market boasting excellent quality almost real designer handbags and clothing for next to nothing. By the way, China is one of the few remaining places on the planet where the currency exchange for US citizens is still favorable.
Once again on the bus, Herb told us we were headed to the Temple of Heaven. This stimulated a lively discussion about Chinese religion. Our leader promised information on Buddhism and meditation in more suitable surroundings at our destination.
The grounds of the Temple of Heaven are tranquil by design. The Ming emperors built it larger than the Forbidden City, not wanting to offend the gods that their own dwelling was more grand than the temple. We sat near the Imperial Vault of Heavenʼs Echo Wall and a tree called the Nine Dragon Cypress, said to be at least 500 years old. Herb sat before us as we listened to the birds and sounds of nature.
Finally he spoke in a soft voice. “Inner dialogue. We all have so much clutter in our minds. Always thinking about the past or the future. The past and the future are nothing. All we have is the now. Relax your body. Observe the colors and sounds around you. Step back from yourself and become an observer of your own thoughts. Ask yourself, what will my next thought be? Observe your breathing. Your heartbeat. Random thoughts will try to rush in. Do not try to stop them. Just observe them and they lose their power and vanish. This is the power of now and enlightenment.”
A few minutes later, I opened my eyes. I was shocked. I never realized how my active mind was destroying me. I felt relaxed and energized. I wanted more. We moved on to another part of the temple. Herb promised another lesson soon. My mind raged with random thoughts. I realized my road to enlightenment would be long and rocky.
On our final day in Beijing, we again headed out of the city to the only man-made structure on the planet visible from space: the Great Wall of China. Anticipation and excitement was palpable on the bus as we approached a fully restored section of the wall known as Badaling. Constructed constantly between the 6th century BC and the 16th century AD, the wall is over 4000 miles long and almost 17 feet wide in some areas. It is estimated that 2-3 million Chinese workers died during the centuries-long project. The older sections of the wall are made of compacted Earth while the newer Ming wall is constructed of stone.
The Badaling fortress is located in a valley between high mountains on both sides. Superbly situated to defend the pass, it is a multi-walled, well-armed facility that is now completely restored for tourists. One can enter the fort and climb a section of the wall stretching up the sides of the mountains and beyond the line of sight. The steps are steep and uneven, purposely designed this way to slow an enemy that might have breeched the fortress. Of course there are the obligatory gift shops selling Great Wall souvenirs. I took so many photos that my camera needed a new memory card.
Exhilarated and exhausted, the ride back to Beijing was in silence except for an occasional snore. I had fulfilled one of my dreams. I walked on the Great Wall. Now my mind wandered to Herbʼs meditation session. I wanted that feeling back.Could I ever become enlightened?-DUO
CHINA: Past, Present and Fiture
"Enlightenment in Beijing"
Written By Richard Hodes