The part of the Wall I like
Only tourist-free spots for me
Whatcha shooting there, boy?
Did they pay to do this?
Shopping at the front gate
A little humor gone too far
Bumper-Boats in Dragon Lake
Caution: Sexy When Wet
it’s not just another brick in the Wall
By Elisabeth Rosenthal
New York Times News Service
Our last family outing to the
Great Wall at Mutianyu, 50 miles north of Beijing, was a fairly typical
China experience. We walked for, a couple of hours on the path atop the
wall, adults taking in the history, children running, trudging and
grumbling up the endless steps, playing hide-and-seek in the occasional
Mutianyu has one of the most
awe-inspiring views in all of China: the solid ancient wall, studded with
parapets, receding infinitely in either direction over the empty brown
hills. The wall was built by a series of emperors to repel foreign
invaders, and facing north, lost in time, I could almost hear their
Almost, that is, were it not for
the strains of loud pop music playing in the background – loud pop music
that reminded my two children that our hike is just a preamble to the
day’s real entertainment. To get off the Great Wall at Mutianyu, you have
two options: a ski lift whose cars tilt in the wind to the accompaniment
of blaring tunes. Or, since 1998, toboggans.
Two years ago, the Mutianyu
tourist board installed a mile long aluminum toboggan track that starts at
the wall and winds its way through the woods to the parking lot in the
valley. And for my 5 year-old son, Andy, there was no contest. After
checking the brakes, paying about $4, and receiving a quick tutorial, my
husband, Erik, and I, and our children, Andy and Cara, 8, whooshed off
screaming down the track, our backs to ancient history.
Granted, the Great Wall is old,
very old. In places, it is crumbling. And in the way of entertainment,
there’s not inherently much to do there. So China’s tourist industry is
aggressively transforming historic treasures into something, well, more
fun and lively, its Ming Dynasty meets Disney, with toboggans. In
fast-paced modern China, the fact that the wall is ancient, breathtaking,
and serene never seems quite enough.
Consequently, at Mutianyu, you
can hire the Great Wall for a dinner party. At Shan Hai Guan, where the
wall meets the coast, you can make your way through a giant maze bedecked
with flags. And even at the relatively pristine Jin Shanling site, two
hours from Beijing, a developer is Putting the finishing touches on a
terrifying looking ride in which people hurtle down into that valley
buckled into a skimpy harness that slides down a cable on a wheel
stretched high above the ground.
Purists and upscale tourists are
predictably offended at how China has gussied up its historical monuments.
But most Chinese, and all children, seem to love it.
I have often wondered why this
blend of cultural history and lowbrow entertainment has found such success
on the mainland. Perhaps it’s because this ancient country is so littered
with temples and relies that 2,000-year-old objects do not inspire
immediate awe and reverence here the way they do for Americans, for whom
200 years is a venerable stretch of time.
Also, perhaps, it is because most
Chinese today have lived though the deprivation of the Mao years, when fun
was disdained as a bourgeois pastime; now they can make up for lost youth.
The proliferation of such honky-tonk razzle-dazzle is certainly shocking
to many first-time travelers, at odds with the West’s dour, gray image of
Shortly after moving to Beijing
in late 1997, we visited Beidaihe, the beach resort on the Bohai Sea where
China’s top leaders have their annual summer powwow. It may be the most
political beach in the entire world, filled with retreats owned by
ministries and Central Committee members. I expected something
But Beidaihe makes Coney Island
look sedate. The beachfront is filled with vendors hawking chances to
dress up as emperors or monkey kings, and young hustlers offering gimmicky
photographs. We left three days later bearing dozens of tchotchkes made of
shells – and stacks of photographs showing my husband and me holding
miniature versions of our kids on outstretched palms, and several other
Since that trip, I have found
that the urge to jazz up China’s natural and historical bounty is nearly
omnipresent, affecting even the most famous and remote locations.
At the Old Summer Palace, on the
outskirts of Beijing, you can pick your way through ancient runs and boat
on a peaceful willow-lined lake where emperors once played. But what’s
that roaring in the background? In the middle of the grounds, for about a
dollar, you can segue from communing with China’s long history to a
sojourn in Jurassic Park.
This small, gory theme park is
filled with plastic ferns and roaring, automated creatures fake blood
dripping from their fangs. Children can even ride on large mechanical
stegosaur, perpetually slightly out of control. Toddlers tend to leave in
Likewise on Jade Dragon Snow
Mountain in the remote Yunnan Province, populated by women and children in
bright costumes from the Naxi, Bai and Tibetan minorities. In its physical
beauty, the mountain rivals the high Swiss Alps, only it is far more
untamed and deserted. Sound too dull? No problem: the locals have
organized an activity.
For about a dollar, you can
dress-up in the flowing skirts of a Naxi maiden or in the robes, furs and
swords of a Tibetan noble – for a photo op, of course. I used to cringe
each time I encountered these dress-up stalls or a magnificent example of
ancient architecture bedecked in a flood of neon. But I’ve made my peace
with the practice. Chinese tourist sites are, after all, first and
foremost for Chinese tourists.
And if that middle-aged
businessman who spent the Cultural Revolution bending pigs Cut likes the
idea of sliding down the Great Wall on a toboggan, well, the Great Wall is
long. I can point my camera elsewhere on its ramparts. And the ‘added
entertainment’ can be fun, if approached with the right attitude.
It’s lifesaving if you travel with children, making even formal gardens,
and ruins of Song Dynasty Temples acceptable to the under-10.
For example, one of my favorite
Beijing activities is walking through Beihai Park, the former playground
of China’s emperors, with its lily-covered lake, elaborate covered
walkways and steep steps leading up to the odd White Dogoba. B-O-R-I-N-G,
yawn my children. But what if that walk is the route to a boat ride in a
And so I found myself in Beihai
on a recent afternoon, helping Andy through a small metal hatch, down a
ladder, into the innards of a shaky floating spacecraft. I hit the
accelerator and he steered; mostly we traveled in small circles. For 20
minutes, I got to see a lovely park – the dragon boats, the Dogoba –
through our saucer’s tiny porthole in slivers.