Saturday, March 28, 2009

We Know, They're Only Statues Of Elephants!

Here's a little story of how yesterday we overreacted to something that happened nearly five years ago...

During our visit to Beijing in 2004, our tour guide blitzed us through the tombs of the Ming Dynasty emperors in some ridiculously short amount of time. This brief encounter was part of a larger agenda for the day that also included a jaunt out to the Great Wall, stops at jade, Peking duck, and traditional Chinese medicine outlets, and a stroll through Tiananmen Square at dusk to watch the flag being taken down. Just thinking about the scope of that day both amazes and exhausts me...Anyone who has ever been to Beijing would surely echo those sentiments!

Anyways, while we were wandering around the Ming Tombs that day, I had on my mind this picture of a particular pathway lined with statutes, including some cool looking elephants. The picture was straight out of a National Geographic book I was carrying around, a useful tool at the time given that our guide spoke no English and we spoke barely a word of Chinese. Well, the book has made a return visit, and so there we were, rolling out to the Ming Tombs on the 919 bus, book once again in hand.

More precisely the 919 zhi bus...We found out, luckily before boarding, that the 919 does not go anywhere near the Ming Tombs...For that you need to take the 919 zhi...Got that?

Silently, Desi and I were determined to find those elephant statues this time around. I say "find" because, five years ago, I kept showing the picture of the statues to workers at the Ming Tombs, all of whom relentlessly motioned to me in a way suggesting that, at that time, we were no where close to where we needed to be. Apparently, the Ming Tombs covered a much bigger tract of land than I had been aware of. In the end, the elephant statues remained, for us, nothing more than two-dimensional images, teasing us about what might have been had we had more time and better language skills.

This time around, we possess both of these qualities in adequate amounts, and so there we were, meandering down the curved path (evil spirits can only fly in straight lines), taking pictures while Z climbed on every statue within reach, including those now three-dimensional elephants. It was a real triumph of exploring China on our own terms.

And then we (more precisely, I) took the whole "on our own terms" thing a little too far. The Ming Tombs, we were about to discover, are spread across the edges of an enormous valley. You really need some help getting from one tomb to the next.

For my part, though, I was having nothing of that. When a hei che driver offered to take us to the next spot, I told him we would walk...Never mind that he told us the next spot was five kilometers away! (Hey, he could have been lying to make a buck!) And then when we came up to the next bus stop, and reason (not to mention our traveling partner for the day, the always willing and able Glenn Mott) dictated hopping on for a few stops, I insisted that we just keep on walking. We can do it ourselves!

Well, eventually we ended up riding in both a hei che and a bus, as I learned yet again that there is no shame in needing a little help when negotiating the vast spaces of this great country. At least, as we walked through the middle of the parched valley, we were able to see with our own eyes the real expanse of the Ming Tombs and imagine what the place must have looked like five hundred years ago when it was a sacred and largely undisturbed final resting place for China's imperial leaders.

And the elephants weren't bad, either!



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