China, May 14, 2000
It's Ming Dynasty meets Disney at the fun parks of China!
it's not just another brick in the Wall
By Elisabeth Rosenthal
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 guard tower.
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 marauding footsteps.
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 China.
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 appropriately serious.
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 permutations.
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 tears.
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 flying saucer?
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.