A to Z Abroad: Zedong’s Mausoleum

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Picture this: Waiting in line for four hours in 90 degree heat to see a dead guy on display. My tour director in China thought seeing the well-preserved corpse of Mao Zedong would be a perfect way to spend my second morning in Beijing. Yikes.

When I arrived at Tiananmen Square,  a huge line was already forming around Mao’s Mausoleum. The paint I saw on the pavement the day before now made sense. The painted lines are lane markers so people know where to stand on days when the mausoleum was open.

The line around Mao Zedong’s Mausoleum
Photo by: c.b.w. 2005

Guards actively monitor the lanes to make sure people stand four-wide and that the line wraps around the building in an orderly fashion. However, the guard’s most important duty is to watch out for line-cutters and remove those who are not properly attired to view Mao. Flip-flops and cameras are not allowed!

The line was about three rings wide, which translated to about four hours of waiting. Line cutters are  a big problem and there weren’t enough guards to stop them all. We had to actively shoo away rude and impatient people from cutting in front of us. I don’t know if line-cutting is an open rebellion to the Western standard of queuing up or if these people really are that excited to see Mao.

Mao Zedong is a controversial historical figure, especially in the West. He is considered a brutal dictator responsible for millions of deaths, but in China his legacy is protected by propaganda both past and present. Despite the violence and death associated with his regime, many in China still view him as a hero. Even though he’s been dead since 1976, he still enjoys idol status and is worshipped by millions. The crowd surrounding his mausoleum is proof of his elevated status. Thousands of people carry flowers and other offerings, waiting for the chance to catch a glimpse of Mao Zedong’s body.

The entrance to the mausoleum is flanked by statues commemorating all those who fought alongside Mao.

Memorial to the soldiers who fought in the Communist Revolution
Photo by: c.b.w. 2005

After passing through the memorial “gates,” the guards split the line in half – two people go to the right and two people go to the left. Upon entering the building, the guards tell people to keep moving unless they are leaving offerings.

After walking through small causeway, I found myself in the presence Mao lying on a platform and surrounded by bulletproof glass. Offerings of flowers, money, and gifts were piled up at the base of the glass enclosure. Those adding to the pile hit their knees in prayer.

As a history teacher, I found myself staring at a man I’ve only seen in textbooks. Even though I had to keep walking, I pondered his role in the world, while watching people leave offering and offering. Some even cried at the sight of him, the way fangirls do when they meet their favorite singer. Here I was in the middle, considering two very different sides to the same coin.

Within a few minutes, I was again outside. The line was still wrapped around the building full of people waiting for their moment with Mao. As they wait, they look upon his image on Tiananmen Gate.

Mao Zedong’s image on Tiananmen Gate
Photo by: c.b.w. 2005

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Part of the A to Z Challenge!

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c.b.w. 2013

A to Z Abroad: Ya’nan

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One off-the-radar place for an American to visit in China is Ya’nan, as it is considered the birthplace of the Communist Revolution. Aside from monuments and museums dedicated to Mao Zedong (the leader of  communist China until his death in 1976), Ya’nan is also home to beautiful cultural traditions.

Ya’nan, Shaanxi, China
Photo by: c.b.w. 2005

Ya’nan usually isn’t on a Westerner’s agenda, but it does serve as a major destination for Chinese tourists looking to see iconic locations associated with Chinese history. It was interesting to watch anxious tourists waiting in lines to go through a museum preserving relics from the civil war between Communists and Nationalists. Weapons, articles of clothing, and documents that would be objects of curiosity in the West are instruments of hero worship in Ya’nan.

Statue of Mao Zedong outside a museum dedicated to him and the Communist Revolution
Photo by: c.b.w. 2005

As I walked through this museum, guards followed me. As an American, I stuck out and was instantly treated with suspicion. After all, what would a pro-democracy, capitalist be doing in a communist museum? If they really must know, the history teacher in me was fascinated. Luckily, my shadow kept a distance and let me roam freely.

Parts of the hills around Ya’nan are essentially an extension of the museum. In 1934, Mao Zedong lead around 12,000 communists and supporters on The Long March to escape the pursuits of the Nationalist army. Mao settled in an area around Ya’nan, where he as his army lived in cave homes. Many of these homes are preserved and opened to tourists, including the home where Mao lived throughout the revolution.

Of course, I walked through Mao’s cave home. I don’t know what was more interesting, the fact that the interior was so cool without the use of A/C or watching a group of Chinese tourists excitedly feast their eyes on the every day items of a man that still has idol status. Again, I was looked upon as being out of place, but at this point I was accustomed to being an outsider.

Entrance to a cave home in the hills Ya’nan
Photo by: c.b.w. 2005

The star above the doorway is a symbol of Communism and continues to be used today in China’s flag. All around the cave homes are speakers dressed in revolution military uniforms. The man below claimed to fight alongside Mao, but I’m no so sure about that. My guide warned us that most Chinese accept the concept of “authentic fake” when it comes to relics and witnesses. Essentially, if something is realistic, then it’s authentic enough.

Historical speaker in Ya’nan
Photo by: c.b.w. 2005

He spoke English quite well, so I sat down and listened to him for a little while. In a way, it was like listening to my grandpa tell stories about his experiences in the war. However, the Chinese tourists around me listened with incredible enthusiasm.

Ya’nan also boasts a nine-story pagoda built during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.). Aside from beautiful dynastic architecture, the tower is also significant to the Chinese revolutionary movement. When the Communist Party had it’s headquarters in Ya’nan the bell was used to toll the hour of the day and sound alarms.

Ya’nan Hill Pagoda
Photo by: c.b.w. 2005

After getting my fill of Chinese revolutionary history, I was treated to a performance of  tribal dance. China is actually home to at least 68 ethnic groups, each with their own traditions. The people in the hills of Ya’nan are full of smiles and brilliant color as they moves across the stage.

Traditional dance in Ya’nan
Photo by: c.b.w. 2005

Besides being followed and regarded with confusion, I look upon my time Ya’nan as one of the more interesting experiences I had in China. The West sees Mao Zedong in a rather negative light, (rightly so in many respects), but in China the man is still revered by many. History, of course, will be the ultimate judge, but for now the duality of his legacy remains in place.

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Part of the A to Z Challenge!

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c.b.w. 2013

A to Z Abroad: Xi’an City Wall

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A trip to Xi’an, China is not complete without a walk around the famed city wall. First built back in 194 B.C. and rebuilt by the Ming Dynasty in the 14th century, Xi’an’s city wall is one of the most complete and well-preserved relics of Chinese history.  Fully restored, the wall looks as good as it did when it was first built, if not better!

As usual, I wandered away from the group to explore the wall at my own pace. While they rode away on rented bicycles, I took a leisurely stroll and followed the red lanterns from one end of the wall to the other.

Xi’an City Wall, China
Photo by: c.b.w. 2005

While first built to protect Xi’an from invaders, the wall today is place for locals and tourists alike to enjoy a walk above busy city streets and away from crowded sidewalks. The wide berth of the wall allows for pedestrians and bicyclists to peacefully coexist!

Walking along the Xi’an City Wall
Photo by: c.b.w. 2005

More than 8 miles long and 39 feet in height, a stroll along wall offers fantastic views of the city and beautiful gardens. The surprising thing about both Xi’an and Beijing is how much plant life is present along the streets. Trees and potted plants are everywhere!

A view of Xi’an from the city wall.
Photo by: c.b.w. 2005

Along the way, there is beautiful historical architecture. Buildings that once served as lookout towers are now tourist centers, retail shops, or exhibits, but the old world flare still flows from curved roofs and intricate stonework.

Architecture on Xi’an’s city wall.
Photo by: c.b.w. 2005

After walking for more than an hour in 90 percent humidity and 90 degree weather, I was thankful to find a kiosk selling Magnum ice cream bars. Surprisingly, I’d never had a Magnum until I went to China! Of course, those delectable ice cream bars are sold back home, but it took traveling almost 6,000 miles to find them.

With Magnum bar in hand,  I traveled the red lantern path until it was time to meet back up with the group.  I’m sure they had fun flying down the wall on their bikes, but I was grateful for a slower pace and ice cream!

Red lanterns on Xi’an’s city wall.
Photo by: c.b.w. 2005

The red lanterns and flags represent good luck and happiness, which makes my walk on the wall even more memorable. With those bright colors swirling about and centuries deep history beneath my feet, I couldn’t stop smiling.

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Part of the A to Z Challenge!

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c.b.w. 2013

A to Z Abroad: Waterford

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As fate would have it, the Waterford Crystal factory closed down just weeks before we were supposed to go through the visitor’s center. So, instead of marveling at sparkly glass, I got to walk through the streets of Waterford without a tour group or guide in sight!

I first wandered towards Waterford Marina, where sunset cast beautiful colors across the sky and water alike. I leaned against the railing and just watched the colors change and listened to the water lap against against the embankment.

Waterford Marina
Photo by: c.b.w. 2009

With evening fast approaching, I went in search of side streets with interesting stories to tell. I have a small fascination with curving cobblestone streets and alleyways with hidden doorways. Europe, it seems, is full of these narrow links to adventure.

A street in Waterford, Ireland
Photo by: c.b.w. 2009

Waterford, like many cities in Europe, allows for a peaceful coexistence between past and present. Modern buildings of glass and steel rise up around what remains of stone and mortar from centuries ago.

Old and new collide in Waterford
Photo by: c.b.w. 2009

This dichotomy is what I love about Europe. It isn’t so much “out with the old and in with the new,” but rather let the old be and allow the new to arrive.

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Part of the A to Z Challenge!

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c.b.w. 2013

A to Z Abroad: Vltava River

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The Vltava River runs through the center of Prague and crosses eighteen bridges before joining the Elbe River. A walk along the Vltava River should not be missed as it offers stunning views of the city’s bridges and historical architecture, while also affording a peaceful reprieve from the bustling city.

Like most medieval cities, Prague was built around a river for a water supply and transportation route. While convenient, rivers are unpredictable, which may be why Vltava means “wild water.” The Vltava proved its point in 2002 when it flooded Prague and caused widespread damage.

The Vltava River from above.
Photo by: c.b.w. 2008

These days, the Vltava is calm, allowing rowboats and paddle boats to float around Kampa Island and under bridges.

Boats on the Vltava River
Photo by: c.b.w. 2008

Floating down the Vltava
Photo by: c.b.w. 2008

One of many bridges along the Vltava
Photo by: c.b.w. 2008

Along the shoreline, green trees and the medieval architecture of Prague reflect in the stillness of afternoon water.

Afternoon reflections on the Vltava River
Photo by: c.b.w. 2008

Prague Castle and St. Vitus Cathedral reflect on the Vltava River
Photo by: c.b.w. 2008

Much like the founders of Prague, I looked upon the Vltava River as my lifeline. In a city of crooked streets and maze like sidewalks, I used the river as my compass to find my way back from wherever I had wandered that day. Every evening, I walked back to the Vltava River and watched the sun set on the water.

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Part of the A to Z Challenge!

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c.b.w. 2013