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The Harem and the Barbarian:

A Travelogue of Beijing

Date: Monday, October 10th – Saturday, October 15th, 2016

I did not eat deep-fried scorpion on a stick.


They were being sold at the Wangfujing Night Market, two minutes walk from my hotel. I was a few blocks from the Forbidden City off Wangfujing Avenue. An upscale shopping district was about a few minutes walk down Wangfujing, and at night booths sprung up in alleyways off this major thoroughfare selling brass or clay statues of dragons, horses, tigers and qilins, magnets, laser pointers, green camo hats with the Chinese communist star on them, silk scrolls with tigers, phoenixes or the Great Wall on them, and t-shirts proclaiming “I [heart] BJ”. There were ubiquitous bottles of milk, Yanjing and Tsingtao beer, lamb on a stick, grilled snake and tentacles on a stick, tripe (strips of stomach lining), deep-fried tarantulas, footlong millipedes and, yes, deep-fried scorpions on a stick, which were skewered through while still alive – twitching and squirming, their tails jabbing about – and then deep fried upon their sale.

Wangfujing itself was closed to vehicular traffic for the 5th Beijing Wangfujing International Brand Festival, and beer and ice cream shacks were erected, salesmen dressed up as Mongol aristocrats outside shoe stores, police were out with their red and blue flashing epaulettes and bomb-sniffing German shepherds.


You walk the street at night. Buddhists and Christians perform dance numbers in the sidewalk, or in front of St. Joseph’s church. It’s a little chilly in Beijing in October, and I was just wearing a t-shirt. You’re a racial minority, and stand out like a sore thumb; everyone knows you’re a tourist. At major tourist sites like the Temple of Heaven or the Summer Palace young women try and sneak pictures of themselves with you, until you catch them, offer them a picture and they’re giddy as can be, linking arms with you and making the peace sign. But at night, it’s a different type of woman that comes up to you.


The first was from Harbin, in Manchuria. She was pretty, perhaps about thirty, sitting with a woman a little older on a sidewalk bench. She spoke exceptional English, though her friend seemed to speak fairly little. “Aren’t you cold?” the young one in red asks. Sit, talk for a minute. Where are you from? Ah, Canada, it’s colder there, right? You’re more used to the cold. Many Chinese people there, yes? Many immigrants? Your Chinese is very good. Where did you learn?[1]


[1: We were conversing almost exclusively in English, but I’d said the odd word in Mandarin.]

Within thirty seconds or so she got to the point. How about we go for a beer, just down the street, we can talk some more? Get out of the cold?

No, I told her politely, saying I had to get back soon. I had an early morning the next day, off to see the Forbidden City. She was insistent, but when she saw I wasn’t going to fall for it, she quickly conceded and ended the conversation.


The second one appeared beside me like a ghost as I was walking back towards the hotel. Same general questions. Where you from? Lots of Chinese people in Canada, no? You here on vacation? Hey, would you like to go to a bar and get some beer? No, well how about coffee? How about you give me money for a beer and I’ll go alone?


Then she cursed me out and ran off the other way. The third, maybe sixty seconds later, leapt off a bench and jogged towards me. Hello, where are you from? I just shook my head and held up a hand, and kept walking.


They were all women, all around thirty or so, all spoke exceptional English. Reasonably pretty. But then why was I ignoring their advances?

This sort of thing is on dozens of videos and blog posts on travel to China, it was listed in the Beijing travel book I carried with me in my pocket, and it’s right on the Government of Canada travel advisory website. It’s the tea house scam, and it seems to be the number one thing to be on the lookout for in Beijing.[2]


[2: Apart from espousing the wrong political opinions. More on this in a little bit.]


Generally she’ll suggest going to a tea house. She’ll say she’s a student of English, wants practise with it. You go to the tea house, order a couple drinks, you naturally pay for hers, and you either have neglected to ask the price, or when they gave you a number like three (yuan or renminbi[3]), it was shorthand for three hundred. When the bill comes, it’s exorbitant, and they physically won’t let you leave until you’ve paid it. She, of course, is in on the scam with the tea house.


[3: The exchange rate, at the time of writing, is ¥5.12 to CAD$1]


I was approached by one textbook tea house scam on the Friday. I was out visiting the Foreign Language Bookstore, in the middle of this shopping district. No DVDs of Legend of Yuan Empire Founder, a 2013 HBS series on Kublai Khan. As I was leaving, though, a book almost jumped off the shelf at me. It was on Emperor Puyi and his harem. Yes, I think I’ll get this.[4] Walking out, a woman bounded up from a sidewalk bench and ran over to me. They’re hungry like vultures. Hello, where you from? Toronto? Vancouver? Are you here on vacation? And so on it goes.


[4: The Last Emperor and His Five Wives by Professor Wang Qingxiang. It cost me about $22 Canadian; looking it up back in Canada, the cheapest I saw was $65 plus shipping. Despite the efforts of the translator, much of it is in a somewhat broken, halting grammar.]


She was also around thirty, had a partner behind her that was more submissive. She wore a white turtleneck with her hair down and had a thin, wispy, feminine moustache. She claimed to be from Hangzhou – you know Hangzhou, it’s down near Shanghai – and was here practising her English. Her English was already quite good, but she apparently needed a refresher. Would I like to go for some tea and practise?


Wangfujing Avenue is in the heart of downtown Beijing. Tienanmen Square isn’t far, and the same with Beihai Park, the “earliest and best preserved imperial garden in the world.”[5] North of Tienanmen Square is the Forbidden City, the former centre of the Chinese empire and imperial palace in which the emperors lived. This one-hundred-and-eighty-acre palace, now a museum, is surrounded by a moat, contained within a massive red-bricked wall, and contains nine hundred and eighty buildings, all held together by not a single nail. Completed in 1420, it was first used by Zhu Di, third emperor and the great usurper of the Ming Dynasty (he’d committed a coup d’état against his nephew). The last emperor, Puyi – who, after his abdication would become a Japanese war criminal, tried as such by the People’s Republic in 1950 and imprisoned for a period of ten years – was forced from the palace in 1924.


[5: Quote taken from a placard outside the park.]


Early on the Wednesday morning, I shook hands with the tour guide that would show a small group around this elaborate palace, as well as the Temple of Heaven and Summer Palace. His name was Bruce Lee, or so he called himself. His driver showed up not long after with a cargo van. We toured with a lovely older British couple – actually, he was born in Canada and she was Georgian-Russian, though they hailed from London – as well as a clueless Australian woman. The British couple were in the middle of a several weeks-long Eurasian tour, which began in St. Petersburg, then along the Trans-Siberian from Moscow to Lake Baikal, into Mongolia, and they were flying out the following day to Lhasa, Tibet. Just the day before, they’d toured the Badaling site of the Great Wall with Bruce Lee.


“It’s packed, shoulder to shoulder,” said John, the husband, bringing up pictures on his phone with crowds that looked like a Hong Kong subway station. He’d toured Mutianyu, another major site, about fifteen years before, and so this time around they went to Badaling.


Mutianyu was the one that I’d wanted to see, as I knew it was less crowded, less commercialized and more hilly, with steep, never-ending staircases and a wavy course along the mountains. It’s about ninety minutes outside Beijing, as opposed to Badaling, which is sixty. Not really all that far north when you consider the constant threat, the constant raids, from barbarians beyond the Wall.


The hotel concierge desk employed three people, with three different levels of fluency in English. The youngest of them, Matthew, spoke barely a word. Boyd was better, could book tours and answer basic questions about the airport shuttle bus, but struggled greatly with it. Eason, however, was practically fluent. Mutianyu was not offered through that hotel, but no worries, assured Eason. “I can hire a private car for you to go there if you like. Eight hundred yuan for the day. You can leave whenever you like.” The driver, however, will speak only a little English. I had to think on this. The concierge desk was closing in ten minutes. “Just talk to Boyd tomorrow,” says Eason. Boyd, however, didn’t speak enough English to know about this arrangement. He tried flipping through a tour book and priced out something closer to 1,600. So the Great Wall we’ll leave until later in the week. In the meantime, I booked the tour with Bruce Lee.


“Forbidden City,” says Bruce Lee, standing just inside the Meridian Gate, “is from Ming, Qing Dynasties. Total, twenty-four emperors live inside.” He was holding the little yellow flag of his tour company on a collapsible stick, and spoke largely with his hands. The courtyard inside was tremendous. All the buildings were in vibrant colours, and had ornate, Oriental xieshan designs. There were dragons carved into the wood and elaborately painted. The emperor’s throne room is in line symmetrically north of the Meridian Gate, with civic offices to the one side and military offices to the other. Elaborate stone designs line the pathway just inside the Meridian Gate, leading to the expansive courtyard of interlocking brick, which, as Bruce Lee explained, was fourteen layers deep – almost a meter and a half thick. The emperors, it seemed, were paranoid about enemies tunnelling in.


“Inside the Forbidden City, you including two parts: Front Court and Inner Palace. Front Court used for the emperor for grand ceremony, meeting, conference. The Inner Palace for the emperor, empress, concubines.”


Deep inside the Inner Court, one of the buildings we saw (through a pane of glass) was the imperial bedchamber. There were many beds inside, each draped in silk embroidered with phoenixes and dragons, and covered with curtains and the lot. Sometimes there would be a version of a wedding ceremony for a concubine (this would probably depend on the emperor’s whim, and her rank as a concubine), but nothing as elaborate as the ceremony for his wife. The wife, Lee explained, was not chosen by the emperor, but usually by the emperor’s parents. The father, usually the retired emperor, still had a certain patriarchal function within the royal family, even after stepping aside from the throne (which they didn’t always do, Lee was quick to add). Divorce, likewise, was something decided by the emperor’s parents. These were political affairs, not personal. Besides, for the monarch’s sexual whims, for his perpetual satisfaction, that’s why he had concubines.

“How many concubines?” Bruce Lee had asked before we got to the emperor’s bedchamber, standing just inside the Gate of Heavenly Purity, separating the Front Court and Inner Palace. “Three thousand.”

Let’s suppose you’re a Chinese emperor for a moment. It’s 1449. You’re Zhu Qiyu, the second son of the Xuande Emperor. Your half-brother, Qizhen, just ten months older than you, ascended to the throne in 1435, at just the age of eight (at least one of you was born from one of your father’s concubines). When he was twenty-one, he decided he needed to prove himself in battle. As it so happened, the Ming did have a powerful enemy out there causing problems, and one who was growing in strength every day. His name was Esen. John Man, in his book The Great Wall: The Extraordinary Story of China’s Wonder of the World, says,


“[Esen] inherited control of the western Mongol groups, the Oirat. In the 1440s he took over what are today Uzbekistan and the other Central Asian -stans, then the Chinese-Mongol borderland groups along the Gobi to Manchuria. ... It looked as if one day he might become another Genghis and lead the Mongols to reclaim China. One way he increased his popularity at home was to exploit the ‘tribute system’ by which China dealt with the ‘barbarians’. ... The reality behind the euphemistic exchange of barbarian ‘tribute’ and imperial ‘gifts’ was trade ... but also payment to keep the peace, always with the (unstated) threat of blackmail – that if the emperor’s gifts were not good enough, the barbarian leaders might go on the war-path. ... This was nothing but extortion.”[6]

[6: Man, pg. 186-187.]


In other words, the Chinese had better pay up if they don’t want raids to take these things by force. The Chinese would often enter into treaty agreements with their barbarian neighbours to keep the peace. Sometimes the Chinese emperor would symbolically adopt the Mongol khan, forming a father-son, an uncle-nephew, or, when barbarian power was particularly strong, a brother-brother relationship. Often times Chinese princesses were carted north to become the latest wife of a khan to seal such agreements. Perhaps you’ve even seen some of your sisters sent north to Esen.

So in 1449, under the guidance of a corrupt eunuch, your august brother raises a half-million-man army in just two days, and sets out north. And doesn’t disaster happen. In a confrontation known as the Crisis of Tumu Fortress, not far from Badaling, Esen, alerted of your brother’s movements by his intelligence network, acts quickly and attacks, cutting off the royal contingent from the body of the army. Qizhen falls into Esen’s hands. The court in Beijing receives a letter: Half your army lies dead, and I have your emperor. You will send me....


Beijing reorganizes. A new minister of war has now pushed through a motion that Qizhen be declared a retired emperor – this being the quick and easy fix to the hostage situation. In essence, it means Beijing is abandoning your brother, while at the same time trying to put a nice face on it. And the war minister... well, guess who he’s decided should be your brother’s replacement.


You come to the throne just one day after your twenty-first birthday. As a prince, you’d have had your own concubines, but they were not (comparably) great in number. You knew each of their names, and could list where they came from. One of them, in fact, Suxiao, was a favourite of sorts, and will remain so as you ascend the throne; in just a few short years, you’ll depose the wife you took shortly before the Tumu Crisis and instill Suxiao as your new empress.[7] But there are worlds of difference between being a prince and an emperor. As emperor, you are the personification of yang (among other things, maleness), in Daoist eyes. To maintain the balance of the universe, you need an appropriate magnitude of yin (femaleness).


[7: There’s no father emperor here to manage the family politics – that falls on you as well.]

So picture your situation for a second. You were destined to be just some mediocre royal official, yet, at the age of twenty-one, you’ve stepped into the emperorship of China. You’ve signed off on all the proclamations ‘retiring’ your brother. Human tribute (i.e. concubines) begins coming in from vassals and neighbouring countries. The Koreans have stopped sending concubines at this point, but you still get them from the Vietnamese, Champans (southern Vietnam), Cambodians, Thais, Tibetans, Manchurian tribes, Okinawans, and even some Mongol and other Central Asian peoples, as well as from across China. An administrative woman, the nüshi (essentially your own private madam/sexual manager) will interview various candidates on your behalf, right down to a strip inspection and gynaecological exam. Administrative eunuchs catalogue and house these women in the Forbidden City. The only males, apart from yourself and certain royal officials, permitted inside the palace are eunuchs, so no one shall touch them but you. When you hold court, a coterie of wenches are there, silent in the gallery. When you tour the Imperial Garden, at the north end of the palace, women are gathered at every corner, hoping just to catch your eye. You don’t know all their names anymore – you can’t. You haven’t even met them all. Sometimes a bowing eunuch will tell in passing that an embassy arrived today from the Uyghur tribes. Thirty new women. Don’t worry, your exalted, they were taken to the baths and are now comfortable in their rooms. Your humble servant has some paperwork on them. Should you meet with these new ladies, you think? Ah, you’re too tired now; you’ll arrange something in the morning, if you remember. Leave the paperwork on the stack over there. Too much baijiu tonight, you tell the eunuch. I need to go to bed. Would you please send a servant to fetch... well, Xiaoyuanjing (your wife) has been moody of late, how about you bring me Suxiao. No, she doesn’t need the lingerie or the nipple tassels, I just want a warm body in bed next to me as I sleep.

“Okay, my friend, now we are on the Dragon Line,” says Bruce Lee, pointing and waving with his index finger. He points to the north: “If you want to go to the Ming emperor’s tombs, just go straight. Fifty kilometres.” To the south: “Along the Dragon Line, we find Tienanmen Square. Tienanmen Square, Forbidden City, Olympic Park and Ming Tombs, all built on central line.”

At every major building in the palace, there rests two large iron pots, like hollowed-out boulders. Around the corner are equally large turtle dragon – or longgui – statues. What are the pots for, posits Bruce Lee. It’s because the entire palace is wood. These pots are pre-modern fire hydrants.

In the Imperial Garden, there are two large statues of qilins, Chinese mythical figures. I’d seen these around. You can see miniature versions at the Wangfujing Night Market, where you’re badgered by pushy salesmen. “What do they signify?” I ask Bruce Lee.

He smiles, seems impressed I know the name of them. “The qilin is one of nine sons of the dragon – the long,” he says. “They... they can tell is a person if loyal or not, if he is someone that is trustworthy.” During the Ming Dynasty, the mariner and explorer Zheng He (himself ‘human tribute’ as a eunuch) became one of the most widely travelled explorers prior to the discovery of the Americas. Indeed, one such myth is that Zheng discovered the Americas before Columbus, though this claim is doubted by academics. He did make it as far as the west coast of Africa, where the Chinese got their first sight of a giraffe, which was mistaken as a qilin, and the style has varied since. Though they tend to lack the long neck, they have the hooves and antlers (in giraffes, ossicones). They look somewhat fearsome, with dragon-like scales and a wicked, toothy grin. In the Daoist tradition, they punish the wicked. Buddhists believe they refuse to walk on the grass for fear of damaging even a single blade, and do not eat flesh. Generally they’re seen a sign of luck and good omens.

You exit the back side of the Forbidden City, a bridge across the moat and out onto Jingshan Front Street, where the driver would pick us up. Jingshan Park is across the road, a former imperial parkland I never got the chance to tour. To the west of Jingshan Park was Beihai Park, another imperial park, mostly water with Qiongdao Island in the middle of it. Beihai I did tour, but that was another day, and a section for a little later in the story. Instead, we turn east along Jingshan Front to where the driver would meet us. It was broad sidewalk, interlocking brick. There’s a concession truck parked here. Women are selling large picture books in English about the Forbidden City (they were fairly cheap; I don’t remember the price exactly, but it wasn’t much – I almost wish I’d picked up a copy). Police are ubiquitous, their uniforms pristine. A beggar sits on the sidewalk, holding a microphone with his right hand and singing along to a stereo. He’s an amputee, missing his left arm, and he’s badly burned down the whole left side of his body (he wasn’t wearing a shirt, and you could see horrific burns all the way down to the waistband of his pants). But for as much I might have wanted to toss the poor guy a few yuan, I didn’t even make eye contact with him, and briskly kept marching.


Sitting in the waiting lounge at Macau International two days before, I was all too aware I was about to board a plane into a totalitarian country. Customs were simple enough, ushered through quite quickly into the waiting lounge, where I slipped on my headphones and began reviewing my Mandarin. The duty free was stacked full of single malt scotches, pricey baijiu, one rather expensive Japanese whiskey, gallons worth of cognac, and not much else. In my luggage, tucked into a five-hundred-page graphic novel as bookmarks, was some literature on Tibetan Buddhism, picked up in Hong Kong. It was written entirely in Chinese characters which I couldn’t read, and I had to simply trust the gentleman at the monastery when he told me it was politically safe for the Mainland. You don’t mention anything about Tibetan separatism in the PRC. More risky stuff I’d gotten rid of, like the Falun Gong propaganda handed out outside the Ngong Ping 360 cable car entrance. These pamphlets – one decrying Falun Gong forced organ harvesting in China, and one that was pro-Chinese propaganda, denouncing the Falun Gong founder Li Hongzhi as a cult leader – were left in the Hong Kong hotel room (though not before photographing every page, emailing the pictures to myself and then deleting them from my phone).


A short list of political topics not to touch in Mainland China: Tibetan independence, Uyghur separatism and/or terrorism in Xinjiang, ‘Southern’ Mongolia (an Inner Mongolian independence movement; look up a guy named Hada), anything critical of President Xi Jinping or the Chinese Communist Party, and, of course, the Falun Gong movement. Both Tibetan Buddhists and Falun Gong practitioners have self-immolated in protest of the Chinese government’s brutal repression.[8] The Falun Gong movement, criminalized as a cult under the presidency of Jiang Zemin (in office 1993-2003), is now at the centre of accusations of large-scale forced organ harvesting by the Chinese government and military, a topic of widespread international condemnation.[9]


[8: Separatists in Xinjiang, predominantly Uyghur Muslims, tend to go a different route than self-immolation. The Turkestan Islamic Party (East Turkestan is the Uyghur separatist name for Xinjiang) is recognized as a terrorist group by China, the European Union, United Kingdom, United States and others, though the extent of genuine Islamic terrorism in Xinjiang has been thrown into question. Prior to 2001, the Chinese blamed dissidence in Xinjiang on the CIA, then conveniently changed their story after 9/11; now they’re involved in a war against al-Qaeda. To be sure, a certain number of Uyghurs have fled the region, some of which joined the Taliban in Afghanistan, and a contingent of which are now al-Qaeda (al-Nusra) aligned in the Syrian Civil War, though Chinese claims of attacks in Xinjiang are treated with scepticism. The Chinese heavily censor the internet, particularly here, once shutting it down entirely for a period of six months, and its geographical isolation and barriers put up by the government prevent independent journalism from verifying Chinese claims.]


[9: For more on this, see The Slaughter: Mass Killings, Organ Harvesting, and China’s Secret Solution to Its Dissident Problem by Ethan Gutmann.]

Seeing a badly burnt amputee as a beggar in the Beijing streets, I wanted to get away from this political powderkeg as quickly as possible.


“You have to try the pu’er tea,” insists Bruce Lee. Next on our tour was a traditional Chinese tea house. “Only sold in China. It comes from Yunnan Province and they can’t make enough for export.” As we drove, he explained how tea is supposed to be drunk. It’s a very technical procedure. “Men, your fingers curled inwards, to symbolize the dragon. The dragon is yang, it is male. Women have their fingers spread outwards like the phoenix. This is yin, female. Men, don’t hold your fingers like this, or else you’re a ladyboy.”

At the tea house, our host reiterated this. “If a man holds his fingers like this,” she says, “it means he’s a sissy.”

There were five different types of tea to sample, with all sorts of gimmicks like teacups that change colour with warmth applied, or a little clay ‘pee boy’ statue which ‘pees’ when the water gets hot enough. The Australian woman touring with us bought nearly too much to carry, while at the same time deciding to ask the British couple about Australia’s duty and declaration policies with a confused look on her face.


“Temple of Heaven,” Bruce Lee says in the van, “three times bigger than Forbidden City. Summer Palace, six times bigger.” The Temple of Heaven, or Tiantan, a large Daoist park also built in the early fifteenth century by the usurper Zhu Di, consists of two parts. The outer portion is manicured parkland, where senior citizens gather in numbers and aggressively play cards. The inner portion is the temple itself, a large, three-story Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests. This circular building, elevated on a stone platform and surrounded by a large courtyard, and was also constructed entirely of wood with no nails holding it together.

This is where you (Qiyu) would come to make offerings to Tian, or Heaven, twice yearly for good harvests. You may have even come here to pray for your brother, the retired emperor, in the early days, who (according to Esen’s memorandums) was kept in good health and was being treated like an imperial guest.[10] In cases of national emergency, such as a drought, you may be expected to come here outside of the usual, twice yearly schedule as well. That’s why you’re here today: Lihua, your sister, whom Qizhen sent off to seal a pact with Esen in 1443,[11] has sent a secret message to the court through a Mongol emissary (you’re pretty sure she seduced him, but the message doesn’t specify this). She’d been sent off to the wedding bed at the age of fourteen, and has no great love for the brother that sent her there. That’s one more reason you decided to make certain demands of your brother when he showed up at the Wall a year after your enthronement – yes, Esen did release “his useless prize in exchange for a weak Chinese promise to reopen border trade”,[12] but you were sure to make him disavow the throne before you let him through the Wall. He’s now under house arrest. Lihua did always have a fondness for you, and in her rambling note expresses joy that you came to the throne. The main text of her message though is this: Esen, her ‘darling husband’, is plotting a large-scale raid near Red Salt Lake, about sixty kilometres into the Ordos, in what is today Inner Mongolia. The Wall out there is not finished, and you have to act fast.[13] You’ve dispatched an army to reinforce local garrisons, but those barbarians have always moved faster than Chinese armies, and there’s no date on Lihua’s message. So here you are, abasing yourself before Heaven above, awaiting updates from your commanders in the field.

[10: He was even offered a Mongolian wife, which he declined.]

[11: Unlike the other historical figures I’ve put names to, Lihua is fictional.]


[12: Brook, pg. 96.]


[13: I’m taking liberties here. There was an incident at Red Salt Lake, but it was a local commander that got word, leading an attack against the Mongols and sparking debates about the national interest in continuing the building of the Ming Wall. This occurred in 1473, not 1453 (the year following the deposing of Empress Xiaoyuanjing), as I’m depicting. See Man, pg. 201, for details.]


Suxiao, now your wife after you got rid of the first one (Suxiao was right, Xiaoyuanjing really wasn’t cut out to be empress), stands back as you make your obeisances to the gods. You haven’t touched her, or any of your women, for three days, nor have you eaten meat or had wine. You’ve been by yourself, west of the park, at the Palace of Abstinence. You leave that hall just before dawn at the ringing of a bell. Everything in Tiantan Park is in multiples of nine, a lucky number. Singers, dancers and bannermen all take their places. Everything is highly choreographed. Incense is being burned. A cow has been prepared; it has been shaven and the stove is warm. Animal sacrifice doesn’t happen at every ceremony, but a cow has been arranged today because of the urgency in your sister’s letter. You make your prayers. While you pray, officials offer meats, vegetables, wine, silk and jade to other gods on the upper level of the altar. These things are burnt in stoves to the south while incense wafts throughout the park.


“Things went well,” Suxiao tells you in the palanquin en route back to your palace. “The prognosticators assured me Heaven was quite please.”


When you get back to the palace, the sycophantic eunuchs are all smiles. There are two generals there, also offering praise, their heads bowed. You wave them all away.

You have gone the past seventy-two hours without release, something a man in your position only does for Heaven itself. Suxiao, your darling wife, is prepared. She’s wearing her best corset beneath her court robes, and has had the eunuchs prepare a vase of tororo-jiru.[14] Moreover, when you’re finished with all the post-ceremonial hoopla in the Front Court, you’re pleased to find she has one of her sistren in the harem[15] already in your bed chamber. You know this one. Yes, yes... don’t say it, you’ll get her name. Thin, Vietnamese, has a sexy accent...

[14: Made from grated Chinese yams, the Japanese apparently used this as a pre-modern lubricant. In fact, it dates to Japan’s Edo Period (1603-1868), so I’m a century and a half early in having it appear here, but just go with it.]


[15: Former sistren; she’s your wife now.]

“I was 2655, most exalted,” she says sheepishly.

Ah, that’s right, you never got her name. That was the number on her file, written above her name. You really must speak to the eunuchs – they should write the number in a smaller font or something.


“If the Son of Heaven wishes to hear you speak,” says Suxiao, “he will ask it.” Now your wife is holding a riding crop.


2655 has gone bright red. Yes, that’s what you liked about her. She’s not as coy and practised – not as fake – as the other sycophants streaming through the revolving door of your bedchamber. There’s a realness to her. She’s embarrassed, nods without speaking.


“Good girl,” says Suxiao. “Now take off that dress,” she dictates, pouring a liberal amount of the tororo-jiru into her hand–

Alright, I think I’m going to stop myself there. This is a travelogue. If you want concubine sex scenes, there are other places you can find them.[16]

[16: I might suggest One Night in Ikh Khulan.]

“The Summer Palace,” says Bruce Lee, “was built by the Emperor Qianlong. He liked to travel down to Shanghai, always brought back the best tea, fruits, concubines. But there was one thing he couldn’t bring back, and that was a garden there. So he had one built here.” Presumably Bruce Lee was talking about one of the imperial gardens in Suzhou here.


The entire day had been overcast, with a little rain just as we were heading towards the Forbidden City. Now the sky is quite grey.


“There are two ways to see the Summer Palace,” says the guide as we drove. “One is to walk. We get there, you go alongside Kunming Lake to the palace. The other, you take a boat. It costs you an extra–”


And I don’t remember what the number was. He left it to use to decide what we wanted to do. The Australian woman sat up front and didn’t voice an opinion either way. There was some discussion with the British couple, and then we decided we were fine with walking. “Okay,” says Bruce Lee. Like the tea house (and also a pearl store he took us too), I’m certain he was profiting off of these little extras, so he didn’t seem too happy we decided to walk.


Qianlong (1711-1799) built this palace – he’s Qing Dynasty, which followed the Ming – so there’ll be no speculation here on Qiyu romping about with his harem. The palace surrounds Kunming Lake, a large, serene body of water. You walk in not far from the Seventeen-Arch Bridge, an elaborate stone bridge leading to South Lake Island. To the right, down the side of the lake, is the palace itself, and beside that a Buddhist temple on a hill.


“Free time,” says Bruce Lee, who’d given us our brief history lesson on Qianlong in the van. “Meet back here, one hour. The palace is down that way,” he says, pointing.


“What’s over that bridge?”


He looks. “Nothing,” and then gave a quick explanation as to the number seventeen in Chinese numerology.


There wasn’t enough time to see the palace properly. We had to rush back to fit within the one-hour time limit. No one went over the bridge – which is a shame because, as I would later read, that was the location of a small temple I’d have liked to have seen. Leaving the Temple of Heaven, I’d even asked Bruce Lee about it, but he wasn’t understanding my pronunciation, and when I mentioned the Yuan Dynasty, he smiled politely and shook his head. The Summer Palace was from the Qing. I don’t think he knew about it.


Yelü Chucai, one of the founders of the Yuan, was an administrative adviser to both Genghis and Ogedei Khan, following the Mongol conquest of the Jin Dynasty. He’s an interesting figure – he stood at the great height of six foot eight, had a beard down to his waist at the age of twenty-five, and may have been the last person to be able to read and write the Khitan language – oh, and he also may have prevented a genocide of as many as 23 million people.


With an average depth of about five feet, Kunming is a man-made lake which Qianlong had commissioned, however it was built out of the existing Wengshan Pond and Xihu Lake, which are much older than the Qing Dynasty. Yelü was buried there. I knew his small temple was around the lake somewhere, but I also knew it wasn’t on or near Longevity Hill, where the palace and the Buddhist temple were located. Probably somewhere in the backwoods, I reasoned. Bruce Lee was unaware of it. So along the shoreline we walked towards the palace and away from the Seventeen-Arch Bridge. Young women would try to use their selfie sticks covertly to sneak pictures with foreigners, and the sky darkened until it looked like it might rain, but never did.


Back to the entry point, and there’s the British couple, who entered into a long story about their travels through Siberia and Mongolia, the substandard conditions of the Trans-Siberian and the experience of sleeping in a Mongolian ger out in the steppe. The Australian woman is nowhere to be seen, and neither in Bruce Lee. Did he say to meet us here, or out in the parking lot? No, it was definitely here. If we go out to the parking lot, we go through the turnstile and can’t get back in. He definitely said here. That Australian seemed pretty confused – she thought he said two hours instead of one? Well, he’s fifteen minutes late, did he say two hours? No, he made it clear to her that it was one hour. One hour doesn’t seem like a lot. Did you see the whole thing? We had to run. Hey, there’s another tour guide (they all carry those little collapsible flags), maybe we should ask her to call him (Bruce had given us his number in case we got lost). She doesn’t speak English.

I wasn’t that confident in my Mandarin capabilities to ask this woman to make a phone call, so I didn’t volunteer to try and ask. Finally the British woman got in touch with him. Meet by this pagoda, a little to the left. He’ll be there soon.


It was more than an hour and a half we were at the Summer Palace, because, at the last minute, the Australian had decided she did want to take the boat, and Bruce Lee then had to get her in line to pay for it. I could have quite easily crossed that bridge (I stood not far from it for thirty minutes), where, on South Lake Island, I would learn later, Yelü Chucai Memorial Temple was located.


Back to the hotel, where hopefully we’d find the English-speaking concierge, Eason, to get our cheap deal for Mutianyu. Everyone else was quoting much higher prices. Bruce Lee had offered us a private tour (assuming he didn’t get an assignment from his company), but it was more than double the price. Out on Wangfujing, in a couple of one-room storefronts next to souvenir shops selling carved wooden elephants and many-armed Buddhas, and t-shirts featuring President Obama written as ‘Oba-Mao’, were three or four different tour companies. These were sales offices, and probably all had contacts to the same company, as all their tours were the same, varying in price by a couple of yuan. Mutianyu was offered here, combined with the Ming Tombs, for only a half a day, and it was still more expensive than what Eason had offered.


The previous day, without having booked anything through the hotel, had been a free roam day. This is the heart of Beijing. Beihai Park is up this way somewhere, I said looking at my pocketbook map, and we can circle around this way for–


If you need a wake up call for the authoritarian nature of the Chinese regime, just walk through Tienanmen Square.


This was the site of bloody democratic protests in 1989, producing one of the most iconic images of the twentieth century, that of the Unknown Rebel, or Tank Man, who prevented the passage of a People’s Liberation Army tank column with his body. Like the National Mall in Washington DC, if one is going to hold a political protest in China (wouldn’t necessarily recommend; you may find a slightly different reaction than that of Washington’s Metropolitan PD), this is the place to do it. This was where Falun Gong protestors self-immolated in 2001, leading to the deaths of two and maiming of many others.[17] This was also the site of a 2013 Uyghur separatist suicide attack, claimed by Xinjiang’s Turkestan Islamic Party, which played out as a sort of Chinese version of the 2016 attack in Nice, France.[18]


[17: This incident is highly disputed. Falun Gong leaders have disavowed it, and the teachings are explicitly anti-suicide. There are many inconsistencies in the story put out by state-run media. Public sympathy for Falun Gong plummeted after the event. It has been suggested this was staged by the Communist Party to discredit the movement.]


[18: Unlike in Nice, there was no exchange of gunfire. Instead, the van the perpetrators used burst into flames, killing those inside. Two others died in the rampage, and thirty-eight others were injured.]


“It’s just up this way,” I say, looking at my map and comparing it to a map outside a subway station. The Beijing haze is omnipresent, and everything looks drab and dirty. It’s crowded on Chang’an Avenue. People are hawking and spitting everywhere. The women dress more modestly, with very few low cut shirts, though tight black leather pants and skirts seem to be a bit of a trend. There are also far fewer piercings (even the ears), hair dye or tattoos. A few women wear high heels, though more common are the Kim Jong-il-style platform sneakers. The men are dressed largely in Western fashion, with sports jerseys and stylish jackets. A lot of the younger men are sporting the hipster fauxhawk, but Asians manage to pull it off without looking like pretentious fad-following snobs. More than one person is wearing a disposable medical mask. There are tourists here, a few Westerners, but also many tourists from elsewhere in China. You can tell this by the number of them that try to snap pictures with you.


And there’s Chinese PLA soldiers everywhere, stationed on every corner. Rigid, military stances, in green uniforms with hats and white gloves. I was wearing my GoPro, and also had my camera attached to my belt. Their eyes were on me – all of them. No one says anything, I act normal. There’s a tourist over there, white, dusty blond hair, and he seems a little lost. He’s asking a PLA soldier something while pointing to a folding map. I don’t want to talk to the PLA, as I don’t want to risk my cameras being confiscated (some of them have that look in their eye), and I’d really prefer not have to present them my tourist visa, so I observe this tourist. The soldier smiles politely, points; there’s clearly a language barrier. The tourist smiles back, points to the camera around his neck. He wants a picture. The soldier’s smile is gone and he’s waving his hands as he steps back. Okay, no pictures of the soldiers.


You find yourself being shuffled into a lineup, half the sidewalk being blocked by fences. There’s a sign in English: security check. You’re in this line for maybe twenty minutes. Police are up ahead – not PLA (though you still see them everywhere), but police, in dark blue uniforms, with flashing epaulettes and bomb-sniffing dogs. You’re being shepherded into a checkpoint with metal detectors and airport-style x-ray conveyor belt scanners. Backpacks, purses, bags through the scanner. My cameras? I point, but they’re more concerned with getting people through the line. They wave me through.


Now you have access to the underpass, which takes you across Chang’an and into the square. Tienanmen itself, or the Gate of Heavenly Peace, also built during Zhu Di’s reign in 1420 – along the Dragon Line that keeps everything symmetrical for Heaven’s pleasure – is to the right. There’s now a giant picture of Mao on the front of it. Behind that is parkland, and behind that is the Meridian Gate of the Forbidden City.


Across the road is the square, a wide open expanse filled with people. Mao’s Mausoleum is here, and so is the Great Hall of the People and the Monument to the People’s Heroes, an obelisk in the square’s centre dedicated to communist revolutionary martyrs. There’s a ministry to the east, and just to the north of the obelisk is an colossal bouquet of flowers. PLA soldiers are here, too, marching in military fashion.


It was this overt display of the Chinese police state that made me hesitate, the following day, on emailing a friend. Social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are blocked. So is Google and its affiliated companies. Outlook worked, so when I returned home from my tour with Bruce Lee, I sent an update to a friend back in Canada. Today we toured the Forbidden City, I wrote. I went on to joke, My new life goal: become the Chinese emperor and gain three thousand concubines. Time to form a new dynasty.

Sipping from a Suntory Japanese whiskey (a little sweet for my taste) and eating a ripoff Cadbury Dairy Milk bar named Milka, I realized that if the hotel registered our passports with the Chinese government upon arrival (they did), that there was a chance, perhaps a slim chance, that they might be monitoring the hotel wifi, and they might not take to kindly to the words ‘form a new dynasty’. I added, (I really hope the Chinese government isn’t monitoring these; for clarification Mr. Xi,[19] I am not advocating any sort of regime change, this is joke about wanting my own harem).

[19: Even here I carefully chose the words ‘Mr. Xi’, as I thought his given name, Jinping, or the word ‘President’ might be too many keywords for an algorithm to hone in on.]

Back across the road, and now there’s a contingent of soldiers decked out in full camo, their helmet straps on, and holding assault rifles. To the west of the Tienanmen parkland is what I thought was Beihai Park, the imperial garden enjoyed by the emperors. On any map, it’s all green, but it turns out the whole thing is the headquarters of the Communist Party and the State Council. It’s all walled, there’s guards everywhere, soldiers are marching down the sidewalk in formation. There’s also cameras everywhere, because whenever a delivery vehicle shows up at any of the gated access points, the massive wooden doors are already opening and five or six soldiers are ready to march out and aid the driver with his pallet jack. There are a few shops and restaurants along this street, and there’s the odd hutong (a narrow, self-contained alley or street community, often with small shops) branching off, but for the most part its brick walls on both sides – the Forbidden City to the east, Zhongnanhai (as it’s called) to the west.

Finally, north to Wenjin Street (it becomes Jingshan Front, on the back side of the Forbidden City, around a curve). Beihai Park is just over there. There’s no smocking in the park, and no lewd cehavior, proclaims a Chinglish sign. Inside the gate and you see the white dagoba atop the hill in the distance. This sits at the zenith of Qiongdao Island, across the bridge. Just the other side of the bridge is a patio with a few restaurants, including one that sells tripe and a dish simply labelled ‘Reasonable’, as well as a pretty good Kung Pao chicken. The majority of the park is the Northern Sea, and you can see plenty of small boats as you circle around the island to the west.


This is where a frolicking young emperor might spend a relaxing day with a gaggle of courtesans. There’s a dozen of them with you, including a young woman named Tang, who you’ve recently developed a bit of a crush on. You’ll eventually give her the title of imperial noble consort, and she’ll be buried alongside you when you die (she’ll also be... ahem... helped to the grave so she can be buried at the same time). She playfully splashes water at you from the Northern Sea as eunuchs paddle the dragon boat. Two others you like, Xi’er and Gongjingxian, giggle playfully as you splash her back. Six other women in another dragon boat are threatening the head eunuch with death by a thousand cuts if he doesn’t bump your own boat for a laugh.

Suxiao is there, too, but she’s seven months pregnant, and is relaxing towards the rear of the boat. The doctors are quite confident the child will be a boy; all the auspicious signs are there. Daoist fortune tellers are predicting a strong young lad. Jianji, they suggest, is a good name. You are currently twenty-six years old, and by now have two other children. Those were both born from your first wife, Xiaoyuanjing, and both are girls. (With three thousand women in your harem, you probably have a number of other children as well now that you’re four years into your reign, but they’re most likely all girls as well, or else their names might have made it into the historical record.) Officially (this was the deal reached with the war minister when your brother was pushed into retirement), your nephew is the crown prince; your brother’s line is meant to be the one that holds the throne, while your own fades back into the aristocracy. With the birth of a son, however... well, there are legal scholars looking into that for you.[20]


[20: I’m completely messing around with the timeline for the purpose of my narrative. In actuality, Zhu Jianji was born in 1448, before Qiyu ascended to the throne. This is probably what elevated Suxiao within the ranks of the harem. Jianji was designated crown prince in 1452, and died within a year – possibly by poisoning. In fact, he would have already been dead at the time I’m setting this particular outing to Beihai Park (late 1453).]


Lihua has sent you another letter (covertly, of course, without the knowledge of her darling husband). Her early warning of the attack on Red Salt Lake proved invaluable, and your commanders were able to prevent a devastating raid. There was some... unfortunate collateral damage, when your men massacred a group of Mongol women and children, but terms like ‘war crimes’ haven’t been invented yet, so you’re not too concerned about it.[21] Esen is, however, is quite irate about the whole affair, your sister writes. He hasn’t yet figured out how to diplomatically demand reparations, as, after all, there’s a lot of your own people either in the ground or in barbarian beds because of raids he’s conducted. Why not... you can sense the hesitancy with which your sister writes... why not, offer another marriage alliance? Esen would probably accept, she writes. Her own value as a piece on the board kind of diminished after you, ahem, retired your brother, but with a new emperor comes a new opportunity to make peace – by sending a daughter. Esen has just named his son Amasanj as his heir, and before the Khalkha Mongols or the Manchurian tribes can offer wives, why not send an offer yourself?

[21: Again, this happened in 1473. Both Qiyu and Esen would be long dead if this was accurate to the timeline.]


You came to Beihai today to forget about such statecraft, but even as you hold Tang’s hand, the comfort in her touch isn’t quite enough. As the other girls splash water at the next boat, your new crush pats you on the back, nuzzles herself into you for comfort. She can imagine what you’re going through; if she ever has a daughter, you might one day be contemplating sending that girl away to the wastelands of Inner Asia.


You leave the girls, Suxiao and Tang included, with the eunuchs. Go, have fun, paddle around the lake, you tell them. You need some privacy for private contemplation. Suxiao, holding her stomach as a eunuch helps her off the dragon boat, gives you a kiss before you leave them – she’s not as confident as the Daoists at court that her child will be a boy, and wants to drop a few hints that shipping away daughters would be... well, perhaps ill-fated. You kiss her on the forehead, but tell her to get back in the boat, have some fun with the other concubines. You leave her there, watching you go, as you climb the stone path across the way from the dock.


In the centre of Qiongdao Island, at it’s highest peak, is the white dagoba, a forty meter Buddhist stupa. (Actually, this was built about two centuries later, but let’s just go with it.) It’s a place of meditation. The outer ring of the island is a brick path going all the way around, partly covered by wood-framed corridors and quiet rock gardens filled with the same jagged, coral-reef-type scholar’s rocks you have in the Imperial Garden at the north end of the palace. Branching off from that circular path are perhaps a dozen winding stone staircases leading up to the stupa, and to a Buddhist temple on the east side of the island. It’s all very green here, and within two minutes, you don’t even hear the concubines giggling anymore. A twist, a turn, a sweat breaking out as you climb (perhaps you’ve been enjoying too much Beijing duck), and there’s the stupa. You find a kneeling bench, close your eyes, and contemplate. Should you send one of your daughters with Xiaoyuanjing to the grasslands?


Outside the hotel, taxis are blaring their horns as they fly up the bike lane. Public buses running with electrical trolley car connections to the overhead grid cut in and out of traffic, their connector arms swaying back and forth on a hinge as they change lanes. There’s a Ferrari delivery van parked in the lot out back. The middle-aged woman that hangs around here pimping out Chinese prostitutes isn’t yet out, but it’s still early. I walk through the giant revolving door of the hotel. There’s that same gentleman with the crooked teeth trying to hock his calligraphy. Ah, here’s Eason, thankfully. Mutianyu? Yes, yes, I can book a car for you. Eight hundred, yes? He picks up the phone. This too, I’m certain, was an off-the-books deal Eason was arranging with his driver, a man named Wong. Wong would not speak any English, but if there were issues, he would call Eason directly. We would leave the following morning.


It was about ninety minutes’ drive, on a long, winding, zigzaggy course. Wong drove in silence for a time, before popping in a CD of Chinese songs and playing it on repeat. He was a more reasoned driver, not going onto the shoulder to zip ahead one car length, blaring his horn every thirty seconds or cutting up the bike lanes. We passed by a Wumart – a convenience store ripoff of a certain American big box store, with the same font and colour scheme – and a Drunk Beer and Coffee, then up the highway towards the airport until we entered a series of suburban, and then finally country roads. The Beijing smog never lifts. Signs can be seen every ten minutes or so once you’re in the country, Mutianyu written in the Latin alphabet alongside a block of Chinese text.


This is China’s wonder, often called the Eighth Wonder of the World. It’s often said it can be seen from space (it can’t). It (roughly) runs along what is the modern Inner Mongolian border, a vast province larger in area than Ontario, though elongated, starting in the Gobi and hooking around the eastern end of Mongolia proper to reach all the way to the Siberian border in Manchuria. Parts of it stretch across the Manchurian provinces up to the Yellow Sea, and there are even sections in Mongolia proper, though these are now little more than ridges in the grasslands. Measured by Russian standards, the Wall stretches across three timezones (measured by Chinese standards, it’s only one, because all of China conforms to a single timezone, Beijing time).


When you get to Mutianyu, there’s first a bus, then a cable car. There is a walking path, but you wouldn’t want to walk it. There’s a placard there, in Chinese, English and Mongolian Cyrillic, proclaiming when the Mutianyu site was first constructed (1404), its modern renovation (1983) and opening to the public (1988), as well as a sign denoting the cable car precautions, which prohibits, in broken Chinglish, drunkards, the insane, and women who suffer from habitual abortions.


The crowds are not thick here, and there’s no wait for the cable car, which takes you up a steep green mountainside, the bottom of the cable car brushing a tree as you go. The forest coverage here is ninety-six percent, so it looks today very much like it would have looked two hundred years ago, or two thousand years ago for that matter. The stone is new (relatively). The Wall (a bit of a misnomer as there’s no singular wall) began its first incarnation more than 2,000 years ago. This one, which is virtually gone now, was built of rammed earth. The First Emperor, Qin Shi Huangdi, is often credited with beginning the Wall in the 210s BCE, but in reality his project was to link up a series of state walls each maintained by feuding principalities during the end of the Zhou Dynasty. The First Emperor was a ruthless, brutal tyrant, and his rammed earth wall was built by a workforce of hundreds of thousands by royal fiat. “Qin’s ideologues would have approved of Machiavelli, and of Fascism: power was the only virtue.”[22] The stone wall you see today was built during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). The purpose of the Wall was to define the northern frontier, and to keep out the barbarians – men like Esen. When the Ming came to power, a complete overhaul of the northern defences was needed, and thus we have the modern tourist attraction.


[22: Man, pg. 25.]


Leaving the cable car, you see a little restaurant and patio area where people just litter over the side of the mountain, then a staircase. It leads to a terrace with a stone inscription and a set of stairs–


There, over the barrier, you can see it. The perpetual Beijing haze is strong even here, in the mountains, this far from the city, but you can still see down the ridge of the mountain, curving here and there, guard towers spread along the snaking dragon. Then it turns to the left, up a steep incline, Chinese characters written across the hillside. It was truly like stepping into fantasy – stepping into history. Men died building this, men died defending this. Defence at the northern frontier – this was a project that was ongoing for centuries, for dynasties.

You climb up onto the Wall. It hugs the top of the mountains. On the far side is Inner Mongolia. It’s about as green as can be. Steep slopes on either side of the Wall. There’s one camera on a pole perhaps a kilometre away, and folding tables inside every third or fourth guard tower selling Tsingtao beer and bottled water. These – plus the Beijing smog and the tourists – are the only indications you’re walking along a twenty-first century tourist site, instead of a fifteen century military stronghold.


Picture this: the year is 1568. You’re a young man, perhaps twenty-five years old. No, you’re no longer Zhu Qiyu. We’re going to jump ahead more than a century. Qiyu didn’t have too many good days left after that outing to Beihai Park in 1453 anyway – he was deposed by the retired emperor in 1457. He may have died of a sickness, or he may have been conveniently murdered by eunuch assassins acting on orders from the brother he’d had confined to house arrest. He’d been twenty-eight years old. His son had predeceased him, as had his beloved Suxiao. The rest of his concubines had been ordered to commit suicide upon his death. His first wife, Xiaoyuanjing, survived the whole mess, and the resulting court purges by the reinstated brother, possibly because she’d hidden Qizhen’s son, the crown prince that was supposed to succeed her ex-husband until Qiyu deposed the lad. Her daughters, Princess Gu’an and an unnamed daughter who refused to marry and instead became a Buddhist nun, also survived.


But anyway, let’s forget about him. Now we’ve gone a century ahead and you’re a Chinese military officer. You’re fairly well off, have a darling wife back home in Guandong Province, whose currently overseeing a small handful of labourers farming wet rice on your estate. You haven’t seen her, or any woman for that matter, in two years. You’ve got enough money to buy yourself a command. You are currently standing halfway up an unbroken staircase of brick that stretches for more than six hundred steps at close to a forty-five degree angle. It’s December, you have snow on your uniform. You’d never seen snow until you worked your way into this command. You oversee five other men no older than yourself, the youngest a mere sixteen. It’s midnight and you’re looking down the snowy mountainside into the abyss. Five hundred years from now, it’ll be Inner Mongolia, a province of your country, but for now, it is the edge of the known world. And your sworn duty is to defend the very cradle of civilization at your back from the beasts beyond.


It really is like something out of Game of Thrones. You are the watcher on the wall, the shield that guards the realms of men. Only your wall isn’t fantasy, it isn’t a fictionalization of Hadrian’s wall stretching across the thinnest part of an island, and you aren’t defending against ice zombies or giants (or Scots). And nor is it made of ice. No, your wall is more than 45 million cubic metres of brick, and stretches through mountain, desert and plain for a distance greater than that of the Arctic Ocean to Panama. And your enemy, the ghost in the night that could have scouts even now in these Inner Mongolian hills, the virtual centaurs fused at the hip with their horses, are the very origin of the term ‘barbarians’.

Esen, too, is dead now. He died in 1455, two years before Qiyu did. Esen, however, was a nobody, who’s great claim to fame was capturing a emperor (a feat which ultimately gained him nothing). He’d been leader of the western barbarian groups, the Oirat, and as such had no leg to stand on when it came to pronouncements about his heritage and noble bloodline. He was just a warlord, a strongman. The new guy, however, has the lineage, has the undivided political support, and has the name: Altan Khan (it literally translates to ‘Golden Leader’[23]). He is simultaneously politically cunning and villainously barbaric: He’s recently accepted some 16,000 Chinese refugees fleeing their homeland because of persecution of their religion (some might say cult).[24] He is also strengthening his family’s stranglehold on the throne and gaining himself a powerful ally by creating the position of Dalai Lama in Tibet.[25] How is he barbarous? Well, he’s married his granddaughter for a start. In fact it nearly sparked a Mongol civil war, as the girl was betrothed to another. She’s seventeen, and Altan is sixty.[26] In fact, your informants operating on the north side of the Wall just recently brought that information back.


[23: He also had a twin sister named Mönggön, or Silver.]


[24: 1551. They would go on to found the modern Inner Mongolian capital of Hohhot.]


[25: 1578. Several princes of Altan’s family, beginning with his grandson, would be discovered as the reincarnated Dalai Lama until the corruption was outlawed by our old friend Qianlong, the commissioner of the Summer Palace, after the Qing Dynasty conquest of Mongolia.]

[26: This was not an instance of his son adopted a stranger for some sort of political manoeuvring. This was a direct blood relation, the daughter of his daughter. Her name was Noyanchu Jünggen.]


The edifice upon which you stand, and the apparatus maintaining it, is, perhaps, the greatest national expenditure in all of human history – both in terms of resources, and lives. Greater than the pyramids, the moon landing, or the entire Allied expenditure of the Second World War. As of now, the Wall is nearly 1,800 years old, transcending a dozen dynasties.


One of your men, his name is Zhao, lost a sister to the barbarians. He’s from northern Gansu, 3,000 li (roughly 1,500 kilometres) from here. The swine road in in the night, lit a dozen homes on fire. Mr. Jin’s livestock pen was tied to the saddles of five horses and pulled down, a dozen horses and three times as many sheep corralled away by the bandits. Ten people were shot down with arrows. And Zhao’s sister, just sixteen years old, was snatched up as she fled her burning house, thrown over the bridle of a horse. They disappeared into the night as quickly as they’d come. Zhao volunteered to be a scout, to learn that bastard language and disguise himself as a merchant, go off into the unknown. Instead he wound up here, bowing to you. You’ve sworn to him he will have his vengeance.

Suddenly, to your right, a light. It’s a fire, five guard towers down, about five hundred meters away. You’re paralysed for a half a second before you snap into action. This is the code red you’ve trained for. Now a fire four towers down. Mission critical. Now three. Red phone ringing in the White House while Soviet nukes are in the air. You forget everything else and run. Three-hundred-plus icy steps in the dead of winter, no handrails. Your sole duty is to light the bonfire in your own tower. You have a bow, but there’s no sense fighting them; you have five men, and their entire army is comprised of trick shooters that could pluck a bird from flight while charging at full speed on their horse. You need to light that fire, alert the next station. They’ve probably come for a raid – the same sort of thing that saw the abduction of Zhao’s sister – but it could just be they’ve come for empire.


And you are all that stands in their way....


You can get to sections of the Wall with little to no tourists, find loops in the curving structure where you’re all alone. We met a Swiss woman who spoke in halting English on a five week vacation that included Tibet. There was an older British-New Zealander man who’d been living and teaching in China for nine years; he told us that to this day he refuses to drive on their free-for-all roads, and that a drug dealer caught in China is sentenced in the morning and dead by sundown. There were a couple of frat brothers with what sounded like a German accent taking pictures. As we snaked up, down and around, through guard towers and up uneven stairs, we saw people in matching t-shirts. As it turned out, they were a Run For the Cure sort of cancer funding group, half teens and twenty-somethings and half middle-aged, and more and more of them congregated as we approached that staircase I mentioned in our hypothetical 1568 invasion.


I reached a guard tower. Your bed might have been a straw mattress if you were assigned here. There’s no shutters on these things. Maybe they had a fire pit in here, but it would still be damned cold in the winter. Latitudinally, you’re somewhere around the area of Washington DC, and you’re up in the mountains, so I imagine it gets frigid in the winter. There were plenty of pictures at the base of the chairlift showing a thick coating of snow along the Wall. Most of the guard towers are every hundred meters at Mutianyu. This particular guard tower I’d arrived at was a sort of base camp for this cancer run group. There was maybe twelve of them there, stretching their calves and hamstrings. Not all guard towers have access to the roofs, but this one does, as you have to go up the stairs to continue along the Wall.


From here, in an unbroken line, is what one member of that cancer group called the ‘Stairway to Heaven’, an unbroken staircase of six hundred steps at a steep incline. I didn’t count the steps, and from what I’ve been able to pull off Chinese tour company websites, the actual Stairway to Heaven seems to be at another Wall section, Simatai, but this seemed like a good candidate to me.


Despite the cooler autumn weather throughout the rest of the week, it was actually quite warm that day – or maybe it was just the exhausting hike up that staircase. The sun was out, attempting to cut through the haze, and I was sweating. There are these little stone walls every fifty steps or so up the staircase, first on the left, then the right. I’m not sure if they were meant as cover, in case Altan’s men breached the Wall and were chasing you up this thing, or if they were meant to stop you from tumbling all the way down if you tripped.


About three quarters of the way up, and there’s a Chinese woman that wants a picture. We pose, and who should we see coming down from the next guard tower but Fidel and Anabel, the Mexican couple I sat beside on the flight to Hong Kong. They’d flown five hours from Mexico City to Toronto, then fifteen hours to Hong Kong, where, at one point during the flight, he disappeared for a solid four hours. I bumped into them in the cable car lineup at Ngong Ping in Hong Kong, where he said they were flying out the next day. They were visiting Hangzhou, Shanghai and Xian as well on their trip, and here I was, bumping into a Mexican couple on the Great Wall of China, some 2,000 kilometres away from the Po Lin Buddhist Monastery where I’d last seen them.


Our driver, Wong, met us back at the strip of shops and restaurants where the bus dropped us off, next to a Burger King and a Carles Coffee Tea Bars (a Starbucks ripoff). The walk along the Wall was physically exhausting, but phenomenal. There was an acrobatics show and a trip to the Panjiayuan Antique Market the following day, but the highlight of the trip was easily the act of stepping into imperial Chinese history.


There were challenges in Beijing – the smog, the cultural differences, the police state, the language barrier (I really need to work on my Mandarin). The flight from Macao was delayed because (so claimed a Chinese man interjecting) the Chinese premier was flying in without notice and the entire airport needed to be locked down for his arrival. There was the crazy driving, taxis going up bike lanes, scooters and bikes going wherever they pleased. The tea house scams and the omnipresent eyes of the People’s Liberation Army. But it was an experience like no other.


You might expect me to end on a fictional afternoon with Zhu Qiyu in a bathhouse with two dozen courtesans. Instead, I’m going to go back to our friend Altan Khan, out in a ger somewhere in the Mongolian grasslands, in bed, being kept warm by his seventeen-year-old granddaughter (I feel dirty). I end here because we’ve only gotten one side of this story. Altan didn’t lead an invasion in 1568. Neither did Esen a hundred years before. There may have been raids, but there was no great war. We’ve heard about the villainous ‘barbarians’, but we haven’t heard about how they saw the giant to the south, building a Wall and restricting trade and making them dependent, sending assassins and provocateurs to disrupt their way of life. I think about Altan, beneath a wolf’s pelt, cuddling with Noyanchu, thinking about the religious dimension he could exploit with his new allies. He probably had no idea he’d be primarily responsible for shamanism almost vanishing from Mongolia. Shortly after his death, a political rival, trying similarly to cozy up to the Tibetans, built Erdene Zuu Monastery, a tremendous walled temple rivalling anything in Tibet, on the grounds of Ogedei Khan’s old imperial capital, Kharakhorum, dead centre in Mongolia.


And perhaps it will be there, in a few years time, where I can once again pick up Altan’s story, and add it to these pages....




Atwood, Christopher P.. Encyclopedia of Mongolia and the Mongol Empire. New York: Facts on File, Inc., 2004.


Brook, Timothy. The Troubled Empire: China in the Yuan and Ming Dynasties. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press, 2013.


Cawthorne, Nigel. Daughter of Heaven: The True Story of the Only Woman to Become Emperor of China. London: Oneworld Publications, 2007.


Gutmann, Ethan. The Slaughter: Mass Killings, Organ Harvesting, and China’s Secret Solution to Its Dissident Problem. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2014.

Humphreys, Andrew and Chen Chao. Top 10 Beijing. London: DK Eyewitness Travel, 2015

Jiang Yun Feng. “Beijing – Temple of Heaven – The ceremony of sacrifice at the winter solstice.” gbtimes. Acc. October 27, 2016.

Lewis, Simon. The Rough Guide to Beijing. London: Rough Guides, 2008.

Man, John. The Great Wall: The Extraordinary Story of China’s Wonder of the World. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Da Capo Press, 2008.

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