On tours abroad, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra always takes a day off after the initial leg of travel to get acclimated to the new environment and to shake off jet lag. The musicians practice to keep the chops limber, but after that, it is off to see the sights. On this Asian tour, that meant first visiting the Great Wall of China.
Many of the musicians traveled to a lesser-known section of the 3,000-plus mile structure that the Chinese dynasties erected to protect against Mongols from the north. The stretch at Juyong Guan was doubly fortified to protect a valley from horseback invaders. In either direction from two large gates, the wall stretches straight up the hillside. It made for a precarious climb, up stairs so steep they sometimes seemed like a wall themselves. But the climb was well worth it, leading to spectacular views and astonishment as to how Chinese workers and engineers managed to build it on such rugged and high terrain.
"I have been in the orchestra for 18 1/2 years and this is absolutely one of the greatest things I have ever seen in my life," said oboist Cynthia DeAlmeida as she and others climbed the uneven stairs.
Harpist Gretchen Van Hoesen and oboist Jim Gorton looked for the same spot along the wall where they took a photo 22 years ago of their baby girl, Heidi. That was during that first PSO tour to Beijing, under Lorin Maazel. Heidi came on this tour, too, and this time she is not along for the ride. Just graduated from The Juilliard School, she is a talented harpist who is subbing with the PSO on the tour.
The Great Wall was a main attraction, but musicians also checked out all that the city proper has to offer, from the Temple of Heaven to the Forbidden City. The latter, the home of the emperors for centuries, wasn't open to the public until 1949. That date is much more significant for being the year in which Mao Zedong founded the People's Republic.
When one stands on the sacred, intricately carved pathway that ascends from the Gate of Heavenly Peace (still adorned with Chairman Mao's huge portrait) to the innermost quarters of the emperor and his family and concubines -- a road only the emperor was allowed to use regularly -- you can feel the power that came from the Communist leader's decision to open the palace and put all people on the same level.
One is overwhelmed by the sheer opulence and beauty of the palace's many halls and temples. The wooden structures are in remarkably good condition; perhaps the strict adherence to lucky odd numbers (specifically the number 9) helped preserve the 9,999 rooms from fire.