Prior to leaving for the Great Wall, the pool received a short briefing, on background by a senior administration official, about FLOTUS’s roundtable this morning, referenced in the first pool report. The briefing was cut short when FLOTUS motorcade was suddenly prepared to depart.
The official said the Chinese educators, students and parents in the room were able to share information with FLOTUS about the challenges that exist in both the Chinese and U.S. education systems. These included things such as standardized testing and ensuring opportunities for all to go to college. There was also discussion of treatment of ethnic minorities in the Chinese education system. (More on this in a pool report to come from a participant, a professor, that we interviewed late this afternoon.)
FLOTUS motorcade left Westin Hotel in Beijing at 12:30 and zipped to the northeast of the city along freeways closed off to traffic. Journalists accustomed to being stuck on the ring roads marveled at traveling at speeds that topped 80 MPH. This correspondent buckled his seat belt.
As we approached the town of Mutianyu, crowds of villagers could be seen gawking at the passing motorcade and taking photos and videos. Later, as the motorcade grew closer to the Great Wall, those road-side onlookers included many Western tourists, some possibly hoping to get a glimpse of Michelle Obama. All they saw was a string of black vans and SUVs racing along through the quiet countryside.
FLOTUS and her mother and daughters stopped for lunch in Mutianyu village at the School House restaurant. The restaurant occupies an school house closed in 1996 because of declining enrollment, according to Erin Elizabeth Williams’ book, “Mutianyu: Off the Great Wall.” The building was then reincarnated as restaurant, which now serves both Western and Chinese food.
According to news officials, the first family ordered Chinese noodles, dumplings and salads, among other dishes.
For background, Mutianyu is in Huairou County, about 70 kilometers northeast of the Beijing center. It is thought that some kind of wall was first built here in the 6th century, to protect against invading hordes. But the walls and ramparts the first family saw today were mainly the result of construction in the 16th century, during the Ming Dynasty. With the exception of graffiti, this section of the wall is in remarkably good shape, having been rebuilt and renovated several times.
After lunch, FLOTUS and her daughters and mother took the gondola up from the village to a high point on the Mutianyu Great Wall, near Tower 14. It is not known if they rode in the same gondola Bill Clinton occupied when he visited the same stretch of the wall in 1996. (That particularly gondola is marked with his name and date of visit.)
Photographers and reporters covering the visit were sent ahead to Tower 15, and told they could not move from the top of the tower until told to do so. After a while, we could see Ms. Obama, Malia and Sasha walking down the steps, through Tower 14 and down toward Tower 15.
FLOTUS had changed out of a magenta blouse she wore during the morning roundtable, and was wearing a completely black outfit with black leather shoes. Sasha was wearing a t-shirt that read “Merci Beau Coup.”
We later learned that Marian Robinson, Michelle Obama’s mother, had stayed behind at the top of the gondola. It was, unfortunately, a pretty hazy and smoggy day at Mutianyu. None of the first family were wearing masks.
Walking freely in the open, without secret security agents surrounding them, Ms. Obama and her daughters enjoyed what they could see of the roll scenery, peering out from edges of the wall as they walked. Because of where we were positioned, they could only be photographed with scenery to the south of Tower 15. Had photographers been able to shoot from Tower 14 as the family walked north, the photographs would have captured them walking the wall with a massive rock inscription on the hillside above them to the north, which read in Chinese characters, “Loyal to Chairman Mao.”
After taking the gondola back down to the parking lot, several reporters fanned out and stopped at t-shirt stalls to investigate a tip — that merchants had been told to temporarily suspend sales of t-shirts that show President Obama in a Mao hat.
That tip turned out to be true. Several merchants denied carrying such items, but one merchant quietly took this correspondent to the back of her tent and showed off a whole box of the popular, normally seen t-shirts. As we were negotiating prices - she wanted 360 yuan, or roughly $60, an outrageous starting price - other merchants came by, and in Chinese, told her to be careful. The merchant became visibly rattled and put the t-shirts away.
Another reporter in the pool had a similar experience with a separate vender, but managed to snap a photo of one of the t-shirts. I would be glad to share with anyone who wants to investigate why Chinese authorities made sure, for a day, that Mutianyu was visibly free of Obama-Mao t-shirts.
The pool, including its photographers, had all assumed the Obamas would descend the way they went up - via gondola. But after the secret service had ensured we were back at our vans, this correspondent learned from news officers that Ms. Obama and her daughters had taken an alternative route down. Mutianyu offers the opportunity to take toboggans, controlled by a hand brake, down a curvy shoot that descends to the village. No news photographers had been given a chance to capture this priceless moment. The motorcade departed Mutianyu at 4:31 and traveled at warp speed back to the Westin mothership in beautiful downtown Beijing.