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.