MUTIANYU, China — As her daughters strolled ahead, peering down to a great ravine, Michelle Obama walked a stretch of this towering stone wall along walkways that date to the Ming Dynasty.
They walked from Towers 14 to 15, strolling along while their staff and security detail hung a little ways back.
The Great Wall, which has steep walkways undulating through a chain of mountains, is a draw for both tourists and dignitaries. Obama’s mother, Marian Robinson, skipped the hike and stood on a platform just below the wall that offered a sweeping view of the scenic spot.
Other than two large black birds, it was quiet out. There were no crowds, and even vendors at the foot of the wall had put away their T-shirts depicting President Obama in the uniform of Mao Zedong, the founder of the Chinese Communist Party.
Trees are beginning to blossom, but a haze of pollution hung in the air, making the sky gray on Sunday afternoon.
The first lady seemed not to notice. She, Sasha and Malia descended the mountain on toboggans, which zip down like a bobsled.
Earlier in the day, she was complimentary of the weather, saying she had spoken to her husband about it. “When he was here, it was freezing,” she told a group of Chinese invited to the U.S. Embassy to meet with her about education before her hike up the Great Wall. “I’m calling him and talking about how warm and sunny it is.”
Obama convened the roundtable discussion with eight Chinese educators, students and parents Sunday morning. It was off-the-record to allow for a frank exchange, officials said. Max Baucus, the newly installed U.S. ambassador to China, sat in, as did Tina Tchen, the first lady’s chief of staff and a first-generation Chinese American.
“One of the reasons I have come to China is to learn more about education around the world,” Obama said at the top of the meeting. “It’s personal, because I wouldn’t be where I am today without my parents investing and pushing me to get a good education.”
The discussion included a critique of standardized testing, which is rigidly applied in China’s educational system and has been a source of debate in U.S. schools. The group, including Obama, agreed that tests track only one measure of a student’s potential, said a senior White House official who was in the meeting and agreed to tell reporters about it on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the discussion. One participant spoke of the challenges that ethnic minorities face in China, telling Obama of a predominantly minority province in China that is home to 2 million school-age children and only two high schools.
The conversation was the most substantial interaction Obama has had with Chinese citizens, away from government officials.
She had also seen little of the political activism bubbling in China.
As her motorcade rolled down Dongfang Donglu Road toward the embassy, a man and a woman were protesting loudly in Chinese. Suddenly a half-dozen young Chinese men in gray jumpsuits ran to the protesters and surrounded them.
Obama’s vehicle continued inside. When she left an hour later, the protesters were gone.
The first lady departs Beijing on Monday for Xian, in the Chinese interior, where she and her family will visit the site of the ancient terra-cotta warriors.
After a day there, she will travel to Chengdu, home to a giant-panda research facility.
“I’m going to be able to speak with more high school students there, really to see another region of the country and to speak to the students there, as well,” Obama said at the roundtable. “So I’m very excited.”