Our first morning in China I woke in our cosy bedroom to the sound of a man hawking the contents of his throat onto the street three floors below, the wet smack of his bounty on the pavement audible over the screech and rumble of nearby traffic.
Today was Arthur’s 30th birthday, and Beijing was kicking it off in style.
We spent five days in Beijing in total, and saw only a fraction of the sites. It’s a big city, with a long and complicated history, and there’s a huge array of ways to spend your time here. Beijing has six Unesco World Heritage sites (one less than the whole of Egypt, the Lonely Planet trills) and loads of modern corners to explore too. With no hope (or desire) of seeing it all, we decided to start off on our first day with The Big One.
The Forbidden City
It really is very big. And to be honest, that’s basically what you’re there to see.
It’s called the forbidden city because from 1420 to 1912, during its life as a working palace, you needed the emperor’s permission to enter. You couldn’t just wander in.
After picking up a tasty but messy second breakfast of giant vegetable dumplings at a hole in the wall stall, we set off from our hostel to walk to Tiananmen square. At one end of the square a looming portrait of Mao marks the entrance to the forbidden city.
The continued borderline-worship of Mao in China (he’s on every banknote too), is even more astounding to me than Russia’s reverence for all of its former leaders, including those that have been violently ousted, and their ousters. (See my thoughts on Moscow.)
You’d think they’d want to move on. You know, given that Mao caused the death of more than 70 million of his own people. Apparently the official view in China is still that Mao was 70% right and 30% wrong, which is obviously enough to get you prime bank note space.
On the way to Tiananmen square we stopped for coffee at McDonalds. This, it turns out, is the only place to find coffee in much of China. Needs must. So China still holds communism dear enough to daub Mao everywhere, but if you need a caffeine fix you’re driven into the open arms of the (American) capitalist pigs. Pragmatic.
There’s a small park to the east of the entrance forbidden city, Changpu River park. It was a clean quiet oasis after the commercial McDonalds-dotted sprawl of the early part of our walk. Middle aged couples were waltzing on the wide path, with a sparse crowd of thick-jacketed onlookers dotted around their impromptu dance floor.
One of the onlookers reeled us in, and started off with the world’s most popular conversation piece. Where you from?
Normally this goes: Where you from? England! Ah! Manchester United! Chelsea!
But today we were hanging out with Sabine, who we met hiking the Great Baikal trail, and who we’d discovered would be arriving in Beijing roughly the same time as us. And Sabine is from Germany.
Where you from? Germany! Ah! Merkel! Any good?
We were a bit too stunned to engage in a nuanced discussion of pros and cons of the German Chancellor, where do you even begin. I mean, compared to Mao…
We made do with a few flustered well, sort of, buts…
Not a conversation I expected to be having on the fringes of Tiananmen square.
We had to go through a bag search and body scan to get onto the square itself, and then it was a bundle of shoving crowd flow through the gates.
The guards outside looked very stern and serious, but inside they were marauding about in big groups, chasing each other, joking around, and singing in high pitched laughter punctuated warbles.
And then we were through the entrance square, and into the first vast enclosed courtyard.
And so were about fourteen thousand other people. On one day in 2014, there were 122,000 visitors to the forbidden city. It’s kind of popular.
Really the most interesting part for me was people watching. There were a few other foreigners, but most of the crowds were Chinese, and this was only our second day in China. So much to learn.
There is such a thing as a selfie stick with a built in tripod for example. Who knew?
Lots of families were taking photos, seemingly in front of every single building, bridge, doorway, fancy lion statue… Some of them carried toddlers in split bottomed snow suits. The poor kids were surely getting frost bitten bums. Was this a toilet training strategy? Are nappies not affordable for most families? What do you do when they start going?
Maybe that’s what the strategically placed giant urns were for. I mean the sign said they were water pots for firefighting, but signs say all sorts of things that aren’t true.
Click on any image to see them in a slideshow.
The crowds were endlessly interesting, but after a while I found the vast sprawl of identikit buildings a bit dull. I tired of seeing the same decorative motif, the same colours, the same finials, over and over and over. There’s little variety in the architecture, save for a few interesting corners with ancient twisted trees and rock gardens (piles of weird rocks).
The heavy restoration that has gone on (and still continues) detracted from the interest for me too. Everything’s too shiny. I guess they don’t have much choice — wooden buildings aren’t going to last forever without heavy interference. But the most interesting parts for me were the crumbling paving stones, the worn stone steps, the neglected bits.
Also, as far as you can intimate from the buildings open to the public, most of the forbidden city’s 9000 rooms seem to have had little purpose. They’re all equipped with a throne or two, and very little else. Where are the living spaces, the kitchens, the room where the swords were stored? Just something? Perhaps we missed all this in the enormity of the place, but as far as I could determine, it’s an empty shell. All the life has been taken out of it.
I came across something this morning which suggested this might be because many of the artefacts from the forbidden city were evacuated to Taiwan during the second world war. And then, you know. Taiwan. The collection is now in the National Palace Museum in Taipei.
There was a small exhibition of artefacts in the second gate house. They had some insanely long calligraphy scrolls, clothes and so on. Just enough to hint at what life might have been like in this closed world. Slow, ritualised and expensive, mostly. I wanted to see more. Where did the servants live? What did they eat? Who made these clothes, how long did it take?
Having said all that, the forbidden city is very big, and therefore very impressive. If you can make the imaginative leap, and picture it in times of yore, then its a unique and intriguing place. I struggled on this account. But even I could appreciate the overwhelming scope of it — this is the largest palace complex anywhere in the world. It’s got nearly a thousand buildings. No wonder they’re mostly empty.
(Jingshan) Park Life
To get a better view of the sweep and scale of the place, a few days later we walked to the top of a hill in Jingshan park, near the forbidden city’s northern gate. This hill was created with the earth excavated from the moat of the forbidden city, and apparently it’s good for Feng Shui because it stops demons getting in or something. Also sand storms, which are now an annual blight in Beijing — the Gobi desert is advancing on the city at an alarming rate.
It turns out this is partly because of long running tree planting schemes which are actually making things worse. I don’t know under which government this scheme originated, but it’s not the first time China’s politicians have enacted policies which anyone with any knowledge could have told them would end in disaster. I’m thinking of Mao ordering the killing of all sparrows, resulting in mass starvation.
Don’t mess with nature.
Anyway. Jingshan park is alright for a stroll, and the view over the city is pretty good if you can see through the smog. Remember to bring your matching fake designer puffa jackets.
Nothing in China is free though, not even a walk in the park, and it’ll cost you more if you’re foreign. This practice always makes me sad, though I understand the arguments for it.
The Summer Palace (burned down by the Anglo-French in 1860)
We probably shouldn’t have gone to the Summer Palace in the middle of winter. It was cold. Muscle aching, finger clenching, nose streaming, eye stinging cold. It was also kind of beautiful, but in a manufactured, too neat around the edges sort of way.
Click for a slideshow.
This is mostly because almost every structure in the complex was burned down by the Anglo-French in 1860. As every information board in the place will tell you. Except for the ones forbidding romping.
We took a walk around the lake in a bid to ward of the chill, but actually this just exposed us more to the kidney cringing slice of the wind. Beijing in December is brutal, perhaps even colder than the very frozen day we spent hiking in Siberia back in early November.
On a warm day I’m sure it would be a lovely relaxed place to while away the hours, and the architecture is (harshly) beautiful. Bring a picnic — the only catering we could find was a little hut selling ludicrously overpriced cookies and crisps.
On the other hand, the tourist hordes were pretty out of hand in December, so I dread to think what it’d be like in summer. If you don’t like crowds, China can be trying.
On the way to the exit we passed an old man napping in a gazebo, head resting next to a radio blaring out rap in sort of English. This ain’t no real bastard… I think he was napping. Perhaps he’d had a heart attack. He looked like he was napping.
Temple of Heaven, -17°C
We said farewell to Beijing the same way we’d met it, with a heavily restored and therefore fairly unatmospheric World Heritage site. The cold was bitter, and so were we, to be charged not only to enter the park the Temple of Heaven sits in, but again to enter the temple grounds themselves, and separately to see the smaller surrounding temples.
Tourism is big business in China. I guess when you’ve got 1.4 billion citizens…
The most interesting thing about the temple of heaven was the wedding shoot going on in the courtyard of the main temple. All wind whipped flowing gown, and people running around with those big shiny disks, trying to coax some natural light out of the smoggy, clouded over winter sky.
Again, this is a dead sight — it’s not a functioning temple, and thus it’s OK to use it for photo shoots. Lightly dressed photo shoots, on a day with temperatures well below zero, and a biting wind.
If you haven’t come across this already, I should mention that wedding photo shoots in Asia are done months before the wedding. Which in some countries means photo shoots in summer clothes happening in the middle of winter. It also means some couples have wedding photos made but then split up before they get married.
So again, the people watching was good, but the temple itself left me a bit cold. Maybe it being bloody freezing didn’t help, but I found it hard to coax out any tingly feelings of deep history. It’s just a cold dead building. Active religion isn’t something you really see in Mainland China. In Hong Kong and Chinese communities in Malaysia temples are very much alive, and the difference is stark.
This absence of living culture at tourist sights would become a running theme. The feeling of an empty shell of dead culture was one of the saddest aspects of China for me. It’s not what I expected of such an ancient nation. Almost nothing was as I expected here, as I’ve written a little about already.
Very little in China is expected, which is sometimes sad, but often just plain strange. It can be kind of wonderful. Not sailing-through-life-like-a-dream wonderful, but fill-you-with-wonder wonderful.
sometimes often infuriating, but never dull.
You may have surmised that these imperial sights were not my favourite things in Beijing, so apologies if this post errs towards the negative. I would recommend these sights, except maybe the temple of heaven, just with caveats…
But my favourite bits are yet to come: stay tuned for beers, back street life, massive bells, and a dead communist in a freezer. Beijing has it all.
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