On our first official day of touring, we were greeted by our guide, Jenny, and our driver. Jenny turned out to be a sweet young girl with very passable English. Over the next few days we grew rather fond of her. She was willing to share many stories of her own life, which enriched the experience for us considerably.
We began the touring at Tiananmen Square (photos), a vast open expanse largely uncluttered with buildings or other artifacts. The square can hold one million people; during our time there, there were only a few thousand. The square is framed by the large southern gate (Qianmen) , the Great Hall of the People on the West, and the National Museum of China on the East. To the north lie the southern gates to the Forbidden City (Tiananmen).
One of the few buildings on the square is the Mausoleum of Chairman Mao, who, much to the surprise of westerners like us, is still venerated to a great degree here. On this day, and several times when we drove by later, people were lined up for blocks to pay their respects to the beloved Chairman, and his image still graces many public spaces and private homes. This is a a kind of peculiar cultural amnesia or blind spot that’s hard to fathom for us, but I suppose his role in modern history looms so large that it would be impossible to ignore it, and to condemn it would be to cast aside much of what is “modern” China.
Apart from Mao’s tomb, there are few adornments in the Square. At the centre is the monument honouring The People’s Heroes. Further to the north is the National Flag, which is raised and lowered to some fanfare (national anthem) at dawn and dusk. Several times we drove by as thousands of people waited, sometimes hours in advance, to experience this event. Finally, there is an immense, somewhat garish fake flower pot near the flag and some much more attractive living floral towers on the east and west periphery near the north end.
We made our way gradually from south to north, meandering through crowds of Chinese tourists, until we reached the underground tunnels which crossed Tiananmen street to the north and which took us to the South Gates of The Forbidden City.
Built by the Ming Dynasty in the early 15th Century, and home to Emperors for 500 years, The Forbidden City (photos) is a vast complex of buildings and gardens covering 74 hectares within central Beijing. Along with The Temple of Heaven and Tienanmen to the south and The Temple of Earth to the north, if forms part of a much larger complex of sites which lie on a north-south axis.
If the sheer magnitude of the Forbidden City were not mind-numbing enough, the level of ornamentation and detail of every building within it is simply staggering. Together with thousands of Chinese tourists we walked and jostled along from south to north, passing through a seemingly endless series of vast halls and courtyards, each with its own significance in Imperial life. Our visit fell on a Saturday, so things were especially busy. Getting to see the contents of the various halls involved some physical maneuvering and the odd strategic elbow. Queuing up may not be a foreign concept to the Chinese (as the lineups to see the Chairman would attest), but it apparently doesn’t apply to viewing ancient artifacts. After being shoved aside by more than one octogenarian woman, I understand more than ever the Chinese respect for their elders. It’s not only out of reverence; it’s because they’ll kick your ass if you get in their way.
The most northern section of the Forbidden City is the garden area, where walkways are sheltered by trees hundreds of years old. In fact, the trees are labelled with tags of various colours. Green tags signify a tree more than three hundred years old, while red tags indicate a tree of more than five hundred years. This tagging system is used throughout the public spaces in Beijing.
After leaving the Forbidden City we walked further north to one-thousand-year-old Behai Park (photos), one of several central Beijing green spaces, all surrounding man-made lakes. One of the things that surprised us most is just how much green space there was in the middle of a city of twenty million people, much of it preserved for its Imperial significance. One-time residents must pay an entrance fee, but Beijing regulars may purchase a pass which allows them daily access to the park, and, according to our guide, hundreds take advantage of this to enjoy the space while they do their morning exercise. Again, Chinese parks and gardens put their North American counterparts to shame.
After a walk in the park, so to speak, our guide and driver took us to a restaurant for lunch. It took some effort to convince our guide that we were willing to steer away from dishes that conform to the western concept of Chinese food, although Irene didn’t help much when she refused to go along with my suggestion of eel. In fairness, it was the oiliness of the dish that she was objecting too, not the eel itself. The previous day’s lunch had been heavy on the oil, so she was just being cautious on that front. True to what we had read in our background material, the Chinese apparently do see it as a point of honour to provide an excess of food for their guests, since we couldn’t come near to finishing everything. While many of the dishes were strikingly similar to what we might have had at home, there were some variety for sure. Irene picked lotus root, for example.
So far in our stay here, we’ve certainly given the lie to the old adage that Chinese food doesn’t stay with you. We’ve eaten so much that we’ve felt like a couple of bloated old walruses for much of the time. More often than not, we’ve elected to delay eating supper until later in the evening because we haven’t been hungry earlier.
[Sidebar: Travel to India and China has convinced us that the North American obsession with low-fat diets and fat-free foods is entirely misguided. Many of the dishes we have had so far have been extremely oily, and the Chinese seem to prefer their meat very well marbled, yet one would be hard-pressed to find a population with fewer obese people. BUT, they are active people, and the fat they consume is not the empty calories found in a bag of potato chips or a plate of french fries. Sadly this may come to an end. Not even at the Great Wall can you avoid the ubiquitous KFC logo, which our guides have assured us is “very popular in China, even more popular than McDonalds.” How incredibly sad in a country where even the grungiest hole-in-the-wall restaurant serves food far better than most North American fare.]
After lunch, our guide took us to a pearl store, where we looked at various jewellery items made of freshwater pearls. Then it was on to The Temple of Heaven.
Unlike The Forbidden City, which served as primary living quarters for the Emperors during the cooler months of the year, The Temple of Heaven (photos)was visited by the Emperor only once – at most twice – a year to pray for good harvests. The showcase of the Temple of Heaven is The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, an immense circular building constructed entirely of wood, with no nails.
In fact, one of the things I had never realized about Chinese architecture of this era is that it is all constructed of wood. Needless to say a good number of these buildings have seen major reconstruction – some of them several times – over the years, but even so, it gave me an entirely new appreciation for them.
As if the day wasn’t jam-packed enough, we decided to cap it all off by attending a “Kung-fu Show.” Once our guide learned that I trained in martial arts, she thought this was a must, and I have to admit, I was curious myself.
What I expected was a martial arts show with a certain theatricality to suit the stage. What we saw instead was theatre with a martial arts theme. On one hand, it was a bit disappointing. Nevertheless, some of the athleticism of the performers was quite amazing, and I think someone outside the martial arts would view it quite differently. If I could have gone in with a mindset that I was going to view dance and theatre, it might have been better, but with my martial arts mindset, some of the “fight” choreography was a bit hard to take.
By this time, we were well into the night, so, needless to say, we were bagged and went back to the hotel room. Still full from the huge lunch, we slipped down the street to a local restaurant for some soup, noodles and beer and called it a full day.
Soup & Noodles