Thursday, July 2, 2009

Forbidden City.


E
arly this morning, we arrived into Beijing. The train conductor started wandering the corridors around 5:30a to rustle everyone awake. There was a bit of queue for the washroom and toilet so I patiently waited my turn.

We soon pulled into the train station and got off. Jenny had written the name and address of the hotel down on paper for us so Bernd, Jan and I got into a cab and headed off. Once everyone arrived, Jenny went to get our rooms but only a few were ready. Jan and Miread were sharing the room so their’s was ready but mine was still not.


A few of us were hungry so Jenny took all of us except for Jackie and Miread to a nearby restaurant for breakfast which was dumplings and I had a warm soybean milk to wash it all down with. After breakfast, Jenny gave us our orientation tour…here’s the grocery store, here’s the ATM…..etc. She also took us on a walk…..fairly long one to show us where the subway station was. All very useful information as I would find myself in all those places in the days to come.

After the orientation walk, we headed back to the hotel. My room was still not ready so I hung out with Jan and Miread in theirs. A short while later, Jenny knocked at the door to tell me the room was ready and to hand me my room card. By the time I got to my room, I had just about ½ hour to get cleaned up and meet the group in the lobby.

By now it was about mid morning. Our sightseeing destinations for the day with Jenny were Tiannamen Square and the Forbidden City. Relatively speaking, it was a beautiful morning in Beijing and I was really excited about seeing these two sights which for the longest time I had only seen in pictures on TV and in magazines. Tiananmen Square was of course famous for the student uprising that took place....I can’t remember exactly when....maybe 20 years ago but who can forget the image of the student, standing in front of a tank, holding up his hand in a position indicating the jeep to stop. The image of the Forbidden City that I will always remember is the one from the movie “Last Emperor” where the child Emperor Puyi enters this huge courtyard and before him stands thousands of his soldiers.

Jenny led the way and the gang dutifully followed behind. Everyone was in good spirits. It was short walk from the hotel to Tiannamen Square....a much larger square than I had imagined. The south side of the square borders the main road.

On the west side of the square is the mausoleum of Mao Tse Tung. The mausoleum is only open in the morning and there was already a long queue waiting to get inside to see his body. Years ago I went to see Lenin’s body which is housed in a building in Red Square in Moscow and after seeing that I really don’t understand the fascination of seeing anyone who has been preserved. I had no desire to see Mao.

The north side of the square is occupied by the National People’s Congress…..a huge, non-descript building.

Lastly, there’s the east side of the square and that is occupied by the Forbidden City. Outside the Ming Dynasty entrance gate hangs a large portrait of Chairman Mao.





Jenny gave us about ½ hour time to wander the Square and do our photo ops. The square is absolutely huge and there are neither seats to sit on nor trees to seek shade under nor any really interesting architecture or art to look at so I can’t really say it’s a pleasant place to be. I couldn’t wait to move on.





After our time in the Square, we followed Jenny inside the entrance gate into the Forbidden City. This was our first introduction to Beijing and my first realization of how populous China is. It felt like ALL of China was visiting the Forbidden City the day we were there. Despite the fact that the place is ridiculously large, some 9000 rooms spread across I don’t know how many pavilions and other assorted buildings, the place was p-a-c-k-e-d!! It was like salmon crowding to swim upstream as we walked through the entrance gate and it would be that way throughout our visit.




Passed the entrance gate, we waited for Jenny to get our tickets and then started walking from one palace hall, pavilion and inner courtyard to another. The place is h-u-g-e!! Built between 1406 and 1420, the Forbidden City consists of 980 surviving buildings and covers 720,000 square metres (7,800,000 square feet)! I have to admit that it all starts to look the same after a while – one pavilion starts to look just like another. Even the names of the buildings start to get confusing....there's the Hall of Supreme Harmony, the Hall of Middle Harmony, the Hall of Preserving Harmony....and so on. I’m not sure how the Emperor kept them all straight! You could see everyone starting to lose interest as well…you spend time checking out the first few buildings and snapping photos but by the time you get to the last ones, you can’t even be bothered to do anything but try and find some shade.

I had to sweat through it but you don't :-) Here's your 3 minute slideshow tour through the Forbidden City.

 
The sun was blazing that day and there was not a single tree in the entire complex to seek shade under. The lack of trees is by design as the Emperor did not want to give opportunities to his enemy to hide. Unfortunately, that was not good design for us modern day tourists :-( Everywhere you looked, you could see people trying to seek shelter from the sun wherever they could....even if it meant sitting on the ground. Luckily, at one point, we got to the museum store where we could replenish on cold water and those who wanted it, could get ice cream to chill down with. There was no place to sit so everyone balanced their tushes on a window ledge....you do what you have to do! After what felt like an eternity of walking through the main complex, we entered the Imperial Gardens. What a welcomed change that was. A nice bit of greenery though it was so crowded with people, that it was difficult to fully enjoy what should have been a very pretty and tranquil place....and it was still hot, hot, hot! Usually I would have really enjoyed being in the garden but instead I was ready to leave the moment I entered the grounds.
Jenny led us out of the complex and gave us our options on what to do next. We voted on walking through a hutong. Given what I had read about hutongs beforehand, I was really disappointed by what I saw....a series of narrow alleyways lined with rundown buildings. Later in the trip I would discover far nicer hutongs. As we exited the hutong, we found ourselves in front of a Muslim Chinese restaurant. Though Jenny had never been to this particular restaurant before, we all voted to eat there. We had faith in Jenny that she would order delicious food....and our faith carried us through as we stuffed ourselves with a very tasty meal!

As we ate, Jenny gave us options for how we could spend our afternoon. I already had it in my mind that I wanted to go to the Olympic Park to see the Bird’s Nest Stadium and the Water Cube. Turned out that Jan, Dean and Bernd were also interested so we agreed to go together....and away we went!