Tuesday, October 22, 2013


I suppose given how wiped I was by the time I went to bed last night, it’s no wonder that I decided against getting up at 6:15 this morning to run.  Right now, instead of going for a run, I’m confined to my hotel room while I wait for a tailor who will make me clothes in 2 days.  I know…first world problems.

Yesterday, one of the SNA (my tour company) staff – Tony – met us at the airport.  He explained the large group had been divided into four and, though he knew the other three tour guides, he didn’t know who my group’s guide would be.  He also recommended that we put passports in the in-room safes, as we would not need them.  This morning, as I waited in the lobby (after a quick visit to Starbucks to ensure it wasn’t something with the hotel internet that prevents me from accessing my blog….and it’s not, it appears to be China, as I get the same error when trying to access Facebook), one of the other SNA staff told me that Tony would be my group’s guide.  Oookaaay…….Not exactly building confidence in this tour company!  Thankfully, it all made sense when a second guide named Tony showed up….but then he explained he needed our passports….. I was none too pleased when I saw he was putting them in a plastic bag to take away……I was preparing to argue this, and asked him why he needed our passports. (I believe rule #1 in a foreign country is that you don’t give your passport away!)  His response?  “To get your ticket for the bullet train.”  We’re taking the bullet train to Shanghai??  Awesome!!!!  I was easily swayed, and handed over my passport with no qualms.

Because this is my first full day here, I’m so entranced by the exotic look of the Chinese characters on signs and buildings.  For all I know, this reads “tourists are gullible”, but I like the look of it:

Onward to Tiananmen Square! Tiananmen Square is so-named after Tiananmen Gate, which translates as “the gate of heavenly peace”.  Ironic, given the notoriety of Tiananmen…  The square is massive!  Commenting on the size of the square, my tour guide quipped: “Tiananmen used to hold 1.1 million Chinese.  Since KFC and McDonald’s have arrived, now it only holds 700 000…” Not unlike in Washington DC, Tiananmen Square provides the primary axis for General Mao’s mausoleum,

Congress (to the right – we witnessed a 20-shot salute to the Russian Prime Minister) and the people’s monument (to the left - dedicated to the Chinese who lost their lives in support of the PRC),

two minor gates to the city,

and, of course, Tiananmen Gate – the entrance to the Forbidden City!

Traditional Chinese theology believes that the highest god lives in a nine-tiered palace in heaven.  As the direct line from that god, the Chinese Emperor built his palace with nine gates.  The three aforementioned, and the remainder as part of the Forbidden City behind Tiananmen Gate.  Each gate is prefaced by an expansive courtyard; as the culture of the time was centered on being outside, most of the daily activities of the Forbidden City were in these courtyards.  Buildings were minimal, and even the Emperor’s residence (including space for his multitude of concubines) was startlingly sparse and spartan, when compared to palaces in Europe. (Versailles is younger than the Forbidden City, but while it makes good use of outdoor space, there is no comparison with respect to the interior.)  In Europe, Quebec, and elsewhere, large squares are full of cafes and vendors.  As the entire place is considered a museum, the Forbidden City is lacking in all of that.  Both peaceful, in the way it has preserved the place from being overrun, and yet seemingly empty. (I think the hawkers are trying to make up for this lack, based on the swarms of them just outside the gates.  Among those hawkers are beggars, too – many missing limbs, and some grotesquely mutilated from injury…)

I don’t know if this is traditional to Chinese architecture, but there’s a consistency throughout the Forbidden City buildings and walls: roofs and upper parts of the walls are very ornate, and yet the walls themselves are largely just a simple red (the colour associated with happiness).

The Emperor’s private garden is tucked in behind his residence – a beautiful and peaceful place.  Trees in this garden with green plaques are over 100 years old.  Trees with red plaques are over 200 years old.  There are a lot of plaques!

Finally, beyond the outer wall, there is a moat – 50m wide and 3m deep.  The excavated earth was piled on the far bank, and created a very large hill.  The last Emperor hanged himself on this hill.

The Forbidden City and Tiananmen Gate represent the PRC – its history of totalitarian rule under the emperors, and its evolution to……totalitarian rule?  Oh, sorry, now we call that Communism. ;)  As such, it continues to be a preferred location for political statements.  Numerous copper and iron vats filled with water were positioned throughout the Forbidden City in case of fire. (The buildings are all made of wood, in homage to the fact that, as living humans, we should live in buildings made of a living material such as wood rather than stone.) While these are no longer filled with water for fighting fires, there are security officers stationed with fire extinguishers just outside Tiananmen Gate.  Their chief concern isn’t random….apparently Tibetan monks have a habit of self-immolating right in front of the gate.  Perhaps that’s where some of the brutal injuries among the beggars outside the Forbidden City originate.

On a lighter note, you might be noticing an apparent haze in all of my photos.  No, my camera isn’t malfunctioning (or dirty), and no, it wasn’t a foggy day. That is pollution!! Every day in Beijing.  Sigh….this is how the sun looked around 3pm:

So I guess my camera probably is pretty dirty, actually!

We spent the afternoon visiting “the most famous silk factory in experience the making of silk products…”  Actually, it was a store.  They provided a very detailed “tour” of how silk is produced, but they were most interested in getting us to buy silk products.  Um…….Not sure whether to say I got suckered, or I capitalized on a good bargain.  In any case, I bought some. The day concluded with a traditional tea ceremony (the final 10 minutes was also focused on sales…I bought some…).

Tiring day!  Probably tiring to read, too, as I look over how much I have written. 

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