Beijing; Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City - bloody memories and brutal crowds

At the empty heart of Beijing is Tiananmen Square, that lacuna of bloody memory. Facing it across a torrent of traffic are the intimidating banner-draped stone walls of the Forbidden City. These twin themes of wide emptiness and dense, closed-off spaces are repeated through the city. Narrow, secretive alleyways called hutongs thread crookedly between wide, traffic-choked avenues and mock-traditional architecture scaled to brutal dimensions.

The ancient Northern Capital is a hard place to like. Its people have a well-deserved reputation for rudeness and hostility. Even after two years of public-service advertising campaigns prior to the 2008 Olympics, aimed at instilling civility in the populace, Beijingers still spit, shout, litter and elbow with grim delight. Unlike in Shanghai, which we saw at its worst, we were seeing Beijing at its best. I can’t imagine what it must have been like five years ago, before the politeness propaganda and the massive air-quality improvements. Beijing used to be legendary for its smog, and I wasn’t sure that Sheryl would manage to survive a visit, much less enjoy one. The air was nowhere near as bad as I’d expected, but it was still a long way from good. Most days the city was enveloped in a grey-white haze that entirely obscured any buildings more than a kilometre away.

Beijing didn’t make a good first impression on us. Not knowing the city, we’d booked beds at a hostel near the central Wangfujing shopping area - a sterile strip of chain stores and overpriced restaurants. When we arrived it was past 10pm and virtually everything was closed. The streets were dirty and the locals shot malignant, predatory looks our way. We were hungry after a long train ride, and while there were lots of small shops that called themselves supermarkets, none of them had any food (this was a constantly recurring experience all through China). Hunger drove us to a tourist restaurant where they insisted we pay first before they’d fill our order. It was insulting, but once the food came I understood - no one would ever pay for it once they’d tasted it.

We returned to the hostel in a sour mood, wishing we hadn’t come to Beijing at all, and the accommodations made it worse. It was a Hostelling International operation, and HI hostels have been the worst in every country, without exception. The room itself was fine, but the common areas and shared washrooms were filthy. It had a good rating on, but I’ve found that HostelWorld ratings are nearly worthless - it’s trivial for the owners to create false ratings and reviews. We moved to a much quieter and more pleasant place near the Lama Temple soon after arriving.

Beijing’s huge, roaring avenues are always crowded with people, but it’s in the hutongs that all the living is done. This hidden city of homes, shop-houses and courtyards lies like a second, finer weave in the interstices between the main roads. The hostels all advertise hutong tours by cycle-rickshaw, and the rickshaw-pullers themselves harass any foreign faces constantly with hisses of hutong tour, hutong tour. Sheryl and I opted to wander by ourselves, as we always do given the choice. The hutongs are like linear villages, and unique communities have formed in each. Most of the hutongs are lined with ancient tumbledown tenements. They’re the human side of the city - tired, but built on a human scale. If Beijing has a soul, this is where it lives. They’re rapidly vanishing, though, razed to make way for more arterial roads and brutalist concrete apartment blocks in the government’s relentless crusade to modernize and erase the country’s history.

Chinese traffic is scary, but it does have certain informal, emergent rules (or at least vague guidelines). Motorcycles get to ignore all traffic lights and signals and zip through intersections - usually in all four directions at once. Cars have to stop at red lights, but only if they’re going straight, otherwise they can turn left or right without warning. The onus is on the pedestrians, being the smallest and cheapest to replace, to scurry across the road as and when they can. Many - but not nearly enough - of Beijing’s massive roads have over- or under-passes so that humans can get from one side to the other. To cross the rest, you have to be on your toes.

Our first mission in Beijing was to get visas for Vietnam and so we headed to the embassy quarter on the morning of the first working day after we arrived. Beijing is convenient for travellers in one respect, at least - all the embassies are clustered together in one area of town. In striking contrast to the peaceful tree-lined streets, each compound is fortified like a small army base with high fences, walls and razor wire, and spike strips lay coiled and ready to be stretched across the road by ropes. Memories of the Boxer Rebellion linger, it seems.

Getting train tickets to leave Beijing was just as much of a pain in the ass as it had been in Shanghai. It would have been best if we’d bought our onward tickets to Xi’an the instant we arrived, but at that point we didn’t know how long the Vietnamese embassy would take to issue our visas. Even after we had a date, though, multiple trips to Beijing’s main station got us nothing but inscrutable faces and claims of fully-booked trains. We even tried to make sure we wouldn’t face the same problem again when we arrived in Xi’an, by booking one step ahead, from Xi’an to Chengdu. Further inscrutability followed, and we were told that it was impossible to book Xi’an to Chengdu from Beijing. Our spirits crushed, we finally had to resort to paying the hostel’s shocking ¥30 service fee per ticket to arrange it - which they accomplished with a simple one-minute call to the station. Nearly CAD$20 wasted because we don’t know the right people.

But we made good use of the time while waiting for our visas and passports. There’s a lot to see in Beijing, and getting around is easy. Thanks again to the Olympics, the city has an excellent subway system - spoiled only by the mandatory x-raying of all bags at the entrances, and by the Beijingers’ habit of shoving through the doors and onto the trains without bothering to let anyone off first.

On the way to the embassy quarter is a historical astronomical observatory, restored and rebuilt. I was still regretting having missed the observatory in Jaipur when we were in India, and so I had to go. After all, it was on the way. I wasn’t disappointed. Lots of arcane bronze instruments crowded the top of a tall brick tower. A plaque claimed they were 600-odd years old, but either bronze ages extremely well (and in Beijing’s caustic atmosphere, no less) or they were reproductions. Regardless, they were all beautifully ornamented with sinuously curling and whiskered dragons and etched with stars, clouds and other celestial symbols. The grounds were sprinkled with stone busts of ancient Chinese astronomers all gazing upward. I have to admit that I wondered what they might be looking at - and what all their old instruments might have seen - given Beijing’s perpetual cloud cover. I can only assume that the smog might have been a little lighter back then.

It’s always the things you don’t expect to be good that turn out to be fascinating and the things you’ve anticipated for years that turn out to be anticlimactic. Case in point: Tiananmen Square. That name is indelibly burned into the consciousness of anyone my age - I’ve heard it and read it more or less constantly all my adult life. But I’m not sure why I thought it might be interesting to visit. I subconsciously expected its bloody history to have left some sort of physical mark on the place - some psychometric brand that would manifest itself visibly. But Tiananmen Square is, predictably enough… a square. A big empty paved space with not much to see. It was edged by a border of huge red flags with massive neoclassical buildings beyond, which was impressive. But the only reminders of the Square’s sanguinary past were the well-armed guards and the lamp-posts studded with heavy loudspeakers all painted battleship-grey.

Sadly for me, we weren’t able to view Chairman Mao’s mummified body, housed in its mausoleum-cum-museum at the southern end of the Square. Our visit coincided with his yearly cleaning and maintenance pilgrimage to Russia. I was sorely disappointed. Withered and shrunken though it may be, I wanted to gaze upon the face of the architect of so much human misery. I wonder what I might have seen there?

I say Tiananmen Square was a big empty space, but naturally I mean empty in the special Chinese sense - empty of everything except choking throngs of people. I thought - foolishly, I admit - that it was crowded. I learned how wrong I was, though, after we took the pedestrian tunnel under the twelve-lane highway called Xichang’An Road that forms the northern boundary of the square and made our approach to the gates of the Forbidden City. That was crowded. It was a massive, pushing, jostling herd of badly-behaved bodies. I could hardly breathe. Elbows jabbed into my ribs, feet crushed my toes and deadly umbrellas swooped and darted constantly at my eyes. We couldn’t take two steps without being accosted by yet another couple of opportunists pretending to be art students dying to know where we were from and to take us to a teahouse to practice their English, or someone selling paper headdresses or frozen bottles of water (these last were the only welcome intrusions - it was punishingly hot and the sun was very strong).

This was all just to get to the gate. Unsurprisingly to me, the iconic wall with its huge portrait of Mao was shrouded in green scaffolding (I say unsurprisingly because it’s been a theme of the trip. No matter where we go, the famous landmark is always being renovated and is hidden behind scaffolds. I’ve lost count of the number of times this has happened).

We fought the crowds to get our tickets, fought through the tunnel under the middle wall (plugging our ears against the stunning, echoing din) and then fought our way through to the inner wall. It never got any easier after that. Umbrella-wielding, elbowing, screeching crowds clustered around the entrances to all of the buildings. It was a constant battle to see anything in the Forbidden City, but it was fascinating. It really is like a small city, with streets and buildings laid out in perfect regularity. Huge squares paved in herringbone patterns led to immense traditional wooden structures with their pointed roofs of red tile, all ornamented with brightly-painted dragons. Stone lions with gaping friendly grins stood sentinel at every corner. Giant stone or bronze urns were scattered everywhere - formerly kept filled with water as ancient fire-fighting measures.

Nearly everything was perfectly restored and freshly painted. The Chinese government doesn’t want its ancient historical sites to look old. Some of the less important outlying blocks were unrestored and crumbling, with faded paint and small trees growing between the roof tiles. I liked those best - they reminded me intensely of Pompeii. The atmosphere of life interrupted was the same, though the two places have little in common visually. As a site to explore in a morning, the Forbidden City is huge, but as a place to live it must have been claustrophobically small. Twenty-four Ming and Qing emperors lived their lives within its confines, it’s said, never venturing outside the walls. Not the life I’d choose, were I an emperor.

The best part of the Forbidden City, I felt, was the Emperor’s Garden. Its ancient greenery and water-sculpted rocks must have been a beautifully tranquil spot in its day. The grounds are full of twisted old cypresses, centuries old. One long-dead tree, contorted and deformed and covered with knobs and galls, bore the imaginative nickname “Lumpy Tree”, a helpful plaque informed us. The garden’s calm had to be imagined, though, since it’s a stop on the tour-bus itinerary. This was our first experience with domestic Chinese tour groups, with their flags, their megaphones and their shouting whirlwind rushing - I’ll rant about them later in the dispatch from Zhangjiajie, it’s not time for that yet.

Sheryl’s favourite part of the Forbidden City was the clock exhibit - a hall full of clocks and watches collected or received as gifts by various emperors. The collection was huge - I’ve never seen so many clocks in one place - and the clocks themselves were magnificently ugly in their overdone tastelessness. Gilt, ornamented birds and animals and jewelled flowers ran rampant. Many of them were clockwork-driven with bits that spun or twirled or jiggled at certain times. I’d thought that the Bavarian cuckoo clocks we saw in Triberg when we visited Germany were masterpieces of hideous exuberance, but I see now how wrong I was. The majority of the clocks were English, of 18th-century vintage, with a large minority of French and, later, Chinese clocks (unmistakably modelled visually on the English monstrosities). Scattered here and there were oddities like building-sized water-clocks or crystal-orb pocket watches, but most were tabletop clocks. We arranged to be there in time to see three of the mechanical animated clocks demonstrated. One had spinning glass flowers, the second an imaginative rhinoceros that turned its head, and the third was a pagoda that expanded upward to seven levels with a jerky clockwork ratcheting accompanied by a tinny, hollow music-box melody.

The best times in any place we visit are the times we just spend wandering aimlessly, and Beijing was no exception. Beijing in summer is best wandered at night, when the heat and the dust have settled and the crowds are less irritable and more forgiving. We spent some good evenings following random directions, getting thoroughly lost in the hutongs, discovering where we were only when we came out to a canal or a bigger road. We found small shops and markets and impromptu exercise classes or dance groups everywhere we went. It wasn’t until our last couple of days that we discovered how different a place Beijing is after the sun goes down. The hostile crowds thin out and give way to… people. Just people, living their lives. It was something of a revelation and I began to feel a grudging affection for the city at last. It doesn’t make daytime China any easier to bear - especially given that daytime China is the one we have to deal with and struggle through constantly - but it did serve as a very badly-needed reminder and a salve for the thousand indignities and injuries that a day in China invariably brings.

Toward the end of our time in Beijing, we fled the city for a couple of days to walk the Great Wall, and by that time I needed it, badly. The windswept emptiness of the Wall left me calmer and more centred and with a somewhat restored sense of humour. I needed it when, back in Beijing and with a day to waste before our train to Xi’an, we went to Sanlitun Market. Sanlitun, supposedly, is one of the least horrible big markets in the city. Five floors of dubious bargains, pushy salespeople and ludicrously inflated prices, it was. The stall-girls would see me walking past and grab my arm. They’d drag me to their stall and refuse to let me go no matter how much I protested that I didn’t want a hat or a nylon tablecloth that looked a bit like silk, or souvenir chopsticks, or whatever. “Oh! so strong!” they’d croon, stroking my arm. “You want nice jacket?” I’d have to pry their fingers off to escape, Sheryl smirking in vast and unhelpful amusement the whole time.

But I suffered it for the sake of shoes. After travelling so long, I needed new shoes desperately. The ones I’d bought in Cape Town seven months before were hardly more than rags and rubber scraps and I’d felt like a skid-row bum all through Japan. I’m not a novice at bargaining, and a long session got the price for a pair of Puma knockoffs down to ¥65 (about CAD$10) from ¥480. A bit smugly, I decided that the legendary skill of Chinese hagglers was unwarranted - until the shoes started to fall apart a week later.


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Chris Liberty - Dispatches from a Gentleman Adventurer
Being the internal dialog of a vagabond who chased his own tail across five continents for 4 years and 2 days from May 2008 to May 2012, in search of something that never really became clear.
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