Return to the Forbidden City

Our day starts with Kevin. He's going to be our guide, again, only this time he's taking us to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City in the morning before we board the train that'll take us to Lhasa. I'm finding that the more time I spend with Kevin, the more I like him. He's educated and answers our questions intelligently and, at times, with rapier-fast wit. I think his wry sense of humour sometimes confuses the members of the group with English as a second language (or in some case third or fourth, to my eternal shame), but I find him a pleasure to talk to. 

Kevin leads us on the short, but packed, journey on the Metro, and to ensure we all stay together, he uses the internationally approved method of group shepherding - holding a water bottle over his head. Tried and tested this approach maybe, but as Kevin is shorter than me and, despite all expectations to the contrary, quite a lot of Chinese people are quite tall, it makes following Sander (the 6'3" Dutchman of the group) a much better prospect for crowd control. We emerge from the Metro at the south end of Tiananmen Square and Kevin gives us a rundown of the area's history but with a particularly glaring admission. When I ask him about why he's not mentioned the infamous student protests that gave the world one of it's most famous photographs, he tells me that the subject is not allowed to be discussed by licensed guides. Not only that, but if he does mention anything relating to the protests, and is overheard by one of the many plain clothes police officers patrolling the Square, then he will be taken away for (in his words) 'social correction'. One of the Canadians was confused about this phrase, and upon asking Kevin what he meant, he simply pushed his closed fist into the open palm of his opposite hand whilst flashing a little grin- another universal symbol, this time for 'he fell down the stairs guv'". 

We briefly discussed Mao's Mausoleum, but the massive influx of visitors combined with strangely limited opening times meant that the queue to enter was pushing six hours. Kevin told us he'd seen Mao twice in his life, both times with his parents, and upon being asked 'How was he?' Kevin simply answered 'He was there'. Perhaps Kev's not a died-in-the-wool Communist then. We carried on north, to the top of the Square, and what can only be described as the edifice of the Forbidden City. Edifice isn't a word I get to use nearly as much as I'd like, but is totally appropriate here.

The Forbidden City, as home of the Imperial family for over 500 years, is obviously an extravagant complex. My only exposure to the reality of the City, outside of the realms of myth and legend, has been The Last Emperor - a cinematic adaptation of the story of the last of the imperial line during the rise of the Cultural Revolution and Communism. The film used the Forbidden City, in part, for many of the scenes, so I had some idea of what to expect - massive squares, pagodas, big red doors, gilding everywhere - and my mental image wasn't far off. As we swept through the external courtyards towards the first and most public square, everything seemed to fit; there were even big red doors. 

But as we continued northward, two things struck me as strange. First, the noise. Or rather the silence. The massive distances involved here mean that almost all of Beijing's clattering life sounds disappear, save for the occasional and annoyingly persistent car horn. Secondly, the design of the place creates an unusual spatial effect. Although the scale of the buildings within the compound is surprisingly low, the distance between them means that it's almost impossible to get a sense of anything outside of the City Walls. Combined with the absence of external noise, it would be easy to convince yourself that nothing exists at all outside of the Forbidden City , at least nothing of consequence. Although I'm sure that this deliberate architectural technique has been used throughout history to impress allies and intimidate enemies, I ended up thinking what it would be like growing up here, as many members of the royalty would spend their entire lives within the City. Despite to obvious luxury, it must've been a very isolating experience, making the world outside the Walls seem alien and frightening whilst the world within, with passing years, must have felt very small. 

After we'd concluded our tour, Kevin offered to take us on the Hutong/tea-tasting tour (again), so Kate and I took our leave and visited the park just behind the Forbidden City. It's small, but dominated by a large hill, topped with the inevitable pagoda. After a pretty hour or so, we decided to get back to the Metro by walking the perimeter of the City, a pretty significant undertaking as we discovered. Eventually, and thankfully just before I needed a knee replacement, we staggered onto the Metro with just enough time to do some quick shopping (clothes and gifts for Kate, essential train food and sustenance for me) before we made our way to the train that would take us to almost 3,500m above sea level.

This train ride should last around 48 hours so my next entry will be from Tibet.