It is screamingly obvious, but I wish someone had highlighted this again to me: that Beijing is in fact massive. What looks very close on the map in reality isn’t. There are also lots and lots of people. So the roads are very congested, sometimes the traffic dosen’t move at all. Taxis couldn’t be picked up easily and there was no facility to pre-order cabs. Our hostel was very centrally located and looked very close to most of the beautiful palaces and squares. However, although only just a short bus ride away, the traffic was such that it would take ages to get to places this way. I would therefore highly recommend a hotel/hostel which is close to the incredible, new, high-tech and super advanced (I’m running out of positive adjectives here), metro system. All the main sites are linked to this network, it is cheap, fast and reliable – a lot easier than having to walk and work out the right bus which then later gets stuck in endless traffic.
So after covering a short distance on the map, but having endured a very long bus ride we finally arrived at Tienanmen Square. Outside of China, the square is best known in recent memory as the focal point of the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, a pro-democracy movement which ended on 4 June 1989 with the declaration of martial law in Beijing by the government and the death of many civilians.
The day I went to the square it shone silver in the hot sun and yet it was still somewhat frosty and eerie. We passed the tight security to enter and looked around us to see if we could see any plain clothed police spies who are rumored to be patrolling and securing this vast space. If they were patrolling it, it would be hard as it was just so huge, the fourth largest square in the world and of course we wanted to see it all.
The square was named after the Tiananmen Gate (Gate of Heavenly Peace) located to its North which was built in 1415 during the Ming Dynasty and is the entrance to the Forbidden City.
On its southern edge, the Monument to the People’s Heroes has been erected. Ten Great Buildings constructed between 1958–59 to commemorate the ten-year anniversary of the People’s Republic of China surround the square as does the impressive Great Hall of the People and the Revolutionary History Museum.
The year after Mao’s death in 1976, a Mausoleum was built near the site of the former Gate of China, on the main north-south axis of the square. In connection with this project, the square was further increased in size to become fully rectangular and being able to accommodate 600,000 people.
So, it was extremely hot by the time we finished walking round the Square. We went towards the Forbidden City and entered its impressive imperial gates. Through the reigns of 24 emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties, ordinary Chinese people were forbidden from even approaching the walls of the palace and anyone caught inside this Forbidden City would be brutally executed. Now, thousands of tourists walk through the endless halls and mazes of buildings in the sweltering sun and hope to one day make it out alive.
We hadn’t had breakfast yet, so we were lured into a large packed Chinese restaurant by a coffee sign. The place turned out not to have coffee and was really expensive. We had fallen into the tourist trap – and so were forced to have strong beef noodles and sweet and sour chicken for breakfast, which reminded me of eating the crusty remnants of my cold Chinese take away the morning after a massive night out. Moral of this one is eat something before Tiananmen or bring something before you embark on the walk through the epic Forbidden City.
The toilets here, if you can find any are all squat so really my other piece of advice would be to not drink water for at least three days prior to entering the Forbidden City. A fine art between balancing dehydration and wetting yourself really. I had drunk something and so after our hour long tour of the square, I needed to go. It was hard to find a toilet and when I did I almost died of shock, so I decided to hold on. How long would our walk through this “city” be anyway?
The city is beautiful. Guarded by bronze statues, the maze of houses, temples and buildings is immense. Once the imperial palaces to the Ming dynasty. For almost 500 years, it served as the home of emperors and their households, as well as the ceremonial and political center of Chinese government.
The golden roves shone and glistened in the sun and contrasted elegantly with the blue sky. Walls were washed an earthy red color. Beware the many many tourists with their multicolored umbrellas to protect them from the all mighty sun.
Forward we trekked, through the jungle of the forbidden fruit. The complex is a mighty example of man’s capacity to harness the Earth, the sky and the sun.The layout is religious, with open spaces which really connect this whole ensemble to the heavens and to the higher powers. No detail has been spared, man has shone and excelled – Decorated tiles and ornate carved stone work. We are humble and beings of flesh and yet our creations will be as mighty if not more so than Gods’.
Further on we went. God help anyone who had ventured in here by mistake. Their journey would have been arduous, their chances of passing through unnoticed impossible. Guards now stand protecting and tour guides bear their flags like war banners. The people marched on, through sun and the waves, their colorful umbrellas bobbed like a sea. I lay down on the cold hard rock, I was tiered. I wouldn’t be able to fight it or them much longer. “Leave me, let me piss myself “, I begged. “Just let them take me, I surrender!
Somehow I ploughed on through the labyrinth of opulence. It was the beauty that made my journey onward possible, that and the fear of being left behind in a city of ghosts and warriors.
On the horizon civilization, the modern world. So close and yet centuries apart. The vastness of the Forbidden City meant that all noise and hustle and bustle of the new Beijing is forgotten. Only the odd glimpse convinced us that it did in fact still exist. A real portal to another time, another age, a golden era. This path was like a walk through the inner depths of China’s very own psyche. A map of a giant’s mind.
We found shelter the halls. Sunlight streaming into darkness. A garden, bamboo and some green. Here the architecture was less open, less exposed. Leafy plants and fountains. Sichuan province after the sands and desert air of Gangsu.