Monday, 11 March 2019

Beijing, China - a fascinating mix of Modern History, Politics and Ancient Grandeur

A thick orange coloured smog greeted us on arrival in Beijing, luckily,  by the next morning, the city was boasting beautiful sunny weather and the clearest of blue skies which remained with us for our whole visit.  It was a pleasant drive from the airport to our hotel  along pretty park like boulevards, the result of the controversial demolition of many houses, despite residents' protests, in order to beautify the city for the  2008 Olympics.
A smoggy welcome to Beijing
Beijing has a population of around 21.50 million and as the capital city of China is a draw card for millions of tourists from both overseas but mainly from within China.  We were pumped with anticipation, there is a lot to see in this ancient city.

In Tiananmen Square, General Assembly Building behind me
Next morning we set off for Tiananmen Square.  This is where I strongly recommend being part of a tour group.  Since Tiananmen Square is a bucket list place for many Chinese they arrive in their thousands on a daily basis and stand in interminable queues waiting to get in. We, on the other hand, led by our guide clutching pre-booked tickets, sailed past them, oblivious to the scowls and bemused stares of the crowd. 

Built by Mao Zedong, Tiananmen Square is the centre of the General Assembly of China and is said to be one of the largest public squares in the world with a capacity of  more than 1 million people.  To one side of the square is  a large monument to the Peoples' Heroes of the Revolution and Mao's mausoleum, where a never ending queue patiently waits its turn to pay respects. The General Assembly building takes centre stage and on the other side of the square is a massive portrait of Mao.  Prior to our arrival we were warned not to mention anything about the student and workers' uprising of 1989 while in the square or to ask anything about the tanks etc.  Discussion of the military crackdown is prohibited in China and there are plain clothes, secret service agents with English speaking skills located around the square whose job is to listen to conversations and make arrests if necessary.  The Chinese are clearly very twitchy about potential subversion. Actually, the agents were pretty easy to spot as they fiddled with their cell phones and lent on railings but we stayed true to the advice and just drank the whole scene in. 

Monument to the "glorious heroic workers of the revolution"
We were also told that since the square is a place of pilgrimage, which many Chinese save  their whole life to visit,  we would be a curiosity to back country Chinese who had never seen Europeans before.  Our guide even went so far as to suggest they would think we were film stars.  That's as close as I'll ever get to being one! My fair hair  and blue eyes attracted attention and I can't tell you how many photos I am in. It was amusing to notice people surreptitiously posing behind me for a shot with the strange foreigner. We had a good wander around the square, time for a quick group photo and then made our way to the entrance to The Forbidden City, right beside the square.
Inside the Forbidden City. The size of the crowd is an indication of how vast it is.
The Forbidden City, so called because entrance was forbidden to commoners, was built in 1406 and was home to 14 Ming Emperors and 10 Qing Emperors until the last emperor abdicated in 1912 when China became a republic.  Also known as The Palace Museum it is vast, covering 720,000 sq meters (7,750,000 sq feet). It contains 90 palace quarters and courtyards, 980 buildings and at least 8728 rooms. It is known as a masterpiece of Chinese architecture and boasts the worlds largest collection of well preserved wooden, medieval buildings.  
Intricate detailing on the buildings and  tiers of marble balconies.

A view across the city. The buildings on the hill are included.  The large bronze vats were kept filled with water in case of fire.
I found it an intriguing step back in time, imagining the emperors in  glorious robes walking through the vast treeless squares with servants and officials scurrying about them. 

Inside one of the palace rooms, little changed since ancient times.

The walled garden in the Forbidden
City - note the paving between
the trees

I was very taken by the beautiful, painted detailing on the buildings and the elaborate marble railings on the tiered balconies leading up to the palace buildings but, as someone who loves trees and gardens, I thought the vast paved squares with neither tree nor flower a bit soulless. Trees were not planted since they would have been good hiding places for assassins and would also interfere with the squares' primary purpose of holding grand and solemn ceremonies.  However, we did stroll through a walled garden containing large ancient trees within the city complex.  Now a UNESCO World Heritage site the Forbidden City is definitely a "must see".  It's vastness is a bit hard to take in and there is so much room that despite the fact there were many thousands of other visitors there we never felt bustled or as if we were in a crowd.

As with so many grand palaces around the world you can't help but ponder the narcissism and entitlement of those who built them and lived in them but on the other hand you can delight in the extraordinary treasures they have left which many millions of people can now enjoy.  I thought it was amazing and am so glad to have seen it. 

So far it had been a fascinating day with a mix of modern history, politics and ancient, dynastic grandeur.  There was more to come which I will write about in my next post.

Right: She looked so darned cute, I had to get a photo, with her mother's permission.

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