My first and only full day in Beijing was a busy one. By the time it was over I must have put 30km on my feet, and was barely able to walk. A long but interesting day. I started the morning on the roof top patio of my hotel, The Emperor Beijing. It was a clear morning without a cloud in the sky or any trace of the previous day’s brown smog. These conditions held for the entire day, it was beautiful, and brutally hot!
I arrived at the entrance of the Forbidden City just after opening, and it was already swarming with people. Surrounded by 10m high walls nearly 3.5km long I knew the site was vast from walking around it the previous day, but truly had no idea what was in store. The complex is incomprehensively vast, the largest palatial complex it the world with more than 9000 buildings, bays, courtyards and rooms. Even with the thousands of flocking tourists the scale of the site becomes rapidly apparent. There are a number of ornate gates and entrances separating different tiers of the palace complex and five enormous courtyards. Early concerns over the large crowds ruining the experience quickly evapourated when I began exploring some of the twenty-odd smaller palaces within the complex. The large groups generally seemed to be avoiding these areas.
The level of detail with which the palaces and other buildings were constructed is impressive. Great care seems to be given to nearly every detail including individual roof tiles. It is hard to imagine what the cost would be to rebuild the palace today, even in China. There were many highlights, but the Imperial Gardens, Opera House and exploring the side palaces were the most enjoyable parts of the visit. After leaving the Forbidden City from the north gate I crossed the street and climbed the hill opposite the complex. A series of pagoda roofed temples climb the hill, with the uppermost nearly perfectly in line with the north-south access of the Forbidden City. Even from up there, hundreds of feet above it, it is hard to fully grasp its immense size.
In the afternoon I wandered south towards the Tiananmen Square area which is home to the National Museum, the Great Hall of the People and more. At the National Museum there were some great exhibits on China’s Ancient History. Most of the museum, not surprisingly was dedicated to the Communist Era. The security presence was intimidating with a permanently stationed bomb disposal unit on the street out front, baggage scanners and an army of guards both inside and out. Most of the museum’s elabourate approach was cordoned off by fancy crowd control devices which funnelled visitors through narrow passages. On the edge of the roof were nearly half a hundred security cameras most of them trained on Tiananmen Square.
The security checks didn’t stop there. There were security screenings to enter Tiananmen Square and the imposing old city gate at its south end. There were also imposing security measures around the Great Hall of the People which is unfortunately only open until noon. I will have to come back to see Mao’s tomb…
The last major item on my must see list this day were the city’s Hutongs, or alleyways. Narrow busy shopping streets they are a trait of the old Beijing which is rapidly disappearing as the country continues to modernize and develop. If Lesson #1 was yesterday’s don’t ride in unlicensed taxis, today’s Lesson #2 was learned on the way to the Hutongs, ‘always carry correct change…’ It is all fine and well to barter over the price for a service, it is another to get the change you are due when the driver is trying to sell you another service in a language you don’t understand. Beijing is a fascinating city and while I would love to explore it more the other part of me is ready to move on. It is a bustling metropolis with many of its residents trying the hustle their way to a better life. One can’t blame the people for that, but when you are a 6’2” naive looking foreigner, it’s hard not to feel constantly on edge!
The Hutongs were lively and full of action with an astounding variety of street foods, some of it prepared in less than sanitary conditions. Much of my walk back was along a slow meandering waterway, which eventually feeds the Forbidden City moats and Golden River. Exhausted, hungry and a little weary at the prospect of wandering out again onto the city’s streets I settled into a comfy chair on my hotel’s roof top patio. While the sun went down behind the Forbidden City and skyscrapers in the distance I enjoyed a couple of cold beers and a quiet dinner.