Forbidden City

Trip Start Aug 08, 2006
Trip End Oct 11, 2006

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Tuesday, August 15, 2006


Today, the culture shock was wearing off as I awoke to a feeling that I was going to fall in love with Beijing. The gray clouds and rain of the last two days also were replaced by a brilliantly clear, radiant sky.

Today's itinerary included visits to Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, and the Temple of Heaven. I was deeply impressed with the magnitude of Tiananmen Square. It was constructed more than 500 years ago and expanded under Communist rule. Now, the area could accomodate more than half a million people. Ironically, spontaneous mass gathering was banned in communist China, so the square's vastness would remain a playground only for tourists. The tour guide stated that the square was proposed to be used for beach volleyball in the 2008 Summer Olympic Games. However, communist officials violently rejected the idea, for they did not want the portrait of Mao across the street to stare down at underclad female volleyball players.

To enter into The Forbidden City was to retrace the footsteps of 6 centuries of emperors. The entire complex, begun in 1407 during the Ming Dynasty, was 1Km long and 750m wide and filled with numerous courtyards and 9,999 buildings. What impressed me the most was the story of the last emperor of China, Pu Yi, who ascended the throne at the age of 3 in 1909 and was forced to abdicate under Sun Yat-Sen's democractic uprising in 1911. During his 2 years of living in the Forbidden City, he constantly cried to his subjects that he wanted to go back to his hometown in Manchuria to play with other children. However, he was never allowed that luxury. After his expulsion from Beijing in 1911, many turbulent years followed under Japanese occupation, in which he was utilized as a puppet emperor of Manchuria under Tokyo's influence. When the Communists seized power in 1949, he was arrested for conspiring with Japan, and he was sentenced to a military prison for 10 years. Later, he was permitted to return to Beijing, and his former residence of the Forbidden City was converted into the people's museum. He was reduced to working as a gardener in the Forbidden City, from which he once ruled the entire country, and he died a pauper. The magnitude of the complex, including the quarters of the Emperor and his 3,000 concubines, were like a labyrinth of mega-proportion.

After that visit, I went with Roy and Andy from Nottingham, UK to visit the Temple of Heaven. They seemed to have some difficulty communicating with the taxi drivers, so I thought I might lend them a helping hand with my rudimentary Mandarin. We managed to arrive in one piece in the crazy Beijing traffic where bicycle riders were competing with motorists.

The Temple of Heaven was completed in 1420, and it originally served as a platform for the Emperor to perform sacrifices and solemn rituals. We toured the complex in the torrid midday sun and quickly tried to find an exit to escape the 36C weather. Later in the afternoon, I just strolled around the inner city of Beijing among its dilapidated hutongs (narrow alleys) filled with substandard living conditions but nice people with beautiful souls. I stopped at a local food stand and started speaking Chinese. I found that the real people of Beijing were not those living in high rise apartments, but the modest, simple, gentle people who were residing in the hutongs. They complimented my Chinese and were curious to find out where I came from. Houston, I told them. Immediately, the entire hutong erupted in a delightful surprise, and they warmly asked me how Yao Ming was doing, as if we were close friends. It seemed that everyone I met in Beijing had a sentimental attachment to Houston because of Yao. He reached an incredible, semi-celestial status in China; billboards of him were more prevalent than historical communist faces. Little children idolized him more than Uncle Mao, and due to him, Houston had become a very special city in the hearts of the Chinese. Everybody knew of Houston, which made me very proud. Then I mentioned George Bush. Silence. Grave error, I thought. But they soon touched on Yao again, asking me to send him their best regards.

Although the hotel had a fine laundry service, I was recommended a small place in the heart of the inner city hutong. I decided to check it out, and after meeting the honest, simple, gentle people, who were living in a one room house with faded walls and broken windows, I decided to do business with them. I wanted to offer them my financial support by paying 150% of the service. Their compassionate, beaming smiles were rewarding enough to witness, and despite their poverty, I could see happiness in their eyes.

I next went souvenir shopping at the famous Silk Market off of Yonganli Subway Stop. The market was really a Chinese style department store filled with numerous stalls selling clothes, jewelry, etc. It was a crazy experience in that there were no fixed prices. One had to bargain really hard at every stall. Once the vendors sensed your interest, they would cling onto you until you bought something from them. There were many times when I just wanted to walk away, but they physically prevented me from leaving. They either held my hand or blocked my exit. Their persuasive method actually worked since I ended up buying their products. Then I overheard some Italian coming from the next stall. The young Italian guy turned to me and started asking me in fluent Mandarin how much I had paid for a particular souvenir. I told him in Italian that I was not Chinese. Then his girlfriend was surprised to encounter an Italian-speaking person in Beijing. We ended up conversing in Italian inside a popular store right in the heart of the Chinese capital. They were from Milan, and the young man had been studying Mandarin for 3 years in Italy and China. It was really nice for me to practice some Italian before my imminent visit in September.

In summary, today I finally felt as if Beijing was growing on me. I walked around town and really immersed myself in the brilliant history and beautiful culture. The people of Beijing, especially those from the impoverished hutongs, were special, authentic, and very nice. Although tomorrow was going to be the start of the 36-hr Trans-Mongolian train ride, I knew there were many places in Beijing for me to return to next time...
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