Today we took on the Forbidden City.
We slept in and decided to try out some of Beijing’s street food rather than try to catch the last few minutes of the hotel’s buffet. One of the vendors nearby was advertising “hamburgers”, so we tried out a local interpretation of a tried-and-true Western delight.
We continued on our way towards the Forbidden City. Along the way we found the world’s most dangerous bathroom. Luckily, none of us required the use of its services at the time.
We decided to take a route through the park that we had visited on the previous day. It was bustling in the morning, full of families strolling and older couples dancing. We would have taken photos of those things, but there was an adorable monkey and we had to prioritize.
We made our way out of the park and fought our way through the increasingly dense swarms of guides and scammers. We arrived at Tiananmen Square, just in front of the Forbidden City. You saw of photo of us there yesterday, so here’s a slightly different taste of the local flavour.
We finally entered the Forbidden City. Now, there’s a lot of Forbidden City to see, and due to our sleeping in we were short a couple of hours, so we got right down to the serious business of being tourists. Obviously, we started with the vendors.
It was as this point that The Missus learned the word for “hot, boiled corn” in Mandarin (“yaman”). She obtained this education courtesy of the numerous vendors sitting in front of piles of corn endlessly yelling “yaman, yaman, yaman…”.
You might not know this, but the Forbidden City is partially a military compound. During business hours they open up about half of the enormous complex to tourists, but the rest of it is closed off at all times. Even during business hours, some tourist-frequented areas include roped-off basketball courts and ping-pong tables for military use.
When not playing ping-pong, soldiers got to walk around the touristed portions of the City in formation. They were not always in uniform, however. The City appeared to be staffed with numerous plainclothes military men, though they were hardly undercover as they were all wearing exactly the same plain clothes (not to mention the marching around in formation). We wondered whether they were new recruits who were not yet been approved or something.
Our first stop was the guard tower atop the Gate of Heavenly Peace facing Tiananmen Square. Security was extremely tight; unlike any other areas of the Forbidden City, this gate had a metal-detector-equipped security checkpoint and a bag check. Liquids, purses and the like were not permitted. I am sure that the fact that this guard tower is the only one to face Tiananmen Square (and is situated right above the gigantic portrait of Mao) had nothing to do with this.
The Security checkpoint had three lines – two for males, one for females. The lines for gentlemen were long and featured substantial wait times, but there was no wait in the ladies’ line. This can in part be attributed to lighter security precautions – ladies got cursory pats on their pockets and were waved through, whereas most men (even the elderly) received a full frisking. By “most men” I mean “Chinese men”; as a foreigner, I received only a quick tap on the pockets and was waved through.
It is officially better to be a (white) foreigner in China than it is to be old. I’ll admit that this surprised me.
In the bag check we met a French dude whose name I never bothered to learn, as I referred to him solely as “Frenchie”. He seemed nice enough, for a French guy. Kat insists that he was flirting with her. He hung out with us in the security line and up at the guard tower. Eventually he wandered off at around the same time that Kat started getting barraged with requests for photos. Kat thinks her popularity scared Frenchie off.
When not posing with enthusiastic Asians, Kat got some photos of the ceiling. More on that later.
While Kat was losing her amorous Frenchman, I had misplaced my wife. The Missus and I had wandered off in opposing directions in search of photos, and ended up circling the guard tower in search of each other for some time. It was not a very large area, and we were eventually reunited.
We soon finished with the guard tower, which was more “forbidden” than “city”. We headed towards the main attraction.
There was a lot to see.
We wound our way through the Forbidden City until we arrived at a garden towards the back. It was quite the complex.
We had reached the rear of the Forbidden City, but we had gotten there via a series of side-paths. We looped back to see the central (and most impressive area). It featured the Palace of Heavenly Purity and the Hall of Earthly Tranquility. Between the two was the Hall of Union and Peace; its placement between heaven and earth was meant to symbolize the peace and harmony brought by imperial rule.
I don’t know whether you know this, but the Chinese are big on symbolism.
Our time in the Forbidden City began to draw to an end. There are large galleries on one side of the complex, but they close shortly before plainclothes military men start sweeping the City and firmly asking tourists to leave.
We left the Forbidden City and decided to explore Tiananmen Square. You may have gathered that Tiananmen Square is a pretty big deal in China. This is not only because it is a pretty great square. It happens to be bordered by (a) the Forbidden City, former seat of Imperial power and present military complex, (b) the Great Hall of the People, the centre of Chinese government, (c) the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong and (d) the National Museum of China.
While we were wandering around the Square, some dude came up to me. He was gesticulating wildly and speaking what I can only assume to be Mandarin, but I eventually gathered that he wanted a photo with me. Tiananmen Square, by the way, is the only place where I have been approached directly (rather than occasionally being lumped in with Kat) for photos. Apparently it is a big tourist attraction for families from more rural areas of China. Many of those families have never seen a white person before (and certainly not one of my size), or so I was told by their English-speaking relatives. I got photographed with several rural Chinese ladies, which The Missus graciously attributes to my animal magnetism. Insofar as zoo creatures have animal magnetism, I suppose she might be right.
Anyways, I don’t know what this particular dude was up to, but he asked me (through some enthusiastic hand-signing) to wear his sunglasses and pose for a photo in front of Mao’s tomb. I obliged.
He drew quite a crowd with his antics. As I wandered off it seemed that he started to try to sell things to the onlookers. It occurred to me that I may have unintentionally endorsed whatever he was hawking (I’m guessing sunglasses). I can live with that.
Every day there are military ceremonies at sunrise and sunset to raise and lower the gigantic flag flying in Tiananmen Square. A crowd started to gather around the flag pole about an hour in advance, so we decided we’d stick around and view the event. Military men also began filing into the Square and standing in formation about an hour before sunset.
The flag-lowering itself was somewhat anticlimactic. An officer in dress uniform lowered the flag, folded it up, and then left. The military men who had been standing around the Square for the last hour marched out behind him. The whole thing was nearly silent and over in just a few minutes. Still, it seemed to be a hit with the locals who had been waiting patiently for the last hour – I suppose that pomp and circumstance aren’t required if you’re already feeling patriotic.
After the flag-lowering we went to the alleyway market of the previous day, except that it had now been transformed into a nighttime food market. It even came with a woman singing Chinese opera.
We sampled the foods that were arrayed before us. We had meat on a stick (they were all out of scorpion, so we ordered pork), a coconut, tea with dry ice, veggie wraps, dumplings, fruit on a stick (they love sticks here) and some sort of spicy pasta that was neither cheap nor delicious.
Kat had read about a bar called 12sqm – so named because it originally occupied only 12 square metres, although it recently expanded. We decided to go there, but had some trouble finding a cab to take us there without sucking our wallets dry. It should have been a ¥20 cab ride, but we got quotes ranging between ¥50 and ¥100. Drivers were not receptive to our suggestions that they charge on the meter.
We eventually found a rickshaw driver who offered his services for ¥30. We were unsure about this at first. After all, there were three of us, and one of them was me. This did not seem like a good situation for a person-powered vehicle. He convinced my companions, however, and we all piled on.
Our driver dropped us off about a block from the destination, which should have been a warning sign. He took out a laminated pamphlet extolling the virtues and historical value of so-called “pedibike” transport. The pamphlet pegged the price of transport at ¥300.
Kat objected loudly, but The Missus turned over ¥300 in an attempt to avoid conflict. He then turned to me and began demanding my share. This is when we realized that he meant ¥300 per person. For those of you not up on Chinese currency conversion rates, that’s about CAD$150 for the three of us.
I yelled at him for a bit in an attempt to educate him on the finer points of contract law. This did not take. He indicated that I am very large, and so the price was fair. I was inclined to agree with him in principle, but pointed out that he should therefore have requested a higher rate before we got on. I don’t think the message got through, as there was a substantial language barrier. At any rate, I told him that he was lucky to have gotten the ¥300 that my wife had turned over, and then I left with my companions in tow.
The cyclist did not pursue us (although down the block we did see another cyclist trying to pull the same thing on some other tourists). I think that this is one of the advantages of being the largest person in a one-mile radius; a tiny scammer is not going to have much luck physically intimidating this giant Canadian. This is particularly amusing because Kat was a collegiate wrestler and The Missus knows enough karate to be dangerous, whereas the closest I get to having martial skill is my resemblance to the main character from the first ten minutes of Kung Fu Panda.
But I digress.
We arrived at 12sqm and had a wonderful time. The bar’s “expansion” consisted of adding two tables (and maybe another five square metres), so we ended up sitting at a table with a Chinese couple. He had flown in from out of town to see his girlfriend, but they did not seem to begrudge having to share their short time together with a cadre of Westerners.
We spent the rest of the evening cozily ensconced at our table, remaining long after our new friends had retired. We took great joy in reading the bar’s collection of Engrish caution signs – “CAUTION MEEHANICAL INJUREYCABLE”. We also got to meet Dan, a Chicagoan with whom we jokingly conspired to take over the country (dear Chinese visa-issuing officials: please note that I said “jokingly“). This was rather more than he had expected to do on his trip to the bathroom, but he was a good sport.
Soon, however, it was time to leave, so we headed out and looked for a cab. We had trouble finding a cabbie who knew where our hotel was, even with the “take me to this location” cards that our hotel had given us. We did, however, find a cyclist who offered to get us home for ¥40. I was even more reluctant to get on another rickshaw, but Kat ensured that our price was very clearly agreed upon and then piled us all on.
It is not wise to argue with collegiate wrestlers.
It turned out that his bike was electric, which assuaged my feelings of guilt considerably. Upon arriving he accepted ¥40 as payment, and even took the extra ¥10 I offered as an honesty bonus.
Having arrived home safely and rich in stories (if not in cash), we went to bed.
Our next day in Beijing takes us to the Summer Palace, so we’ll need our sleep.