Friday, 18 January 2013

Beijing, up close

OK, I’ve gotten past the “Oh, dear, I’m alone,” phase of my trip – quick work, thank goodness! There’s more than enough to do to keep me going.

Lesson 1 for fellow travellers: Don’t go to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City on a Chinese national holiday. Talk about crowds – yowza! I had a 20 minute wait just to get into the square – lots of bag X-rays taking place on subways, in public buildings. ...  It was frigid and windy, but the mass of bodies crowded around me kept me warm.

Lesson 2: The Chinese don’t queue – just like their HK cousins. They gather. And when the mass must narrow into a smaller mass, there’s pushing. Be prepared.

Lesson 3:  Consider travelling to Beijing in spring – or fall – or summer. It’s really cold here and warm clothes are a must for any sightseeing!!! However, intrepid Canadians don’t let it stop them. No way!!

So, I did get into T Square, with the massive ancient gate at its south end – it’s the way the emperor would have approached the Forbidden City, I’m told.

The square’s huge mass is broken up by the Mao Zedong Memorial, or as I call it, the Mao-soleum. It was closed when I arrived, so I didn’t have the opportunity to see the great leader lying in state, but I guess I’ll survive.

The square was bustling on this holiday, mostly with Chinese natives. Everyone was understandably excited to be in a spot of such national prominence, and cameras were snapping like crazy. It was cool to feel the enthusiasm.

The square is bounded on the sides by official buildings, including the National Museum. At the south end stands a gate to the Forbidden City, home to emperors for generations and forbidden to the common man and woman. Mao’s portrait hangs on the gate, overlooking the square. The closer one gets, the more amazing it is – it’s huge!

The Forbidden City is where the emperor held court, conducted business, handed down judgments and entertained. The deeper into the courtyards one goes, the more private the area. There is also a section for the concubines, and even a pavilion where the proclamation was made every three years that concubine positions were available – for girls ages 14-16. Horrors. So young.

Unfortunately, much of the viewing is done from behind glass or bars, and the crowds made it tough to linger, but one definitely got the feeling of the luxury in which they lived and the protocol which governed so much of their lives. Myriad ceremonies and occasions that must be observed! So little freedom, as we know it.

Despite the cold, I loved walking through the garden, with its landscaping. Very peaceful and serene, with spots for the emperor and empress to sit and write poetry.  Sooo cultured, compared to monarchs of today.

Afterward, I walked to the China Art Museum, which is housed in a traditional building. I had no idea what to expect, but there were wonderful exhibitions of contemporary Chinese art, as well as a bit of traditional landscape painting. I loved the work of Sean Chen, a China native who lives and works in New Zealand and paints with an Expressionist style and a Fauve palette.  There were also some amazing watercolours – water paintings, as the translation billed them – and some brush paintings done in the traditional style, but with more irreverence towards nature than usual: fighting roosters, for example.

I took the subway home and made only one wrong turn en route. I had a noodle soup dinner – just what the weather offered, then wandered the main drag in my ‘hood. I stumbled upon a hutong that is known for its shops and its stalls, and it was quite lively, despite the cold.

Now, bedtime. A 5:30 a.m. wake-up call for the Great Wall hike. 

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