Beijing is a giant, chaotic sprawl of a city allegedly the size of Belgium, and we ended up staying a week here altogether to do and see everything we wanted. And because our hostel was right in the middle of Old Beijing on a hutong (road/alleyway so narrow you can’t drive a car down thm) let’s start with the historic sites, shall we?
To begin with the park right next door to our hostel had a lovely view into the Forbidden City (and actually used to be part of the Imperial Gardens though is now cut off by a multi-lane road bisecting the site). I start off with this photo to point out how absolutely huge the place is- we spent several hours wandering around, and didn’t get close to seeing it all.
Patrick posing for the paparazzi in front of a guardian lion inside the Forbidden City. Really: a curious detail that has happened at least once a day in China and in numbers greater than any other country I’ve visited is requests from tourists to pose for photos with us. Apparently a large part of those requesting photos are domestic tourists from within China who have never seen a mzungu before (“white person” in Swahili- we might be out of Africa, but the term has stuck) making us de facto celebrities. It’s nice to be appreciated I guess!
Moving on, one of my favorite details about the Forbidden City was learning what the little monster figurines (which I’m sure have a more proper name than what I dubbed them, “gargoyles” of course) mean on the corner of roofs. Apparently they’re there to aid holding the roof together like any proper gargoyle, but also have the additional benefit of telling you just how important a given building is in imperial China. This building for example had twelve gargoyles on each rooftop corner which is the most you will find anywhere as it was where the Royal Court was held, and sure enough no other building has this many! Most random Chinese gates appear to only have two or three sentinels on the corners, but royal palaces will have nearly ten.
Another thing that very much impressed me at the Forbidden City was the Hall of Clocks- most of the ancient artifacts were destroyed or carried out of China for safekeeping during the Cultural Revolution, but for whatever reason a lot of the clocks survived and give you an idea of how ornate this palace must have been in its heyday. This clock, for example, would apparently have the horses and carriage men move on the hour… not to be confused with the miniature royal court clock, or the one that was a replica of the solar system, or the one that was a miniature ship… you get the idea.
Moving on, on the southern edge of the Forbidden City is Tienanmen Square. Something important may or may not have happened here, but the important thing to know is this is now the Safest Place in China according to the authorities. You can only enter through designated underground checkpoints where your bags and person are searched, there are countless army/police/plainclothes officers on duty, and, well, you get the idea. (Though it should be noted that if you’re a mzungu you probably won’t have your person or bags searched- we never did.)
If you turn around from this above view, by the way, you essentially face an open space so impressively large that no picture of it looks particularly interesting. (Apparently Tienanmen is the largest square in the world.) There’s nothing much in it short of a giant Chinese flag, some TV screens blaring about how awesome China is, and the monument where Chairman Mao’s final resting place is which I promptly named the “Maosoleum.” I crack myself up sometimes…
Further out from Beijing in the suburbs was another palace certainly worth mentioning by the way, which was of course the Summer Palace where the Emperor spent the more pleasant months. The Emperors apparently enjoyed their time out there so much that one diverted money from the navy for renovations to the palace- sure the British navy licked them within a few decades, but the Summer Palace was sweet! (This is a picture of a temple above the palace area by the way.)
The incredible thing about the Summer Palace though was the incredible detail that went into the decorations of it- this is just a random covered walkway’s ceiling by the way, with each beam dedicated to a different animal. Just incredible. It is worth noting however that most of the Summer Palace complex doesn’t look this immaculate though- paint is rather hard to maintain as it has to be redone every few years, so just a slight deviation off the tourist path revealed buildings in various stages of peeling and decay.Finally, because we cannot have a discussion of ancient China without him, here is a statue of Confucius at a temple dedicated to him in Beijing. He of course set the philosophy for greater China that has been followed for thousands of years, and interestingly everyone who wanted to be a government official for thousands of years had to pass an exam on their knowledge of Confucian texts regardless of birthright (though presumably if you were wealthy you could hire a tutor for your son so he could pass). And you wonder why China was doing so well for hundreds of years- what else do you expect from a country that only allowed their most intelligent to have authority? (To be fair they ended up clinging to the system until it was long obsolete, ie just over 100 years ago, so there’s only so much to be said for tradition or so.)
That said, Chinese history is rather fascinating because there are very few places in the world where you get such a length of history and homogeneity. Truly fascinating, and I’m not even starting to discuss a certain Wall until the next post…