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Day 1: Beijing—Lost in Translation | Day 3: Beijing—The Great Wall >>
Beijing—Tiananmen Square & the Forbidden City
In China, we quickly learned how to ask better questions. This morning, Ben asked the hotel desk clerk if there was a place nearby that served breakfast or coffee. What Ben didn’t ask (but should have) was whether we could get breakfast here at the hotel—that question would have been answered “yes”, and we would have saved ourselves a lot of walking and searching.
Instead, the man told us that there was a Starbucks on Wangfujing Street (a 10 minute walk). He didn’t know where the coffee shop was exactly, but he said that we could ask people for directions. (Let me give a big “ha!” in advance.)
Genevieve and Sebastian, starting out:
Our hutong was very quiet, with very few people walking around. I had read that hutongs are generally lively places with lots of families and small shops. Not ours. This entire area had recently been renovated, and the homes were now occupied by government officials. Most of the buildings were made of a consistent grey brick, such as this one:
We arrived at Wangfujing Street, which is a pedestrian commercial area.
We even found the Starbucks sign!
But . . . there was no Starbucks. The sign was attached to a building that had a Kentucky Fried Chicken downstairs (doing booming business). Upstairs were some vacant spaces that were a bit spooky.
Perhaps the sign was a mere advertisement . . . or was telling us “Sorry we went out of business” . . . or perhaps “Go two blocks and turn right.” We tried to ask people nearby, but no one seemed to speak English.
We wandered down the street. There were some figurative sculptures in one area, and Genevieve climbed aboard this rickshaw.
I approached a police officer and said, “Excuse me, do you speak English?” He looked at me and turned his back.
The only other open restaurants that we found on a 3-block stretch were a McDonald’s and another KFC. Both were packed with people. No, we didn’t eat there.
We ventured onto some side streets, and found a little shop with some steamed bun containers stacked near the door.
We peeked inside and saw small tables filled with Chinese customers. Many people were smoking. Ben and I were discussing whether to eat here, when one of the cooks came out and waved us inside. A woman took me over to a large handwritten menu on a chalkboard, which she presented with a flourish of her arm. But I couldn’t understand any of the Chinese characters. She then showed me several huge pots of mysterious liquids—types of soup, I think. I looked around and saw many customers drinking the dark liquids from bowls. I went over to the cooking area and began pointing at what I wanted, holding up fingers to indicate how many pieces. We ate steamed buns (with what we hoped was pork inside) and a large piece of fried bread, which we all shared. There was no tea or coffee. We sat and happily munched, listening to the Chinese words bouncing all around us.
We then set off to visit Tiananmen Square. We retraced our route from last night.
The air was even colder than yesterday, but we were better prepared today—the kids had their hats and layered clothing, and I had two jackets, a hat and gloves.
When entered the tall walls, we realized that this was not the square—it was the entrance to the Forbidden City.
Fortunately, Tiananmen Square was not too far away. We merely had to cross a long courtyard and exit through another wall:
Outside, on what is called the north wall of Tiananmen Square, was a portrait of Chairman Mao.
He had stood at this gate in 1949 and announced the founding of the People’s Republic of China.
I could see the rest of Tiananmen Square across a wide street with heavy traffic. We couldn't merely cross the street and enter the square, as all of the sides are ringed with barriers.
We finally found some stairs and a pedestrian tunnel that went under the busy street. A security checkpoint in the tunnel caused a small jam, as guards checked everyone’s bags.
The square was big! Looking south:
And north, with the Forbidden City and Chairman Mao’s portrait in the background:
Kite-flying is supposed to be a popular activity in the square. Despite the blustery wind, there were no kites waving in the sky today.
We had heard that many security personnel are dressed like ordinary people to keep an eye out for any person who might attempt to protest or make a political statement against the government. When any of that behavior is spotted, police vans immediately swoop in and remove the person from the square. While we were walking around, we saw a small police van zoom by with its lights flashing—we wondered if an unlucky dissident was inside.
Genevieve and Sebastian, with the tall Monument to the People’s Heroes in the background.
The Monument was built in 1958 and is decorated with pictures from China’s revolutionary history.
Here is a closer view:
This little guy was wearing the oh-so-common padded pants with an open split in the back—no diapers needed! .
Mao’s Mausoleum contains his embalmed body for visitors to view; the line was long, and we opted to miss that experience.
The front steps have a pair of statues depicting revolutionary figures.
On the west side of the square was the Great Hall of the People, which is where the Chinese legislature meets.
Genevieve and I, back at the gate leading back to the Forbidden City:
We joined the sea of people flowing toward the City.
Here is Genevieve in front of the Outer Court:
The Forbidden City is a huge complex of buildings, with a rich history. It was completed in 1420 by the Ming Dynasty, and 24 emperors ruled here for almost 500 years. The name “Forbidden City” reflects the fact that the vast majority of people were forbidden to enter. Only the emperor and his dignitaries, along with his family, concubines, and servants (many who were eunuchs) were allowed inside.
Today, the Forbidden City is a public museum. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987.
As we were preparing to buy our tickets, a young woman named Laura asked if we needed a guide. We quickly agreed upon a modest price for a 3 hour tour (we set the time limit, as we were mindful of the children’s attention spans).
Here we are with Laura:
Inside the front gate was a courtyard with a stream running across it. There were five small bridges crossing the stream to a building called the Gate of Supreme Harmony. Here are Sebastian and Genevieve in front of the bridges, which you can’t see because of all the people (Laura said that today was not very crowded compared to the weekends!).
One of the bridges crossing the Golden Water stream:
There is a lot of symbolism in the architecture, statues and design of the Forbidden City. Here are some examples.
The roofs are made with yellow tiles to represent the yellow earth. The emperor was perceived as the ruler of the earth.
The walls are red to represent “good luck.”
The Forbidden City is built in squares and rectangles. During the Han Dynasty, there were no trees in the City because their written character for “trouble” was a square with a tree inside.
Two lions often stood guard at entrances. The male lion always has his foot on a ball and represents power.
The female lion has her foot on a lion cub to represent fertility.
Some details from the Gate of Supreme Harmony:
Looking back over the five bridges toward the entrance of the Forbidden City:
Beyond the Gate of Supreme Harmony was the (can you guess) Hall of Supreme Harmony:
The Hall of Supreme Harmony was where all important ceremonies and celebrations took place. It is about 115 feet high and was the tallest building in China during the Ming and Qing dynasties. The emperor decreed that no other building could be taller.
The Hall of Supreme Harmony led to the Hall of Middle Harmony, which was in front of the Hall of Preserving Harmony.
And these soldiers were there just to ensure that all of this “harmony,” or at least the outward appearance of it, was maintained:
Laura was really good at pointing out the details on the buildings around us. Here we are looking at the rooftop corners, which often had rows of real and mythical creatures, such as the phoenix.
The turtle represents “long life.”
The large pots along the wall once were filled with water in case of a fire within the Forbidden City.
The old and the new:
The buildings often had a center slope made of ornately carved stone, with stairs on both sides. Only the emperor had been allowed to travel on it—well, I should say only the emperor and the servants who carried him on his elaborate sedan chair. The largest of these stone carvings, appropriately named “Large Stone Carving,” is found behind the Hall of Preserving Harmony.
On the long stone, nine dragons are shown playing among clouds.
The Large Stone Carving is almost 55 feet long, and weighs more than 200 tons. It is said to have been carved out of a solid chunk of stone in the early 1400’s. The stone came from a quarry in the mountains to the west of Beijing. To transport the stone, workers covered the road between the quarry and the Forbidden City with water in the winter; the water froze, and the stone was then pulled all of the way to the City along the ice.
This large circle of jade was placed inside a courtyard entrance to ward off evil spirits.
One large section of the Inner Courtyard contained the living quarters of the emperor’s many concubines (or “imperial consorts”). We viewed the temporary quarters for those selected to possibly sleep with the emperor on a given night. The women would wait in these small rooms, each containing a bed.
A large crystal stone was displayed outside, to reflect the “purity” of the concubines.
Laura explained that a concubine usually had only one night with the emperor; if she didn’t produce a child, the emperor would often never see her again.
After two hours in the Forbidden City, the children had just about reached their saturation point for absorbing “more information.” Sebastian found a tree in the courtyard, and went zooming off in his own world of imagination and intrigue.
The bark of the tree had a beautiful camouflage pattern:
While meandering our way to the north gate exit, we took a quick detour through a small museum, which contained displays of vases and other “treasures.” One large painting contained a single Chinese character that was made of butterflies.
Inside the exit gate was the Imperial Garden.
There were many pine and cypress trees that were hundreds of years old. Long wooden poles were used to prop up the branches, and straps kept the trunks from falling apart.
One old pine was called the “consort pine” because it had interlocking branches. It represented the harmony between the emperor and empress, and many couples were lined up to have a photo taken in front.
Against the north wall was the Hill of Accumulated Elegance, a 32-foot high man-made pile of rocks.
On top is the Pavilion of Imperial Scenery, which is reached by a small path; however, no visitors were allowed.
Here I am with Genevieve and Sebastian in front of the rocky hill:
A bridge in the Imperial Gardens had bright green water, which contrasted with the orange fish.
Before leaving the Forbidden City, we stopped at a small coffee shop for some snacks (and good espresso drinks). There, we bid farewell to our guide Laura.
Rising above the north exit/entrance of the Forbidden City was Jing Shan Park, with the Wancheng Pavilion on top.
The man-made hill was formed from earth that was excavated when Ming dynasty workers dug the moat that surrounds the Forbidden City.
Sebastian was tired, so I hoisted him up on my hip and carried him for a while.
He is growing so tall and big that my “mommy” days of carrying him around are almost over. I still relish holding his sweet body in my arms, even if he now weighs over half of my own weight.
A man sat enjoying the sunshine:
The sidewalks in Beijing often had old bicycles parked in the bike racks. From the look of the tires, it appeared that some of the bikes had not been ridden in a while.
There was a lot of ongoing construction along our route to the east of the Forbidden City.
We peeked into one of the courtyards and could see a mix of old buildings and newly constructed ones.
Many of the new buildings had guards at the entrance:
A view down the street—note the two pair of underwear hanging outside to dry:
For lunch, we found a restaurant near the Forbidden City.
We were warmly welcomed and given a menu with pictures showing many of the dishes. The food was very good.
We had reservations tonight to see the Kung Fu show in the Beijing Red Theater. We were supposed to meet our ticket purchaser at the theater at 7 p.m., ½ hour before the show started. We asked our hotel if they could call us a taxi to pick us up. The man at the front desk told us that calling a taxi was unnecessary, as we could just go out to the main street and find plenty of empty taxis. (Let me give another, much bigger, “ha!” in advance.)
We left the hotel at 6:30 and started walking. What few taxis we did see already had customers inside. After 20 minutes, I was getting nervous. We kept walking. A man in a very small rickety tuk tuk tried to convince us to ride with him. We would have had to pack in like Russian stacking dolls, and the physical condition of the vehicle was very sketchy. We declined.
We kept walking. By this time, we were on a very wide street where the sidewalks were blocked off from the heavy traffic. How were we ever going to find a taxi? At 7:10, I was getting very worried. Finally, at 7:15, we found a small row of tuk tuks in seemingly better condition. The drivers spoke very little English, but I showed them the Chinese map that I had printed out with directions to the Red Theater in Chinese. They didn’t understand. Then the face of one driver lit up with a smile—he understood when I said the phrase “kung fu”. Yes, he knew the place! Ben and Sebastian climbed into the back of one tuk tuk, and Genevieve and I climbed into another. Off we went.
The engine in my tuk tuk seemed to be on its last leg, and it s-l-o-o-w-w-l-y-y gathered the tiniest bit of speed when the driver pressed on the gas pedal. The tuk tuk drivers maneuvered down the wide bike lanes, through red lights, and in front of big buses and trucks that had the right of way in intersections.
Genevieve and I hugged each other in the back of the tuk tuk, and I soaked in all of the sights around us—the dark night sky, the lights of the traffic, the fluid movement of the vehicles. The ride was fascinating, and I was grateful to be in a moving vehicle heading toward the theater.
Genevieve and Sebastian later nick-named the slow vehicle “the putt-putt tuk tuk”, and we all still hoot with laughter when we talk about that ride.
We arrived at the theater with only a few minutes to spare. There was a small group of people around the ticket booth. I called out the name of our person, “Lily! Lily?” No one responded. I ran toward the front entrance, “Lily? Lily?” A woman emerged from the darkness holding tickets. Whew! We had found her. Oops! We discovered she was the wrong person. Back to the ticket booth. “Lily! Lily?” Another woman stepped out of the darkness—yes, it was Lily! She collected our money, quickly purchased our tickets, and rushed us inside to our seats.
The show was remarkable. It was not just a series of kung fu performances. Instead, it was a story about a small boy who set out to become a kung fu master. Particularly heart-wrenching (for me) was the beautifully performed scene where he and his mother have to part ways when he is still a small boy. (Sob!) Everything was magnificent—the acting, the music, the dancing, and the kung fu.
After the final bit of applause had died, the audience was invited to have photos taken onstage with the actors. Genevieve and Sebastian were hesitant, so we just took a few photos of the actors by themselves.
Here is the woman who played the mother—she was an exceptionally expressive and graceful dancer.
Here is the “boy” as a young adult, with his wise master:
Some audience members stepped right up to get their photo taken with the actors.
We were relieved to find a small line of taxis outside the theater. Our good-humored driver did not speak English, and we had forgotten our hotel's card with the Chinese name and directions. However, we had a Beijing map, and we pointed to the location of our hotel. The driver thought our map was quite interesting. He started driving, and every so often he would let out this soft chuckle, which was SO funny. When he would stop at a red light, Ben would show him the map again, reading off the Chinese pinyin names; and the man would just chuckle. I still smile thinking about it. And we made it back to the hotel, no problem!
Day 1: Beijing—Lost in Translation | Day 3: Beijing—The Great Wall >>
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