Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City

Getting anywhere from my base of operations requires taking a taxi to the subway station. It's not so bad, it only costs about two bucks each way, an it's pretty good. Never mind that I think I'm going to die every time I get inside one.

From Wangjing station, I headed down to Tiananmen East, and walked my way up the stairs into the sun. It's worth noting that here in Beijing there are more security checks than I ever could have imagined. Honestly, I never imagined that at every subway station you'd have to line up and have your bags x-rayed. I mean, there are millions of people here. What must this be like during rush hour? How do people stand it. Still – it's China, and that's just the way of things.

My first sight? A large image of Mao. And bridges. Lots and lots of bridges. I had no idea what I was going to do today, or what I was doing here – aside from seeing the square, which was across the road, and might as well have been across the city for all the good that did me. I could see no way to it, though the hundreds wandering around there certainly found their way.

Still I was on one side, and I should make the best. A large procession of people – tourists and perhaps locals alike – were making their way in one direction. Silly of me not to follow along, so in the line I jumped and started making my way along with them, under arches, and through halls, until I was standing in a great big square. I was at the entrance to the Forbidden city.

The sky was dark and as foreboding as the city once was forbidden. I thought about not going in, finding some place inside to explore. But no – I should man up, I should go inside. Why if that little boy over there could freely take off his clothes and pee in the middle of the square, well then anything was possible.

And then it started to rain.

You've not seen so many Chinese people run so fast to find cover. It was comical. I just put on my hat and rolled up my sleeves. Yeah, it was raining, but it wasn't so bad. It was annoying though. Fine. I went off to buy my ticket, rain and all. And the moment I handed over my money the rain stopped. The clouds blew away, the sky cleared. There wasn't even pollution to speak of. It was a bright sunny day.

Well with good luck like that...

I headed over and bought an audio guide too. Having seen a number of temples and shrines already I needed something to make me care, give me reason to walk from one building to the next.

The audio guide was also a map, with little blinking lights showing where you were. When you hit a new location it would start to play the correct information through the magic of GPS locators, and then the light would blink off, never to be played again.

For three hours I walked through the palaces and the temples, making my way past every shrine, and looking at every throne. All the while the guide would play stories and myths, and convey information that I'd most likely not process or remember. Still – it kept me going, kept me snaking through for three hours trying to catch them all – all the red lights. And at each site, I would wait until the playing was finished, forcing me to stand by as the recording went on. Pictures were undoubtedly taken during this time.

There were tales of jealousy and murder. Tales of concubines taking revenge on one another. Hidden babies, and secret unions. And many of them involved people, “crying so much they went blind.” This leads me to wonder just what was causing all the blindness in China in those years. I have no doubt the people really did go blind – but from crying? Most likely not.

An hour more, and a popsicle later I was ready to leave, and made my way out and back to the subway station. There I headed down, and tried to find Tiananmen square. All I could see was the guard check with x-rays for the subway. Or, wait? Was it? No – these stairs went up after the check, not down.

Once more I had to have my bag x-rayed, this time so I could walk around the public square.

It made me think of the tanks from years past, but only for a moment. There was so much life here, and so many delightful buildings, statues, sculptures. It was almost easy to mental edit out all the military guards wandering around. Or forget that the sculptures were also about military supremacy in the way only communistic art can replicate.

It was a lovely square, but after a few dozen minutes i was ready to leave. Time to head back to the subway station and hail a cab. I had a map with a star on it showing the intersection i wanted to end up at. Surely that would get me there. Right? I mean, it had to. It was all I had. There was nothing else. No other way for me to get my ideas across.

As would be the case, the mark was enough. All I had to do was hang on for the ride. Almost immediately we started honking our horn at cars that weren't really in the way, but I guess might have posed a problem somewhere down the line. It was more a call saying, we're coming. Deal with it.

My favourite moments were the ones where we almost got hit (seatbelt firmly attached). Now it's not like we were doing anything all that crazy, except, you know, making a left hand turn on a red light, just assuming that everyone would stop for us and yield before our god-given right to be first. Ohh and then there were the people, the poor poor people crossing the street just because the little green walkman said it was safe. Safe, indeed, save for us ready to plow through everyone!

Still, it was hard to tell when the people we nearly killed were crossing legally and when they were stepping out in front of crazed drivers like us. Mind, if crossing legally almost gets you killed, then why not cross whenever you so choose. Just take a look, and make the call.

Cars stopped inches from smashing into us, and we stopped inches from flattening people, and thus life goes on in China's big city.

And all of a sudden I understand some about the intersection near Pacific Mall back home. Travel around the world to learn about your neighbourhood only a few kilometers from where you grew up.

When the cab finally pulled up, I was happy to still be in one piece, got out, handed over the money, and made my way back. Well – I stopped at the blue street first. This is a shopping street near the building I'm staying in. It's called the blue street (by me) because when i saw it last night, it was all lit up in neon blue. Seemed a good a name as any. There I saw a Yoshinoya, and realized that they're partners with Dairy Queen. Hmm. Do these places exist back in Toronto? The rice bowl places, no the delicious ice creamy treats.

Finding few other things of interest there (mostly pubs, and shops) I made my way back, and settled in for the night, trying to plan out the rest of my time here in Beijing.

Tomorrow? Well that seems as good a day as any to go investigate the Temple of Heaven. And get my train ticket out of here. Yeah, having a train ticket out of Beijing to Xian would probably be a good and – quite necessary – thing too.

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