My recent business trip to China was a very short one, but with an entire sunny Sunday to spend wandering around Beijing, I didn’t feel I had any choice but to spend a day as a tourist. I told the staff at the hotel where I wanted to go, they handed me a piece of paper with Chinese-languages instructions, and a map, for the return trip, and they stuffed me into a taxi, which dropped me off in the general vicinity of the Forbidden City and Imperial Palace.
One of the reasons I limited the length of my trip was because it took place during a holiday week, the Mid-Autumn Festival, which would be crowded and put a strain on all the tourist locations. Unsurprisingly, security was tight. I lined up at a checkpoint along the impossibly wide West Chang’an Avenue between Tian’anmen Square and the Tainanmen, or Gate of Heavenly Peace, under the benign oversight of Chairman Mao.
A huge crowd lined up to get tickets. But it only took 10-15 minutes to get to a cashier who happily accepted my Mastercard, and I was ready to wait for the entrance line.
I waited in yet another line (note the umbrella) to pickup an English-language audio guide. 45 minutes after being dropped off on a side street, I finally entered the imperial compound.
Serving as the emperor’s palace, the ceremonial and political center of China for just shy of 5 centuries, the scale of the thing was immense. I’ve been to a LOT of palaces and fortified cities in Europe (and England, for those who’d prefer to think it isn’t in Europe), but nothing quite compares to the sheer bulk of the Forbidden City, which consists of 180 acres (for the record, this is over 3X the land mass of Heiser Hollow) of imperial grandeur.
It is a massive complex, filled with intricate and ornate buildings, all of which cried out ‘maintenance headache’ to me. And it was packed with people. Lots of people. Hot people. Touring people. Baby people. Old people. Even a few non-Chinese people. But when you are a country of 1.4 BILLION, your domestic tourists dwarf those from the rest of the world.
I wandered from building to building, working my way from A to B, through E, F, G, H, N, L, E, and M, taking in the geometric complexity of the spiritual heart of the middle kingdom, sometimes stopping at kitschy souvenir shops, stopping for some food, and looking for a Chinese toilet and hoping for no unexpected surprises.
I think the Forbidden City must be a lot like bluegrass music. If you are really into the genre, it probably offers huge variety and ever-changing interest. But if you aren’t, then all the songs pretty much sound alike. There was a certain oppressive sameness to the buildings, and an architectural consistency that to my Occidental eyes seemed boringly consistent for five hundred years of effort on the part of multiple dynasties.
I’m sure that the symbolism and subtleties of the place were more obvious to people who had grown up in China, but I had the impression that the heat and bulk were tiring for everyone, including the locals starting out a week of holiday. All of that said, it was a fascinating place, and I’m glad that I had the pleasure of visiting it. My next blog entry will dive deeper into some of the details.