07 May 2004

Forbidden City, Fortuitous Friends, Fabulous Hotpot

While I spent yesterday morning struggling to get a rental phone and then wandering Tiananmen (see yesterday’s post from near there), my afternoon was quite different. As Mao’s Mausoleum didn’t open in the afternoon (despite the signs), I went to the Forbidden City, or the Palace Museum, as the ticket refers to it. Now first I walked though Tiananmen Gate, which leads to Zongshen Park and the Park of the People’s Culture.

Upon passing through Tiananmen Gate (by the way, that is somewhat redundant, as the “men” part means gate), I beheld a site that must keep Mao rolling in his glass coffin (at least during the times he is not being gawked at by tourists). There was a long row of venders selling a vast array of cheap Mao trinkets, anything with the picture of the Great Helmsman on it was up for sale, and if you didn’t buy from a shop, there were dozens of clandestine sellers walking around with books, postcards and other trinkets under their jackets, waiting to pull them out for each and every tourist, Chinese and foreign alike.

Now remember, Tiananmen Gate is the one with the massive picture of Mao hanging on it, and after passing under his benign visage, one walks into a capitalist paradise rivaling Disney World, with its very own Mickey Mao.

Continuing through the vendors and through the Duanmen Gate, with the parks on each side of the vase boulevard, one finally comes to a moat, a wall, and the Wumen Gate, where you can buy your 60 Yuan ticket into the Forbidden City (Palace Museum). Now, remember, I had been fairly impressed with the size of Tiananmen Square, a fabrication of the Chinese Communists who converted the old boulevard into a massive public square. But the Forbidden City dwarfs Tiananmen, with the entire square fitting into the inner section of the Palace, and overall probably six Tiananmen’s can fit inside the walls of the Palace.

There is little than can prepare a person for the sheer size and scope of the Palace. It seems to just keep going on forever. Every time you pass through a gate, there are another two on the other side, beckoning you forward. A cursory tour of the Palace may take only two hours, but any attempt to see most of the structures (they say there are some 800 buildings inside the main walls) is certainly a full day affair.

Around the Hall of Supreme Harmony, the Hall of Middle Harmony and the Hall of Preserving Harmony there are several tiers of stone railings, each section with cloud carvings. The stairs themselves are carved with dragons, mountains and seas (the ones you walk on are covered over with wood steps to preserve the carvings). The metalwork on the massive doors is covered with intricate cast dragons. There are hundreds of large cauldrons (well, at one time there were hundreds, now less than a hundred probably) that in the past held water in case of fire.

The roof tiles of the buildings are all of glazed yellow, very different than the simple black of Korea’s roof tiles. The peaks of the roofs are straight, without the gentle curve of Korean architecture. But the similarities and influences of Chinese architecture and design on Korea are clear to be seen.

One observation is that, while perhaps intended to send a sign of wealth and power, the yellow rood tiles now appear more like rust than anything else, an apt match for the fading paintings on the woodwork beams, the thick dust and the crumbling corners. How one maintains something of this immense scale is a mystery, particularly given the tourist penchant for touching everything, but everywhere parts were under construction, recently renovated or slated for renovation (apparently American Express helped pay for some of it, because many of the explanatory signs around the complex have the AmEx logo at the bottom).

There was a sign posted exhorting visitors to “Value the Cultural Heritage of Our ancestors, Shoulder the Historic Mission of Conserving Their Relics.” Even in signs basically saying don’t touch or litter, there is the essence of the old Communist slogans – rather quaint for the American tourist looking nostalgically for the old days of Mao in a (relatively) modern metropolis.

Now, if you recall from the previous post, there were art students galore wandering Tiananmen Square looking for tourists to show (and sell) their works to. I was already approached by several more after my first trip to the exhibit. So when I left the Palace grounds around closing time and was approached by two more students, I walked along and talked, prepared to tell them, too, that I had already been to the art show. But instead, there was no invitation to see the art, just an offer to show me around “old Beijing,” a busy street-shopping district across from Tiananmen.

After wandering the crowded streets, we went to a teahouse for a tea sampling in the traditional way (something that took like two hours and during which I imbibed an unknown quantity of tea, as the tiny cup is constantly being refilled and it is impossible to keep count). After this it was off to a hotpot restaurant for an evening of lamb and vegetables boiled on a spicy broth at the table. Then, with the time creeping past 10, I caught a cab back home.

Now it is worth walking around, taking the pedicab or just taking a regular cab (though the latter is much too quick) around the Square at night, as everything is lit up with strings of lights, and even some of the trees along the boulevard are filled with multi-colored Christmas lights. The lit streets of the center of Beijing at night really give that grandiose feeling of Communist architecture, the impression of being both in another place and another time, with an expectation to turn and find folks in their green jumpsuits and red-star adorned green hats or at least folks in gray “Mao” suits with their Mao badges gleaming in the artificial light.

And with that, I leave you with one more passing thought – how long until the preserved bodies of Mao, Lenin, Ho Chi Minh and Kim Il Sung are lined up together at some tourist-trap pop-culture museum somewhere in West Virginia?

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