At large in a vast capital city
19.07.2011 - 19.07.2011 28 °C
Reaching Beijing we have now travelled some 8,000 miles since leaving the UK six weeks previously. Of those only 2,000 were travelled by air. As such we had hoped to travel to Xi’an, later in the week, by train. However, given that this is unfortunately Beijing’s peak travel time and train tickets can only be booked 10 days in advance (when we were touring communications restricted western Mongolia) it is not a complete surprise that all trains to Xi’an are now sold out. Spending most of the morning confirming this and with no other options available we book flights. In some ways this brings a more complete end to our cross continent train journey. Logistics complete we are now able to explore the immense capital that lies outside.
In some ways Beijing is a difficult city for the tourist to visit, much the same as London. Given the scale of the city one must decided carefully where to explore and then expect to spend much time travelling between desired locations. However, whereas in London there is both the scale of the city and the sheer volume of attractions to contend with Beijing, at least for us, has relatively few. As such our day starts in Tiananmen Square, the absolute centre of the city, and until Greenwich Meantime was imposed the point that all Chinese navigational charts used as 0°.
As the largest public space in the world Tiananmen Square is a vast desert of paving stones and a poignant memory to China’s hapless democracy memory. At the southern end lies the Front Gate, with the square’s meridian line straddled by the Chairman Mao Memorial Hall. To the north the imposing Gate of Heavenly Peace, with its vast Mao canvas leading through to the Forbidden City beyond.
Mao conceived the square to project the enormity of the Communist Party, which explains the size and scale of largely concrete buildings surrounding its perimeter – the monolithic Great Hall of the People holds a banqueting hall for 5,000 people an auditorium for 10,000 as was built in 1959 in just 10 months, by many Chinese who volunteered their service. Yet, while projecting scale it provides few photographic opportunities.
For us the square is somewhat of a disappointment. With none of the history and architectural splendor of Russia’s Red Square it is simply large with some buildings, essentially the north and south Gates that appeal. Yet to the Chinese this is a place of pilgrimage - to visit the embalmed body of the great Chairman and to pose for a picture in front of his great canvas. It would also appear that having a picture taken with a westerner is also a key visit requirement. Having taken a picture of ourselves outside the Gates of Heaven no fewer than three separate groups asked to have their pictures taken with us. Some just wanted the golden haired Trey, others wanted us both. The majority had to produce a two fingered victory sign at the appropriate moment. To the friends and family back home I suspect the two smiling yet reserved foreigners might make for a strange sight in front of the dour Mao portrait but next to clearly excited Chinese tourists.
Departing the Square we could soon dive into the Qianmen Hútòngs (narrow alleyways) that provide a more leisurely snapshot of the Chinese way of live. With many Hútòngs controversially destroyed during construction for the Olympic Games this narrow reconstructed alleyway offers a wide selection of tourist paraphernalia and Chinese food.
From there we head north to Liulichang Cultural Street, another Hútòng, that specializes in over priced (and usually fake) Chinese antiques. After discussing with Trey how everything on the street is overpriced and that purchase should be avoided we stumble upon a small gallery with artists painting new Chinese style pictures. With the refreshing style of one artist appealing we are not only able to purchase a piece from her but watch new pieces be created.
From there a return to our hotel for GM invited drinks and canapés calls. Sustained and revitalized a brief visit to Silk street allows us to browse a wide variety of Beijing souvenirs, clothes and paintings all of which require extremely hard bargaining, where typically 20% of the original asking price is acceptable. With most tourists programmed to reduce demanded prices by 50% one can only imagine how much profit can be made at these stalls by shrewd operators. Replete with a few purchases we soon return to our hotel determined to visit the vast Forbidden Palace in the morning.