Day 17 - 29 May In Beijing
Since the day was to be spent in Beijing it was a lazy morning. I woke up as usual to complete the blog and went back to sleep before it was end of breakfast time at the hotel, which was 9 am. I tucked in a huge breakfast of toast and margarine with boiled eggs, fried rice and veggies, coffee and cake. The idea was to skip lunch, but didn’t work out quite that way!
The first stop of the day was Tian’anmen Square. Being a railway person I wanted to experience the Beijing subway system. We walked to the nearest subway station and took a train to Tian’anmen East. The subway system was begun in 1969; the stations are just functional with nothing ornate or glitzy about it, unlike the ones in Moscow. But the system seemed to be efficient and extremely popular for the large city. 14 lines form neat grids to service the city and the six three ring roads as well as some satellite towns. One of the things I found strange is that there was no facility for a day pass and each journey had to be paid for separately. Ticket vending machines and ticketing booths service customers. On each platform there are customer service personnel deployed for information, guidance and safety. Tickets are cheap and the interchanges are clearly marked. However, as is the case in China, in the absence of information in English dependence on a local help is inevitable
The Tian’anmen Square is among the top ten largest city squares in the world occupying nearly 110 acres! The Square has great cultural significance as it has been the site of many important events in the story of China. The long walk from the subway itself almost ‘killed’ me. Moreover, it was hot, but not humid. The sun was harsh and as the day wore on it became unforgiving to those, such as I, without overhead protection. The centerpiece of the Square is a memorial to commemorate the October 1, 1949 founding of the People’s Republic of China that was proclaimed by Mao Zedong. The huge column is surrounded by majestic buildings that house the Monument to the People’s Heroes, Great Hall of the People, National Museum of China and the Mausoleum of Chairman Mao with a large number of national flags proudly fluttering in the light breeze.
I made a beeline for the mausoleum of Chairman Mao. Nothing can be taken into the mausoleum and hence, Andy offered to keep my belongings and wait for me outside. Lockers are available to keep your personal belongings. Everyone is thoroughly frisked before entry into the huge building. Photography is completely banned inside the building. Long queues are efficiently managed by ensuring that it moves fast. Along the route of the queue there are stall selling chrysanthemum flowers wrapped aesthetically which is used as offering. A larger than life size marble statue of the leader, in the first room of the building, is where the floral tributes are paid. Volunteers guide people to move through silently and quickly. The embalmed body of the great leader lies in state guarded round the clock in an air conditioned room with a strange orange light reflecting from his face. The experience of seeing the man who built order out of the chaos resulting from the breakdown of the monarchy lasted barely a minute.
The Forbidden City has been a romantic concept since school. When something is forbidden it has an exotic feel to it. And so it is with the Forbidden City, the imperial palace of the Ming and Qing dynasties. The mystery surrounding it was about to give way as I moved through the Tian’anmen Gate into the grounds of the Palace Museum, which is located within the Forbidden City.
Twenty four Ming (1398-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) emperors lived in and ruled from these premises for 491 years. Construction of the Forbidden City started in 1407 and was completed in 1420. Some of the buildings were rebuilt and/or renamed after the Qing emperors came to power. The ‘City’ occupies 78000 square meters; the 8700 rooms in them itself occupy nearly 170000 of them! The elaborate City is surrounded by 10 meter high walls and 52 meter wide moat, almost impregnable. The buildings in the Forbidden City are colorfully painted wooden structures covered with yellow glazed tiles seated on greenish white marble bases. The timber is reputed to have come from Sichuan, Yunnan, Gaungxi, Guizhou Provinces during the Mings and North East China during the Qings. Most of the stones are from Fengshan near Beijing. There is a large stone carving behind the Hall of Preserving harmony that is said to have been drawn over roads covered in ice during winter! The Palace Museum is the largest surviving wooden palace structure anywhere in the world.
The Forbidden City complex is divided into “Outer” and “Inner” Courts. The Outer Court is where the emperors and officials carried out grand ceremonies and managed the affairs of the state. The Inner Court is from where the emperor managed his daily official duties and formed the residences of the emperor, empresses, concubines and their children. The Qing dynasty was brought to an end by the 1911 revolution led by Dr Sun Zhongshan. The last emperor Puyi was permitted to live there till 1925.
The Palace Museum was established in 1925, thereby converting the imperial palace into a modern museum with over 1,80,0000 treasures of the imperial collection, attracting millions of visitors every year to the once forbidden city. The enduring visit ended in the Royal garden.
Legs had almost come apart during the more than three hours in the area. We took the rather expensive bus service to the upscale shopping street of Beijing where we had a KFC feast. Unlike in Laos, Cambodia or Vietnam KFC and McDonalds are very popular in Beijing. In fact, Beijing exemplifies the change that has happened in the past there decades. Dressing is most modern as are habits; it must be said that there is seldom any public display of affection. Traditional dressing has totally disappeared. People keep to themselves most often and smiling is a ‘lost’ trait.
After walking down a bit to savor the shopping street we took the subway and changed five times to reach the Olympic arena. The huge complex that was at the center of the 2008 Olympic bonanza is a sight to behold. The Birds Nest is the major attraction in the complex with the Water Cube coming in next. A walk in the complex with the unsparing sun took the last ounce of resolve and determination. The area has many restaurants and resting places. Modern art is displayed everywhere – great art comes from the heart, and so it is here. The Dragon Lake, Olympic Torch, indoor stadium, pagoda, shopping complex, etc. have to be enjoyed at leisure. There are many souvenir shops in the complex. Ice sticks were most in demand, to keep the effects of the sun at bay.
The return to the hotel was most welcome; it was time to rest the body and recuperate from the punishing schedule of the day. Dinner was at a nearby Chinese fast-food joint. I had pork noodles and a bottle of Yangjin beer.
The visit to the capital city of China is over. In three days it will be time to say goodbye to the country. I have been amazed at the development that has happened in the country. It is the prime example of how Communism reinvented to leverage the effects of capitalism in terms of infrastructure and benefit its citizens.