Monday, August 01, 2005

The Forbidden City and The Great Wall

Last Saturday I caught a bus and took it a few stops south to go see The Forbidden City and Tienamen Square and everything else tourists go to Beijing to see. I got off the bus a little early having seen a McDonalds and not eaten yet, and afterwards just wandered along the road I knew led to Tienamen Square. Just ambling along, I noticed a fair sized gathering of people taking photographs of a large Chinese gate with some guards nearby. The gate looked pretty nice, pretty big too, but I honestly didn't know why people were photographing it. Nice, big gates abound in China, security guards too, so I couldn't figure out what was so special about this particular gate that had compelled so many people to capture it on film. I momentarily considered just walking on by the crowd, but then thought better and stopped to watch everyone. Just past the gate and between two guards was a large red wall, not unlike the one that runs along the entire road. This wall made it impossible to see what was beyond the gate and, while it seemed to be acceptable to venture inside, I noticed that nobody did. I decided to pull out my tourist map and figure out exactly what the underwhelming thing I was looking at really was. To my surprise, my map seemed to suggest that this gate was the entrance to Tienamen Square. As I looked very carefully again at my map, a young Taiwanese man approached me and asked if he could look over my shoulder. He was looking for somewhere to get lunch.
"This is Tienamen Square?"
"Yes, Tienamen Square."
"Can you go in there?" I asked, motioning through the gate. The young man laughed.
Apparently Tienamen Square is the Chinese equivalent of the White House, except under far greater cover. I still found it such an uneventful site, I didn't even bother to take a digital photograph of it. What I did do was begin to wonder exactly what it was I had seen so many years ago on television during the famous student protests. If it wasn't here at Tienamen Square, it must have been nearby. I crossed under the boulevard to the other side of the street, pulled out my map again, and then decided to cross back. I walked further down the street, looking for a way into what my map showed as The Palace Museum, which appeared to be just over the wall broken by the gate at Tienamen Square. I came across a small side street and walked a ways down it, hoping to find a side way into the Palace Museum.
"Shouldn't there be throngs of tourists around here?" I thought to myself and, noting the lack of any, turned around again to continue along my original course. I was getting quite frustrated at the sight of the continuous red wall that ran alongside me without every allowing access to that which it protected (not to mention the lack of public toilets), when I suddenly came to a corner of the wall that opened up into a vast expanse with an absolute throng of tourists. A prominent 20 foot tall painting of Chairman Mao above an arch in the wall signalled that I had at last found what I was looking for. The walls of The Forbidden City are astonishingly large. Straight out of Lord of the Rings, there are numerous inner and outer layers which, on the South side of the city, encase astonishingly large stone courtyards. Atop each subsequent wall's gate is an elaborate building that I wasn't able to investigate, but the elaborate and impressive characteristics of the gates themselves give some clue as to what the guard buildings might be like.
For me, the highlight of The Forbidden City was the North end. Characterized by smaller buildings built closer together, the Northern city was originally inhabited exclusively by the Emporer and a select few others (mostly workers who were forbidden to leave and concubines). High red walls exist in the Northern city as well, but they aren't as imposing, and serve more to divide the area into different courtyards. Each courtyard, in turn, is divided by different buildings, with a temple in the center. There are maybe a dozen such courtyards, and they are exceedingly interesting to explore. The Chinese government has decorated each courtyard with different exhibits, but the real charm just comes from wandering around the labryinth-like grounds, imagining what it might have been like five hundred years earlier. Wondering what it might be like to play laser tag in the North city occupied a fair amount of my time as well.
The Great Wall at Ba Da Ling, is a tourist destination at least as popular as The Forbidden City. I was encouraged by a front desk worker at my hotel to take a taxi there, but she appeared a little too excited at the idea, and I decided her hope of a kickback from the taxi company was affecting her faith in my independence. So I took a bus instead. This turned out to be an astonishingly simple affair, as roughly six hundred million buses leave Beijing for The Great Wall every hour, and that number evidently doubles on Sundays, the day in which I was going. We arrived at Ba Da Ling after about half an hour, and once I learned to preemptively strike the overly aggressively souvenier purveyors that line the road to the wall, I was able to buy a ticket and wander around the immense structure. The wall at Ba Da Ling is apparently renovated to extreme measures, but it's impressiveness is not derived from the immaculate condition of it's construction, but rather its imposing location and sheer scale. I wandered around the wall for the better part of an hour, hiking up stairs reminiscent of the Inca Trail in Peru and taking pictures that failed to capture even a hint of the majesty of the view; but after a short while the whole scene was fairly uninteresting and I walked back down towards the buses, head-butting the tourist shop sellers as I went. I had noticed upon arriving that there was a Circle Vision theatre on the site, something I recalled with fondness from the early days of Disneyland. I took a chance that the price would be cheap (a good bet in China) and it turned out to be free with a paid ticket to see the wall. With exuberance I waited the twenty five minutes until the next showtime (this despite the film being only eight minutes long) and prepared myself for a trip back to the past. For those of you who have never experienced the bliss that is Circle Vision, it is essentially a film in which several cameras have been aimed outwards, and the resulting footage is then projected on screens in a circular room. The effect is that you get to see entire scenes in 360 degrees, which would be really amazing to see if humans had eyes in the back of their heads, but is pretty cool regardless. This particular film would have been even cooler if it hadn't been in Chinese and revolved around a lengthy reenactment of the first commissioning of the wall, but the impressive aerial shots were enough to make me look past all that. A thoroughly enjoyable weekend when all was said and done actually, I'm sure I'll look back on it with disbelief when I'm washing my clothes and cleaning my room back in San Diego next weekend. -joe