It happened in Copenhagen. I sat at the foot of the iconic statue of Hans Christian Anderson in front of the city’s municipal building while Jessica took a photo: one (successful) writer being paid homage by another (unsuccessful) writer. Someone yelled, “Run! It’s a Chinese tour bus.” Pandemonium broke loose and people on the square scattered in all directions. I was too slow. The mass of Asian humanity headed directly for the statue and I was quickly cut off from any escape. The group descended on Hans like a swarm of very angry Africanized bees. I was just able to fight my way out of the throng but not without some semi-permanent damage to my fourth rib on the right side. To this day it aches when I eat General Tso’s Chicken.
As a result of this life-altering experience, it was not without considerable trepidation that we made our first trip into mainland China. Jessica was intent on finally seeing The Forbidden City and the Great Wall. I was thinking more along the lines of revenge. My preparation for the journey mostly consisted of watching my former Pittsburgh Penguins in the Stanley Cup finals and watching how the pros throw elbows, gouge eyes, knee balls and do other such things to the player on the other team or the to other tourists, as the case may be. I practiced my moves before we left so that I felt reasonably capable of holding my own in a skirmish in front of a ticket booth or on the way to a shrine. But all my efforts proved unnecessary. As concentrated as the hordes were at the major tourist centers, all of the people were well comported, respectful, and pleasant to be around. All except for one old lady who shouldered me into a temporary staircase but a perfectly timed hip check in response sent the octogenarian sprawling at the foot of a marble fu dog and that made me feel better.
It took us a bit longer than it should have to walk from our conveniently-located hotel to The Forbidden City on that first morning. I attribute the less-than-stellar navigation to the fact that our map was (1) not to scale and (2) in Chinese. But, after turning a twenty-minute walk into a forty-minute one, I managed to get us to the entrance to the former palace/prison of the Chinese emperors for nearly 500 years. Our fellow queue members behaved commendably with nary a push or a shove despite the oppressive heat and the fifteen-minute wait. After clearing security, we proceeded with the rest of the mass of flesh past the famous Tiananmen Square and through the first gate, above which hung a portrait of Chairman Mao seeming to bless all of those who passed beneath his gaze. The queue reassembled on the other side to purchase the entry tickets and the throng then moved en masse into the outer part of the massive complex.
So much has been written about The Forbidden City that now houses the Palace Museum that I will not venture to add to it; however, you should plan to spend a few hours wandering around the former home to 14 Chinese emperors since it includes nearly a thousand buildings and covers 180 acres. Its sheer magnitude is awe-provoking but the richness of the architecture and the historical significance of the place provides a whole new perspective on Chinese culture. Oh, and if you haven’t seen Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor (or, if you haven’t seen it lately), you will do yourself a favor to spend a couple of hours doing so before your visit to The Forbidden City. Just consider it a little bit of homework and more than worth the time.
We exited The Forbidden City through its north gate, took the underpass to get to the other side of the boulevard, and began the trek up to the top of the hill in Jingshan Park, once a part of the palace grounds. By the time we started to climb the hundreds of steps to reach the Wanchun Pavilion, the temperatures had reached the high-30s (that would be Celsius) but climb we did. The Wanchun is the southernmost of five pavilions in the park and provided us with an astounding view of palace complex we had just visited. If you need a perspective on the scale of The Forbidden City, you can get it from Jingshan Park. At the Wanshun Pavilion, an elderly gentleman was generous with his knowledge of the area and he pointed out to us a bronze placque embedded into the concrete. “This,” he said proudly, “this is the exact center of Beijing. Go ahead. Stand on it and have your photograph made.” So I dutifully took up the position and Jessica snapped away.
And what else did we do on our visit to Beijing? Well, the Great Wall, of course. Theoretically, our excursion to the Mutianyu section of this wonder of the world was a guided tour but the “guide” did little but tell us a little of Beijing’s history on the two-hour drive and show us where to catch the cable car that took us up to the top of the mountain where this part of the Great Wall built in the mid-6th century snaked along the tops of the hills where the former sentries could see the northern nomadic tribes coming to make trouble long before they arrived. While the ascent to the Wall was by cable car, the ride back down was via luge. Someone actually thought that was a good idea. On the return trip to Beijing, the tour stopped at a tea shop where we and a slew of other unsuspecting tourists were exposed to a genuine Chinese tea ceremony, complete with a little clay figurine who pees only if the water poured over him is the correct temperature. At that point I might have thought that we had seen all that Beijing had to offer, but I was wrong.
The last day of our trip to Beijing was dedicated to seeing the Summer Palace and the Temple of Heaven. The Summer Palace was kind of the Camp David to the emperors of China but bigger. For me, it was an interesting stroll around some of the 1.1 square miles of gardens, forests, and lakes but after seeing The Forbidden City, there just wasn’t as much sensory stimulation as I had expected. Even Jessica, who seems to find a photograph in nearly everything she sees, seemed less than maximally inspired. Greater inspiration awaited us at the Temple of Heaven, the one square mile complex dedicated to prayer and sacrifice. The emperors made semi-annual pilgrimages to the site in a procession that no one outside of the official retinue was permitted to witness. Once there, the emperors would spend days fasting and praying, mostly for good harvests. And, speaking of good harvests, the feature of the Temple of Heaven not to be missed (actually it’s almost impossible to miss it since it seems that all paths in the complex lead to it) is the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, a wooden, circular building on a marble base that exemplifies the architecture of 600 years ago, though the original hall was struck by lightning in 1889 and re-built in the original style a few years later.
Jessica and I left Beijing with a radically different perspective on the city than the one we carried there with us. I suppose that some of that is inevitable as you experience first-hand what you’ve only previously read about. But, in the case of Beijing, we found a clean, modern, retail-driven city that rivals any western-oriented urban area. Instead of unbreathable smog, we experienced a clean atmosphere; the wide, smooth sidewalks allowed for easy, uncrowded pedestrian movement; bicycle lanes and even traffic cops dedicated to them, demonstrated a very progressive approach to transportation. And, we discovered that, if loogie-hocking becomes an Olympic sport, the Chinese will take all three medals. Everyone participates in the activity with great enthusiasm and, as they say, practice makes perfect.
A shout out to our friend Stephen Henson, blogger and tour guide extraordinaire, for his advice prior to our trip to Beijing. His counsel was invaluable. If you plan a trip to Asia, check out his site at http://journeyswithstephen.com. And a big thanks to Stephen’s partner, Charlotte Ye, who showed us what real Chinese food is about and how to eat it without having a drycleaner on speeddial.
And for more of Jessica’s amazing photos from Beijing, go to her website at http://www.jessicacoup.com/China/Beijing-China/.
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