Beijing: Tiananmen Square, Forbidden City, and Temple of Heaven
I’m writing this blog post in the Notes app of my iPhone, on a bus ride to the Great Wall of China! I have no cell service or internet outside of the hotel, so I have to entertain myself somehow. However, the views of the city are plenty fascinating on its own. Some things about Beijing remind me of big cities in the US; the cars are the same models, the buildings are tall, and the roads are stacked with overpasses and packed with traffic. The cars play by different traffic rules here, though— I’m looking out the window right now and watching a car straddle two lanes! The traffic flow here is much less precise, and really does feel like the flow of water or something elastic between lanes. As an American passenger, it’s stressful for me but doesn’t bother anyone else. It’s also surreal to see a city with storefronts and bright billboards plastered in a language I can’t read. The buses are rounder, more colorful, and prettier, and many more people ride bikes. Everyone seems packed closer to each other, and everyone’s pace in this city seems purposeful and efficient. The clearance between a speeding bike passing a car, that is also passing a person, might be as little as two inches. Built very close together, the buildings seem to alternate between two eras. The old designs with elegant lines, reminiscent of the Forbidden City, are everywhere. Between these buildings are newer concrete Soviet-era buildings, which look imposing and blocky between the shorter ones. These are more related to the Cultural Revolution.
Here, I am an extreme minority, but I’m far from the only foreigner in Beijing. I knew that people travel here from all over the world, both for business and leisure, but i can really spot them in the streets based on how much slower they move, and how lost they look. Yesterday on 5/23, my first day here, i took an 8 hour private tour and traveled to Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven, and the Beijing National Museum.
Tiananmen Square was our first stop, and it was surreal. I also really felt the smog out here— there were fewer trees to help with pollution, so my contacts were blurring and my chest could feel the air quality a bit. It was 9:30am, so a ton of crowds weren’t out yet, but there were a few giant domestic tour groups. The tour groups identified themselves through baseball caps of the same color. Throngs of people in the same baseball caps quickly became a running theme throughout this tour. The color palette switched from red to yellow to blue, based on where you turned your head. I also saw many families taking the day to see these places, along with a few obvious foreigners looking as awestruck as I did.
The Forbidden City was our longest stop, and I immediately fell in love with it. Built in 1420, you can see the golden rooftops from my hotel. Back then, gold rooftops were reserved only for royalty, and people could not enter the city without permission. You need to get through 4 gates to enter the city, which I can only imagine were heavily guarded at the time. We arrived there around 10am, and the weather was great at about 80-85 degrees without too many crowds. We passed through each golden gate, taking time to stop and see the emperor’s throne.
The Temple of Heaven was our third stop, located in a former place of worship that is now a public park. There were tons of trees here, and in Beijing in general, since they really help with the air quality. Apparently at about 6-7am, you can see people exercising and practicing tai chi amongst the trees. We walked on a sacred path that only a god is supposed to walk on, and stood on the spot that marks the shortest distance between earth and heaven. Hundreds of years ago, no one was supposed to set foot on this. It felt vaguely sacrilegious, but the line to stand on this thing was also kind of hilarious. When I was there, you could hear the languages of Mandarin, the various Chinese dialects, English, and French being spoken while in line to take a picture.
The Beijing National Museum was our last stop (and thankfully air-conditioned). I was actually very surprised by this, but the layout and structure of the museum was exactly like you’d see in the US. I’m not sure what else I’d expected, but you could get me to believe I was in the United States if everything wasn’t written in a different language. Thankfully, English was underneath every exhibit so I was able to fully enjoy history from China’s perspective. I was completely blown away by artifacts that had been traced back to 200 BC, or seeing tons of things from 1200-1400. The United States couldn’t hold a candle to the amount of history here. The throngs of baseball caps were still seen here, and the many obvious field trips with kids in school uniform made me smile. Our tour guide was fantastic, and knew more than the exhibits had to say. We walked through basic Chinese history, Chinese marriage customs, an exhibit on Buddhist art, and an exhibit on Chinese porcelain (many looking beautiful and brand new from 1400-1800). As an American, I could truly feel how young my country is.
We’re currently in a tunnel heading to the Great Wall, and I can see the mountains rising as I wrote this post. We’ll be heading to the Wall and the Emperors’ tombs today!