Starting to finish up some of the main sites in Beijing, and today we visited one of the bigger ones: The Forbidden City. It’s big, huge even, popular amongst foreigners and locals alike, and really, really crowded. We’ve started to fine tune some of our “crowd thinning” tactics for pictures though, and we managed to get away with way better pictures than we could’ve hoped for ahead of time. For reference, it doesn’t pay to get to these sites early in Beijing. The hordes of tourists flow in non-stop all morning and all afternoon. The point when they stop is as it nears closing time. A few photo tips…. 1) Move in the opposite direction of everyone else and backtrack to the best views at the end of the day, the ones that everybody already took photos at amongst the crowds. 2) Be aggressive with locals and befriend other locals to be aggressive on your behalf. For example, we let a family in front of us to grab some good pics and then took the pics for them. On older male then started yelling “Oy! Oy!” at anyone that got in the way of our view. Awesome. 3) Take it to the edge of closing time. The crowds are dissipating, and the sun is soft in the sky, so the lighting is better anyway. 4) Use the language barrier to your advantage with the security guards. They’ll use a nightstick on a local before you can say “Tiananmen Square,” but they’re really pretty shy and polite with westerners. Beyond all of that, it also helps that a lot (a whole lot) of Chinese tourists take absolutely terrible pictures with no concern whatsoever for people in the background. Often, we’re one of only a few people who seem to be really after grabbing pics at the postcard spots without random strangers photo-bombing our shots, doddling in the background.
Anyhow, today we started out at emperor…. errr, I mean “chairman” Mao’s mausoleum. It’s only open from 0800-1200 on certain days, so you gotta make it your morning priority if you want to see it. Forgive me for constantly comparing, but my main reference for this kind of thing is Lenin’s mausoleum. Really though, Lenin died in 1924, and Mao died in 1976. Besides the massive cultural differences in the respective countries, there’s a pretty tremendous gap in available technology for engineering, construction, and the science in preserving a human body indefinitely between those dates. The building that houses Mao Zedong’s body is far more impressive then Lenin’s. It’s a huge structure with towering Romanesque columns on the front of the building. It’s set back kind of far from the public area in Tiananmen square, with gardens and a couple security checkpoints in the intervening space, so you don’t really get a great look at the building until you go through the process of visiting it. When we got there this morning, there was a HUGE line. I mean really huge. Like at least five times as long as “Space Mountain” in Disney World…. on the fourth of July. Oh yeah, and just as hot.
To the right is a shot from one of the turns that the line made towards the end. The line snaked around the equivalent of at least 1-2 city blocks and then backtracked on itself a couple times. See if you can pick out a certain white guy in the line. At Lenin’s mausoleum, they kept tight crowd control at the site. In addition to very limited operating hours there, they would also shut it down once the line got to a certain size. The demand at Mao’s place is WAY bigger though, and you would have some really pissed off Chinese people if they pulled that there. The line did move fast though, and as always it was an entertaining window in to Chinese social dynamics and group behavior. Line cutting (or attempted), yelling, hacking, spitting…. Oh, and what crowded site would be complete without parents assisting toddlers to urinate right there on the concrete, right there in the line? Geez, at least in India they took them off to a patch of grass or something. Like we’ve said before, watch out for puddles on the sidewalk…. Ok where were we? Differences…. Another difference at this site is with the bags. Of course, no bags are allowed at either site, but at Lenin’s they actually allowed you to check your bags with people right at the site, rather than lockers off somewhere else. We opted to just do it in two visits. I went today, and my travel partner will go tomorrow. We had two daypacks with us, and also she had a sleeveless dress and sandals, and I saw a couple ladies get removed from the line for inappropriate attire. As far as the actual visit…. like any of these, it’s over in an instant. You approach this imposing structure, guards start quieting everyone down. For once, I’m in a dense crowd of Chinese people and it’s actually quiet. The first room you enter is huge and open. The ceiling is a couple stories up and it’s all open space. The focus in the room is a large white stone statue of Mao in a chair, looking down on us in a grandfatherly sort of way. The air is heavy with the smell of cut flowers of all sorts, and there’s a pile of them several feet high spreading across the room laid at the foot of the statue. Behind the statue are many, many potted flowers and plants. On the wall is a color mural across the entire room. It depicts mountains jutting out from the landscape wrapped in clouds. Maybe like Guilin just after sunrise. In the center of the mural, it almost looks like a high altitude lake surrounded by mountains, kind of like pictures I’ve seen of “Heaven Lake” on Mount Baekdu in North Korea. I know that place is culturally and spiritually significant to Korean’s, not sure about the Chinese. After you pass through the first room, you get corralled through a hallway into the viewing room. The murmur of many whispers and gasps are peppered throughout the crowd as it passes through the room. There wasn’t any sound dampening in the place like at Lenin’s, so all the sounds really carry. Mao is behind two hermetically sealed containers. The first is a little bigger than a coffin, and he lays there as perfectly preserved as a plastic mold. He’s wearing that signature green fatigue military coat and looks just as he looks in every depiction you see of him on plaques, shirts, bags, and statues. Outside of the coffin is another glass room with a couple well-disciplined guards standing a few feet from the coffin. And just like that, you’re back out in the stifling cacophony of Beijing and Tiananmen square. There are several shops connected with the place that are selling only Mao-related swag (plaques, busts, keychains, books, videos, jewelry, etc.) before you pass through the exit gates. Mao is quite the capitalist icon here…. Oh, wait a minute, I’m confusing things… he’s a communist icon. Or something like that. Well, at least they’re selling Mao items outside his memorial. Across from Lenin’s mausoleum, there’s just a really fancy mall selling jewelry and Rolex watches and stuff.
So after Mao, it was off to the Forbidden City. I won’t bore you with detailed descriptions of the place, I’ll just put a few pictures:
The area around The Forbidden City, as you might imagine, is rife with touts and scammers. I don’t entertain anyone who approaches on the street in China. Nobody. Not for a minute. Not only that, I generally dismiss them with as much venom and contempt as I can spit at them. For the record, I’m not talking about shopkeepers or drink vendors or bicycle rickshaws. I totally get it with them, they’re just trying to make an honest (mostly honest) hard-earned living. I’m talking about the shysters that come strutting up with “Hey, where you going?” or whatever. They even prey on the westerner desire for legitimate interaction with “Would you mind if I practice English with you?” My responses have devolved to just “get away” or “leave us alone” with a dismissive wave of the hand. Pair that with a tightening of the face, the clenching of a fist, and a stare right into their black soul that says “step forward and I’m going straight for your throat and eyes” and they usually make an abrupt about-face and leave you alone. It really hardens you to meet so many people with such a variety of presentations that are all scammers though. Yesterday, among a few really nice interactions, there was one interaction that reminded me that not everyone here is a devious scammer. This guy, without much effort, really pulled me back from an abyss of bigotry. We’re walking down a back street in the tourist area and for the umpteenth time some guy strides up jabbering away some B.S. in broken English. I give the “I dare you to take another step” wave-off and he tucks tail. Then, this guy to our side and behind us sighs with disgust and comes up a little closer to us. He said: “Don’t talk to anyone that comes up to you speaking English. All of these college kids are on break and all they do with their time is try to scam tourists. Don’t say a word to any of them.” With that, he had a turn to make and that was that. No other agenda. He was himself a college-aged Chinese guy, and irony aside, it was really remarkable to see somebody outside of the lines of scammer and “just minding my own business.” I’ll try to remember that guy when I encounter scammer after look-alike scammer.
Later in the evening, we caught a Chinese acrobat show, which was really incredible. It’s not the sort of spectacle that lends itself to still photographs though. It’s a display of physics, of motion, of tightly controlled movement just on the verge of chaos. We got to the place just a few minutes late and the show had started, so we may have just hopped into a couple empty, right up-front extra plush 700 yuan (~$110) seats when we only booked 200 yuan ($35) seats. That’ll work! I recommend catching one of these shows to anyone who visits here. Meh to the Peking Opera, Hell Yeah to the acrobats! The climax of the show was five motorcycles in a metal sphere only 6 meters in diameter.
Yeah, so after the show, on the way home walking to the subway, we did see something a little odd. I mean, a lot of things are odd in China, but I think….. we think…. this may even be odd for China. Walking down a fairly crowded sidewalk after sunset, stores are closing up…. random loiterers…. old men huddled around playing mahjong or whatever….. old ladies power-walking…. motor scooters cutting traffic on the sidewalk…. people gathered around greasy food carts snarfling up little grilled bits…. a man walking down the sidewalk in a pair of slippers and a bathrobe with the bathrobe open and flapping behind him, revealing his obese, hairy, butt-naked body. Wait, WHAT?! We walked by, a moment passed, I processed that for a minute and said to her: “Do you want to talk about that, or just pretend we didn’t see it?” Yeah, a man in his forties or so, just confidently walking down a crowded sidewalk naked. And nobody paying any attention to him. I got nothing. He wasn’t behaving in a creepy or exhibitionist way, he was just striding down the sidewalk. The best we could come up with is maybe he’s developmentally delayed and he’s under someone’s care, and he “got loose” for a while. Weird though.
Tomorrow we have a mandatory briefing before our North Korea trip and we should find out if our visas are in order and everything. *nervous anticipation* I’ll keep everybody posted.