To finish off our China posts, our last few days in Beijing we spent going to the Forbidden City and the Great Wall.
We took the Beijing subway to the front gate of the forbidden city and saw Tiannamen square on the way. The first impression of both of these things, of course, is of size. Even so, thinking about spending your whole life inside the walls of the forbidden city (as a member of the imperial household) makes me feel claustrophobic — it’s all so squared off and unnatural-looking. So make my official residence the summer palace — trees, water, curving maze-like walkways… infinitely preferable.
Some of the most impressive parts of the forbidden city are the little details — the carvings and paintings. They do have exhibits in some of the buildings you can peer into, but the glass is usually scratched and yellowed, even you can even push your way through the crowds to see inside, and everything in there is covered in years of dust. There were beautiful dragon designs all over the place though, carved, cast, painted, tiled, and so on. One of the dragon displays was a tiled wall, where all the pieces had to be made in advance, and one piece was dropped and shattered during construction, but the workers were so worried that they would be put to death for the error that they kept the mistake a secret and painted a fake wooden tile to replace the lost piece. Apparently the tile was not noticed at the time, although after hundreds of years the paint on that piece has faded and it is now quite evident. And toward the back there was a lovely garden area, with some trees and pagodas and statues and so forth where the ladies would write poetry and chill. It was a very small, competitive world they inhabited, where there were a lot of formalized events (some only on the 9th day of the 9th month of the 9th year…) and behaviors that always had to be observed, with its own little quirks, like moving from one building to another in honor of an ancestor or a change in rank.
The next day we took the train out of Beijing to go to the great wall. The train was the first adventure of the day — you buy tickets and get into a big line (in which, if you don’t pack closely enough to the people in front of you, others will just elbow into the 3 inches of available space) and then you shuffle forward where you show the guy your ticket…. and then you SPRINT. With all of your baggage, children, elderly relatives, and girls in ridiculous shoes in tow — you run down the very long platform, into the train, and claim a seat with your butt. After we caught our breath, the trip was quite pleasant, particularly as the train wound up into the mountains and pieces of the wall could be seen climbing the peaks.
The wall itself was amazing — just hard to imagine building it up and down the mountains back in the day when you don’t have tractors or ropeways. You could see it go up and down the mountains in the most roundabout way, making sure to hit key high points with towers, and heading up very steep rises in others where it looks almost vertical. It’s also very steep in places along the rebuilt area where we could hike and there were a lot of tourists, although since it was a weekday it could have been much worse. We took the less peopled direction and walked all the way to the end, where there were very few people. Given the snow a few days prior, the air was lovely and clear and we got some apparently unheard of blue-sky shots of the wall. On the way back there were more train hijinx (including our train being canceled and me getting headbutted in the solarplexis by a little old lady during the train-sprint.) We had a ton of good food back in Beijing too, from dumplings to sauteed mushrooms to mango ice and on the last night some amazing food along with board games at a friend of Calley’s.
Next up: More cherry blossoms in Tokyo!