I rolled into Beijing yesterday with I think only like 3 hours of sleep for the last 2 days. Everything is a haze of extreme fatigue, traffic, a gray, cloudy day, and then just blackness until early morning. I discovered when I woke up that my room has a great view of downtown Beijing, which is good and cool.
Because I went to sleep so early last night, I woke up at 6 in the morning, and set off for a long day of walking and in general getting oriented to the city. My hotel is maybe just a 30 minute walk to Tiananmen Square and the entrance to the Forbidden City, all down a nice, tree-lined and incredibly wide avenue. I discovered as well that walking isn’t all that bad. In some Asian countries, you sometimes take your life into your own hands crossing the street, but the Chinese seem to actually follow walking lights. It was all very orderly and efficient, although I still always walk with a group of locals across big streets, preferably old women with shopping carts. This is always safer. I mean no one’s going to run down an old woman, right?
While I was walking it is also very noticeable how security becomes tighter and tighter the closer you get to Tiananmen. All roads once you hit this area are completely blockaded in, and you are left in a little sidewalk trap where you are funneled ahead with everyone else through maybe something like 3 different security checks. It all seemed pretty harmless and non-invasive to me, though, and I never really felt all that bothered by it. You just have to submit to it all, and move on.
How to actually describe the Forbidden City? The first thing you have to understand is that you walk endlessly. I think I covered like 6-7 miles today all told, back and forth to my hotel. And most of this is walking through massive, massive squares and huge open areas dotted with beautiful halls in the middle. In fact, I would say that most of the Forbidden City is empty spaces with wonderful views. But by this I don’t mean to take away from the incredibleness of being there. You’re just surprised by how vast everything is, and how you just walk and walk and walk… but I guess this is the point.
The actual Forbidden City itself is primarily an engineering masterpiece. The entire palace is perfectly designed, almost too perfectly arranged. Down the very center of the complex, and then out onto Tiananmen, there is a straight line of white marble, which was reserved for the emperor. It’s a wonderful sight to see this line going on and on. Then, adding to this perfection are 2 massive areas, both of which mimic a design of 3 primary halls. These halls, as far as I could understand, revolve around perfection and harmony of some kind or another, both on earth and on heaven. This central grid structures the entire place.
What I found most interesting, though, about the Forbidden City were the smaller, quainter palaces branching off to the sides of the center. You could tell this was where the imperial family actually lived, and this really was the only place in the City that actually felt livable and comfortable. Everything else was cold and just meant to display power.
I wandered around the Forbidden City for nearly the entire day, before leaving and walking around Tiananmen Square, which is basically just a huge open space that has great views out back towards the Forbidden City. It’s like standing in a massive football field in the scorching sun. After this, I began my walk back to my hotel, and, as I always do, realized how the true heart of a city, I think, is in the places a bit off the main drags. I love those scenes of ordinary life you catch glimpses of in passing. Like people eating, walking their dogs, or just passing the time on a bench. It makes you realize how we are all so similar, just living life one day at a time.
A good start to Beijing today… tomorrow I’m off on a hike around a less known part of the Great Wall.