Saturday, December 31, 2005

Forbidden City

Looking back on 2005:
I became debt free. I turned 25. I quit a perfectly good job. I sold my beloved truck. I said farewell to family and friends. I embarked on the adventure of a lifetime. I forged friendships in a faraway land. I learned (some) Japanese. I forgot (a lot of) English\French. I saw things few from my part of the world get to see. I experienced things few have the privilege to experience. I saw and touched things that are thousands of years old. I found the girl of my dreams. (she was hiding in Japan, why didn't anybody tell me?) I didn't do nearly enough camping. I did a decent amount of skiing. I shopped in Tokyo. I haggled in Chinese markets. I have no regrets.


3 hours or so left of 2005 and I doubt I have much energy to do any celebrating tonight. I may even be too lazy to leave the hotel for dinner, might just buy some of the instant Ramen they have at the front desk. Long day today, 9 hours of walking, covered lots of ground. Took a nice long walk last night and found the Canadian Embassy, which is not too far from my hotel. I would have snapped a picture but the front gate was garded by some PLA soldiers, not the most photogenic bunch, especially down a dark street at night. Also found the main bar strip, called Sanlitun, which looked pretty cool but all the bars were empty on a Friday night for some reason...

I was also shocked to find that there is no escape from the Japanese behemoth that is Hitachi. As those of you in Japan know, Hitachi is everywhere from billboards on the streets to signs inside shrines and temples, but I thought I would be safe out here in China. Apparently not. Near my hotel, I spotted this hotel which for some reason has a huge flashing neon Hitachi sign on the roof of it!

Woke up early this morning in order to head out to the Forbidden City. First stop was McDonald's for some breakfast, and while I now remember why I don't eat McDonalds, it was somewhat better than the slop which is served in the hotel restaurant. I then hopped a cab and made my third? fourth? visit to Tiananmen square since I can pronounce it ok in Chinese to the taxi driver and it's a good starting point for lots of the sights in central Beijing. After picking up my entrance ticket and automated audio guide, I plunged into the world of the Forbidden City.

The Palace Museum, as it is now referred to, covers 720,000 square meters right in the center of Beijing, and includes some 800 buildings with almost 10,000 rooms in total. Commonly called the Forbidden City since commoners were bared from entry under penalty of death, this palace complex is the largest in the world and is also the largest collection of ancient wooden buildings in the world. From the start of construction in 1406, it took 14 years and hundreds of thousands of workers to complete this massive project. From it's completion until the abdication in 1912 of China's last emperor, the Forbidden city was home to 24 emperors spanning the Ming and Qing dynasties. Inside the walls toiled thousands of servants, concubines and bureaucrats. The Forbidden City is separated into two large courtyards and surrounded by a 10 meter high wall as well as a deep moat. The southern half was used for affairs of state, while the northern half is where the imperial family lived. From the moment you walk through the gate, you are simply in awe of this place. The complexity of the design, the intricacy of the artwork and sheer scale of it just leaves you breathless. Adding to the feeling that I was merely an ant passing through this great place today was the fact that there was practically no one there with me early on in the day and I often found myself wandering through corridors for 15-20 minutes before encountering any sign of life. I wonder how many people have gotten a picture of the front courtyard (where the emperor attended to state affairs) with not one person in the shot...

As if things weren't already mystical enough, it started to snow steadily shortly after I entered the gates.

The central arches of all the gates, and this marble walkway that runs through the center of the city was reserved strictly for the use of the Emperor, and on some special occasions such as her wedding day, the Empress. This is the largest and most important hall inside the Forbidden City, the Hall of Supreme Harmony which was only used during special occasions such as the Emperor's birthday.

The snow was really coming down hard for a while and everything was quickly coated in a lovely coating of white.

This is the Heavenly Purity Gate, which separates the Forbidden City in half.

As most of the ground is either marble or somewhat polished brick, it quickly got slippery and an army of broom carrying attendants went about clearing walkways and sometimes entire squares of the city, making it safe for our tourist feet to walk on.

The jade work around some of these doors was amazing, I can't imagine the time and effort that went into designing and building this place.

This was one of those eerie moments where I felt I was totally alone wandering the halls of the city.

They ARE everywhere!!! In what was once a semi-important building (you can tell by the number of animals on the corner of the roof) sits a small Starbucks outlet, catering to us foreigners in search of some java to remind us of home.

This is the Divine Military Genius Gate, which allows entry from the North and from which I exited the Forbidden city after 4 hours of aimless wandering. Unfortunately (or fortunately I guess) many of the artifacts were removed from the city and smuggled to Taiwan when the Communists took power. The fear was that the cultural revolution would destroy many if not all of these priceless artifacts and so a museum was built by the "exiled" government in Taipei to house them. This is still a major bone of contention between The People's Republic of China and the Republic of China, but I think it was for the best. I've seen much of the damage inflicted on cultural objects during the years of chaos and upheaval which swept China, and it's a good thing some people had the foresight to protect at least some of this country's heritage.

Here you can see the gate, the wall and the moat which surrounds the city... frozen of course in this frigid temperature.

After my tour of the Forbidden City, I plunged into one of the nearby Hutongs, heading in the general direction of the Drum and Bell Towers. It's amazing how much more comfortable I feel walking the streets after spending a bit of time here. These are essentially VERY poor areas of the city, but quite safe nonetheless I guess due to the number of tourists who walk through them. I think the police department (of which I saw three stations in my 20 minute was through the Hutongs) would have something to say about bums scaring away tourist dollars.

Hutongs are essentially a maze of alleyways of non-standard size snaking in every direction.

No idea how long this car's been here, but I figure it's been a while.

After exiting the Hutongs, I stumbled upon Lotus Lane, which runs along a frozen lake which people were skating on. Notice another Starbucks...

On Lotus Lane, an obvious attempt at marketing from the Tintin books which I read as a child, in French of course... the Blue Lotus restaurant, from "Tintin et le lotus bleu."

These two behemoths towering over the neighbourhood are what I was after. In the forefront is the Drum Tower, with the Bell Tower in the back.

This is the Bell Tower, which I didn't bother paying to climb up into. It is said that the bell maker's daughter plunged to her death into the molten iron before the huge bell was cast. Her father was almost able to reach her, but only managed to hold onto her shoe. Some say this is why the sound of the bell tolling sometimes sounds like the "xié" which is the Chinese word for shoe.

And of course the Drum Tower, as seen from the Bell Tower. The drums inside were beaten to mark the hours of the day.

So after all this walking, I hopped into a cab and headed back to the Xuishui Silk Market to buy another couple of things and made out quite nicely. I am especially proud of the strategy I used with a particularly pushy silk dealer to which I said I was running out of cash and couldn't afford what she was asking. I would constantly apologize and attempt to leave her booth but she wouldn't let go of my arm and she kept lowering her price for at least 5 minutes until she finally agreed to a price only 15 Yuan higher than my starting price. She, by comparison, dropped down 700 Yuan from her starting price. She was somewhat disappointed at having dropped down when she looked into my wallet, but I explained what was for one more full day in Beijing and a taxi ride to the airport. Made off quite well again today, averaging an 80-90% drop from the initial asking price of the things I bought.

Tomorrow, the Lama Temple, and the Dirt Market (maybe, I need to review my Yuan situation... though if I'm not going out tonight, I think I'm ok), then early to bed for my early flight the next day.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Aloha! Happy New Year Michel.
It has been an interesting year for me as well. I hope that you continue to enjoy things in and out of Japan as well as in and out of work. I have enjoyed your entries throughout the year. It has made me think about what I did when I first came over and what I want to do in the remaining time I have in Japan. No plans to leave yet, but you never know when that time will come. You are so good...updating your blog even on vacation...I can't bring myself to do it...Well, enjoy the rest of your vacation...Sad to think we have to be at work in a few days...Sigh. Aloha...

10:19 PM  
Blogger Michel Lafleur said...

Well the whole blog thing is as much a travel journal for myself as it is a tool for sharing my experiences out here. I find writing things down and reviewing my pictures helps my day to sink in to this old brain of mine.

All the best in the New Year!

6:14 AM  

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