With just two days in Beijing before my journey continued West, I was up early Sunday to go and meet the Emperor for tea in the Forbidden City. Having seen the film The last Emperor, I was pretty sure I’d recognise him when I saw him. I mean, judging by that film there weren’t all that many people in the place – and how many little boys with pony tales do you usually see when you’re out and about?

What I was forgetting is that this 15th century palace has over 9000 rooms within 800 buildings, and that we were now in the 21st century, era of the Chinese tourist big stylee.

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a section of the Forbidden City, from above
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I won’t dwell long on describing the city, as I’m more inclined to spend time on describing what this trip is meaning for me, and the characters I meet, rather than being a travel guide. Have a look at Wiki if you would like to learn more about its history. To summarise though:

  • it’s big.
  • It’s got some really beautiful architecture and paintwork
  • It’s constantly under renovation
  • It’s well worth a visit, despite the fact that Roger Moore no longer does the English Audio Guide.
  • Here’s a video summary of my visit:

    The city consists of inner and outer areas – each collection of buildings being separated from the next by these huge walls.
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    Exquisite paintwork
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    I was threatened with arrest by this Imperial Guard unless I took a photo of him with the legendary Pepe the Penguin
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    And that, ladies and gentleman, was the forbidden city. Incidentally, don’t be put off buying a ticket if there’s large crowds outside the gates, as once inside there’s so much space you can happily wander around without having your toes stepped on.

    In the afternoon, following a brief visit to Tiananmen Square (it’s a big square with a communist flag in the middle. No sign of any tanks though), I decided to be daring and go and buy a train ticket. The guide book warns about buying tickets at Beijing station, as the queues go on for days, and once you do get to the counter you probably won’t be understood in any case. Thankfully there’s a VIP ticket office upstairs, entry by lots of cash or by scaring the security guard through the use of English.

    This office was absolutely HUGE. A cavernous (almost desrted) hall, the ceiling rising some 10 metres from the floor, over 30 ticket windows – all closed except for one. I took my place in line and waited patiently behind a chap who was buying an enormous number of tickets. The ticket-selling procedure seemed to be one of immense complexity, involving heated debates between clerk and customer, debates behind the glass, the recounting of bank notes time and time again and ultimately the involvement of about five other passengers who used the opportunity to barge in front of me, to secure a better position for partaking in the debate. I resigned myself to a long wait and decided to enjoy the spectacle, as several other men then persuaded the middle-aged women that their case was urgent. Staring at people in the back of the head doesn’t seem to work here, so I decided to use a more Chinese technique to preserve my place in line: no, not kung-fu, just the ancient zen practice of applying an elbow to the opponent’s ribs.

    Once at the counter I presented my prepared written script, “One hard-class ticket to Datong on 2007/08/21 at 07:45” – all Chinese characters painstakingly copied from my phrasebook. The woman looked at me as if I’d written “Do you know why cornflakes are so crispy?”, and then beckoned another member of staff who I’d noticed had been eyeing me suspiciously for some time. It seemed that this other woman could speak English. I was waved off to another window, where I was to wait for the English speaker.

    After another 15 mins of standing there, watching the summoned linguist behind the glass dodging my looks, a second window finally opened. It turned out that she actually spoke pretty good English, but was too embarrassed to use it. And I’m not surprised, because as soon as she said “where you go to?” her colleagues all stopped what they were doing, looked at her and burst out laughing – as did the customers in the other queue!

    I handed her the same piece of paper with the Chinese instructions written on it. She read it, printed out my ticket and took my money, occasionally whispering “please” and “thank you” as quietly as possible so as not to be heard by anyone else.I complemented her on her excellent English, and finally left, saying goodbye to everyone who had been so kind as to say harro to me.

    Lesson: if you want to buy a ticket in Beijing, make sure you do it at least a day in advance!

    That evening Ku-san and his wife very kindly treated me to a delicious meal at a very nice restaurant. It was just a shame that it was a bit rushed due to my post-ticket-buying inability to persuade a taxi driver to take me home, and an appointment I had to star in an acrobatic show as a member of the audience that evening at 7.15pm.

    Flying through the air
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    These girls are supporting their body weight by clamping their teach around these lolly-pop ended ‘branches’!
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    When not to pull the chair out behind someone about to sit down
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    Balancing head-on-head whilst plate spinning. Perhaps they don’t wash their hair for days to make it extra sticky…
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    When not to get a puncture
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    That acrobatics show was absolutely amazing. Really impressive, if a little painful to watch at times. Some of the ways they bent their bodies… not natural… Mind you, it did inspire me though, inspired me to look after my body a bit more. Watch out for pics of me in my leotard in the months to come.

    The following morning I was up exceedingly early to take a bus to the Great Wall – about an hour outside Beijing.

    As with the Forbidden City, I won’t describe this is detail at present – instead I have a little video – apologies to mum and dad on their dial-up connection!

    The crowds
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    The vendors
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    The Cheat
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    The cute little girls
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    Off the tourist trail – the tranquility
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    No great wall would be complete without its camel
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    A sad little grizzly in the Great Wall pit
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    Well, I must be off. I have another ticket to buy – this one for Monglia. I’ll tell you more about my last day in Beijing next time I have an internet connection.

    Love, joseph xxx