Adventures In The Forbiden City

Monday, July 1, 1996

Forbiden City Sign

Take-off from Hong Kong was just as exciting as landing, with the runway pointing straight out into the harbour. The view was very nice, particularly the first few seconds when we flew over lots of boats. To the North we passed over a lot of mountains as we flew into China.

The crew handed out piles of landing forms. Boy, what a bunch of bureaucracy. I seemed to need to declare just about everything I was carrying, particularly books and my laptop. I guess I’d expected this kind of treatment when entering a communist country. I’d seen too many old spy movies – `Mr Bond, why are you bringing three machineguns, a helicopter gunship and a crate of hand-grenades on your vacation? Please take the Red channel…’

The plane was half-empty, so the stewardesses continually offered more alcohol and was quite sozzled as I tried to catch up on some email. I have a simple attitude to flights; any time someone asks me a question related to food and drink I say ‘Yes’. That’s fine on long haul trips but perhaps not so good on short ones.

Before landing we were notified that there would be extra security, with police coming onto the plane. The pilot didn’t explain why. We landed and stopped away from the terminal. Police cars pulled up and a group of green-clad cops formed at the bottom of the steps. Eventually they climbed up as the Japanese tourists enthusiastically filmed them. The police were checking all passports as we left, comparing names against a list. No idea who they were looking for but I was waved on through. This was what I expected from China.

Immigration and Customs weren’t. I expected a long grilling and waiting hours for my bags to arrive. In fact I was through in five minutes. I had all these forms which I’d carefully filled in and noone cared. They wouldn’t even let me go through the red channel, but forced me into the green channel where my bags were X-rayed and then I was left to work out what to do. I entered the arrivals area with all but one form still in my hands.

I looked for the currency exchange to change some more money, I only had 300 Yuan on me (about $45). Found a sign pointing upstairs so I followed it. Walked right around the floor and found another sign pointing downstairs. Went down again and it still wasn’t there. I can only assume it’s a Mobieus currency exchange desk. I guess you can save money by just building signs and not bothering to build the things the signs point to.

Beijing Bikes

I walked out of the airport straight into a mob of TV cameramen clustered around some Chinese guy who I didn’t recognize. I thought about asking one of the English-looking crews who they were filming, but then realised they were speaking German. Finally the guy escaped and walked off towards the taxis. The cameras turned to follow him and I probably appeared in yet another crowd shot. Geez, can’t get away from them anywhere.

The very long taxi queue rapidly shortened. I couldn’t believe how efficient China turned out to be. Most of the taxis were VW estates, and I took one, handing Tansy’s card to the driver (it had her Chinese address on it). He examined it carefully and set off. The drive through town was what I’d by now come to regard as typically Asian. Lots of street stalls, and unlike Bangkok lots of bikes. Lots and lots of bikes. Bikes absolutely everywhere, and plenty of cycle paths to ride along, or at least cycle lanes at the edge of the road.

The driver stopped twice to ask for directions. The second time a guy walked up as I waited in the car and stared in at me. He obviously wasn’t used to foreigners. Finally we found the right road and with a beep of his horn to warn the cyclists that he was about to turn across their lane we entered it. The college was quite large and stood behind a metal rail fence on which some people had affixed paintings for sale. It seems that everything is for sale in China.

I staggered in under the load and asked for Tansy at the desk. The guard didn’t understand, but a student recognized the name. He told me that she would be teaching until 12:30 and I could wait on the comfy leather-clad sofa in the entrance hall. I was glad to drop my bags and relax. We chatted for a few moments, then he lead me upstairs to meet her. On the way up I spotted the college ‘No Spitting’ sign on the wall. Hmm, different.

She walked into the office looking somehow similar and somehow different, not too surprising after five years – I don’t think I’d seen her since 1991. We caught up on gossip for a few moments, then another visiting friend arrived. Joyce was Tansy’s boyfriend’s sister, and had been in Beijing for about one and half weeks. The three of us went out for lunch, eating from a food stand. The food wasn’t bad, kind of burgers made from fresh meat, peppers, etc and wrapped in pita bread. We also drank some of the local beer, a bit weak and hoppy but pretty good for about $0.20 a bottle. Odd to be in a country where beer is literally cheaper than (purified) water.

Joyce led me back to the flat. It was pretty nice, and the apartment block wasn’t bad if you only looked at the inside. Outside was still a major construction site as there was a rush to build new housing in Beijing for the people moving in from rural areas. This was one reason why everything was so dusty.

Tiananmen Square

We chatted for most of the afternoon. Joyce was spending a few months travelling after her employer made her redundant, and said that if she’d read the Lonely Planet guide before she bought her ticket then she wouldn’t have come out here. Luckily the guide is two years old and China has changed a lot in that time. I grabbed a shower and another change of clothes. The ducts in the bathroom seemed like something out of ‘Brazil’.

Tansy’s flatmate returned around 6pm, by which point I was dozing on the sofa while Joyce wrote letters in her room. As we talked while we waited for Tansy, there was a knock on the door. A couple of students were outside, both carrying pagers prominently on their belts and clearly either entrepeneurs or entrepeneurs-to-be. They invited us to the college administrator’s flat-warming party downstairs.

The stairs had very little in the way of lights, and what did exist we switched on as we went down. Our trip had the feel of a group of archaeologists descending into an ancient tomb. The echoey walls, dust-covered floor and steps only added to the experience.

A number of guests were already there munching on the dishes provided. The very tall and jovial student was soon handing out beer. I grabbed a selection of spoonfuls from the various dishes and dug in. The food was nice, though I wasn’t too sure about the thousand-year-old eggs. I ate most of one before I gave up. Hmm.

Amongst the guests were a couple from England. The wife was born in London near Joyce’s birthplace and now lived near my parents, the husband last worked near my last workplace. Small world, huh? We chatted about that for a bit, then the main dishes arrived. The fish was very nice indeed, but a bit tricky to eat with a spoon. I think I would have preferred chopsticks.

Tiananmen Square South Gate

The TV was showing a special presentation to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Party and the handover of Hong Kong next year. It wasn’t bad except that the singers couldn’t mime. The beer flowed freely and one of the students was soon singing happily along and translating for us.

Back at the flat we found a place for me to sleep on the sofa. I was happy as I finally got to use the towel, sleeping bag and mosquito net that I’d been carrying all this time! Sleep was comforting after a long and heavy day. I was really glad that I’d come to China and even happier that I’d come to visit Tansy rather than doing it myself. In fact I don’t think I would have come here if I didn’t have someone to visit. As Joyce said, the guide books were just too forboding.

In the morning we spent several hours on teaching stories. Tansy’s flatmate had worked as an art teacher in the south-west of England, teaching the lowest class of farm-kids. I knew the type well and could understand why she found it a bit trying. I told her about some of the crazed kids at my school and we wondered if they were that way because of the teachers, or vice-versa.

Forbidden City Entrance

Joyce and I finally left to visit the Forbidden City, one of the Beijing tourist sites that I wanted to see. We took one of the very small ‘bread-loaf’ taxis (so-called because they’re yellow and shaped just like a loaf of bread), which charge only Y10 for the first 10km but are banned from some of the more upmarket parts of the city. They’re pretty good because you can cover much of the city for a fixed price, but rattle a lot and wouldn’t be much good in a crash. The way Beijing taxis drive the latter could be a big disadvantage.

On the way to Tiananmen Square we stopped in traffic. To our right was a city bus full of people. One began waving at Joyce, who eventually waved back. I joined in and by the time we’d started moving most of the bus passengers were waving at us. That was rather nice.

Again the square was full of people with cameras, mostly Asian, who I assumed were tourists. The city walls used to end here and there is a large gate on the South side which is all that remains of them. Lots of birds circle around the tower on top.

Being photographed with famous and ancient monuments seems to be a big pastime in China. The square was full of stalls selling film and also offering to photograph you for a fee. I guess they had instant cameras, or mailed the photos on to you.

Me And Mao

Mao’s tomb is directly before the entrance to the Forbidden City, with his photograph prominently displayed. We had to cross the road and took an underpass. Chinese people lined the walls, recovering from the heat in the cool darkness. Some of them were gambling at various games, which seems to be another big pastime in China.

We climbed up and took each others’ photos in front of the picture. Hey, I get to be a tourist sometimes, right? Joyce was grabbed by a Chinese woman who wanted her photograph taken with her, even upstaging Mao. I guess she’d never seen a black woman before. As we left, she took a photo of the two of us as I waved at her. I think that made her day ;-).

We passed below Mao’s picture and walked on to the Forbidden City entrance, then paid up our entrance fee. We walked in, to find a sign proclaiming that we had now entered the ‘Forbiden City’. Ah well…

I’m not as impressed with Chinese architecture as I was with Thai. I think part of that is because they like cold colors like green and blue rather than the red that’s so common in Thailand. The actual design was nice, but the colors let it down a little. So did the large, rectangular green plastic wastebins that were liberally scattered around… Lots of brass cranes, turtles and lions and huge vats. Most were used for incense-burning on major occasions so that the smoke would fill the city. A couple of elephants too. Lots of Chinese tours walking around, the tour guide carrying a large yellow flag.

Forbidden City Buildings

Joyce told me about how emperors in the past had often got so involved in Forbidden City life that they just left running the Empire to their subordinates. Apparently one loved carpentry so much that he spent all his time working on the buildings and was ecstatic every time one burnt down because he could build a new one. She also explained that fires are very common there with so many Chinese people smoking.

We ended up in the garden at the north end of the site. Very nice with lots of little pavilions and hidey-holes, but a little spoilt by all the people standing in front of everything scenic to have their photo taken with it. This seems to be the big difference between Chinese and European tourists. The former always have to be in the photo, whereas the latter often just take photos of nice views and prefer to have noone in them. I wonder where the difference comes from?

We tried to go back through the City to the Nine-Dragon Wall but Chinese speech and music began playing from the speakers. We were turned back and left the city through the north entrance. As we walked along the road looking for a taxi we saw four or five groups of men fishing in the moat. Crossing the road was exciting. There was a red/green man signal but even when it was green the taxis just ignored the lights.

Forbidden City Gardens

By the time the taxi returned us to the college I was amazed by how exhausted I was. We had no time to freshen up before heading out to see videos with one of Tansy’s students. Her husband was off on a business trip and she wanted some company. ‘First Knight’ had been requested for a Richard Gere fix. Me, I just wanted to see the computer effects.

We walked to the flats, buying some fruit to take with us, apparently a Chinese custom. When we arrived, we were glad to discover that the lifts were still working. Most of them close in the evening and aren’t available overnight. In true Chinese entrepeneurial spirit the lift attendant had set up a small stall in the lift selling cigarettes, water, soft drinks, etc.

The first problem we had was that the video didn’t work. Tansy explained that I knew about these things, which is true if the instructions are in English rather than Chinese! First of all I tried the obvious step of plugging the video output into the TV, but that didn’t help. After messing around with the Chinese menus for a while I was still stuck.

Our host went to visit a neighbour, and he came in looking like he knew what he was doing. I ate watermelon and peaches while looking at the view off the balcony. In the distance I could see one of the nearby parks and the block where Tansy’s flat was and far down below the street stalls were still busy. The view from so that height was really impressive.

Eventually they worked out that the channel needed to be tuned in, and to our amazement Richard Gere’s face appeared on the screen. Then vanished again as the auto-tuning decided it didn’t like the look of him. Another few minutes of manual tuning and he was back for good, with a round of applause from the audience.

The movie wasn’t great, kind of an Arthurian Western. But it was quite fun as silly movies go, and the computer effects on Camelot were fairly well done. However, at one point the video seemed to skip about ten minutes of the story and what we did see bore little resemblance to the traditional Arthurian tales. I guess that Hollywood couldn’t live with that kind of thing. I still prefer Excalibur.

Tansy wanted to leave to get up early for her class, but we were persuaded to stay for ‘True Lies’ instead. I’d only ever seen the first five minutes on a plane over the Arctic and gave up, so I thought I’d give it another try. Again it was very silly, but funny. Of course, I’m a James Cameron fan, so I’m not too surprised that I liked it second time through. Minor problem – the video ended two minutes before the end of the film. Aargh! Oh well, I’d seen some of that on TV before, and Tansy explained the rest to us.

We left the flat to discover that the lift was closed and there were no lights on the stairs. As we had twelve flights to descend, this wasn’t too appealing. One of the girls had a torch, but it provided only a small amount of light. Luckily I still had my camera bag with me so I pulled out the video light which was far more illuminating. We just had to rush down the stairs fast enough to get there before the battery ran out. Yay, first time on this trip I used that too!

On the walk back to the flat I was surprised by the lack of street lights (Joyce explained that this was a new area and they hadn’t had time to plant any yet), and the number of cars, buses and bikes driving past with no lights on. Why? The travel guide claimed that people do it to save fuel. Hmm, I don’t think I’d go quite that far myself. On the dirt track to the flats we saw a bunch of men outside the shop playing Mahjong under the spot light. I don’t know whether they’d already lost their shirts or were just stripped for action.

Ah well, another well-deserved (or at least well-received) sleep, even if I only slept in bursts because of the temperature. The living room had no airconditioning or fan. China was turning out to be far more relaxed and far more fun than I’d expected.

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