Tiananmen Square and Forbidden City

Today has been a much happier day all round. I was woken at 7am by an unwanted alarm call and Simon and the kids got up around 9. We have our breakfast, porridge and water for me (The diet has begun) and make some plans for the day. We decide to visit Tiananmen Square and The Forbidden City and are joining the rest of Beijing’s population and hiring bikes. We have been singing Katie Melua’s song since we arrived although Maisie makes the point that there may be 4 fewer bicycles in Beijing by the end of the day.

My first impressions of Beijing are how huge it is. Everything seems big, from the sheer numbers of people to the massive apartment blocks. In some ways different to what I expected and I said to Simon and the kids I’m not too sure how I feel about Beijing yet. It is very early days but I have been struck by the ugliness of some of the buildings and that is a shock for me.

The traditional alleyways are called hutong and we are staying down one of these. The narrow alleys are lined with shops and small houses. Very pretty, with gated courtyards guarded by dragons and drums .I read how they are being razed to the ground at a rate of 10,000 per year and unfortunately the successful 2008 Olympic bid has been the final nail in the coffin for them.

We set off on our bikes through the hutong, it�s a great way to get around, Beijing is as flat as a pancake and we pass lots of interesting sights on the way. I look at the tea shops selling jasmine, green, black, oolong, white and Chinese tea, groups of men sat playing marjong and kids running up and down with kites. It all appears very sociable and we have learnt that Mayday is China’s most celebrated holiday after Chinese New Year.

We don’t get too far before we reach the main road and use the cycle path to ride towards Tiananmen Square. Chairman Mao conceived the square to project the enormity of the communist party and it is massive. We lock up our bikes, negotiate 3 subways and around a million people and walk across the square. It’s very hot and we take some photographs of the red flags fluttering from The Great Hall of the People. We seem to be a tourist attraction and lots of people stop us and ask if will pose for photographs with them. The kids are very patient and don’t complain.

On the way we discuss with the kids some of the history and events that have taken place here .The square is the symbolic centre of the Chinese universe and echoes the layout of The Forbidden City. In the mid 1960′s Chairman Mao oversaw parades of a million Red Guard soldiers and a further million gathered here to pay their last respects to Mao in 1976. In 1989 a peaceful protest by pro-democracy demonstrators turned into a massacre, and to the horror of the Western world thousands of students were killed by tanks. This was the year I started my nurse training and Simon and I talk to the kids about the pictures shown on the news at the time of a single demonstrator standing in front of a row of tanks. It seems strange to stand here in the peace and warmth of the sun imagining the chaos of 18 years ago.

We head off towards The Forbidden City, trying to learn anything other than the basics of Chinese history is proving hard. The Forbidden City was so called because it was off limits for 500 years. Built at the start of the 15th century it is the largest and best preserved group of ancient buildings in China. It was home to two dynasties of Emperors, the Ming and the Qing and they didn’t stray out of the walled city unless they absolutely had to. There are many halls, palaces and other buildings with beautiful elaborate names such as The Palace of Heavenly Purity, The Hall of Supreme Harmony and The Earthly Palace of Tranquillity. (Sounds like our house)

We make our way through slowly, I feel a bit overwhelmed by the volume of people here and for someone as impatient as me queuing for several hours to get inside the buildings isn’t really an option. We do make it inside one of the smaller palace buildings though but disappointingly find the building has not been preserved inside and contains a few cases with metal artefacts inside instead. We felt that although the buildings are quite impressive we have perhaps been spoilt a little after seeing the amazing and lovely Grand Palace of Bangkok.

At last we reach The Imperial Garden. There are some gorgeous ancient twisted trees here and we are surprised to see many people encouraging their small children to clamber on them to have their photographs taken. It is a shock for us as we are far more used to precious treasures being completely out of bounds for all.

We return to our hotel and I ring my Dad. It’s his birthday today and we have a good long chat about what we have been up to. Happy birthday Dad!

In the evening we go downstairs at our hotel to an exhibition of traditional Chinese crafts. The kids have a go at dough modelling, paper cutting, kite making and Chinese writing and seem to have a great time. Simon and I spend ages talking to a Chinese girl called Maggie who teaches English to young students. She invites us to her house and we make arrangements to visit for supper on Friday evening. I’m a bit worried about etiquette but she seems very friendly and tells us it will be a good opportunity for her young students to talk English. She asks me what we like to eat and when I say we will give anything go she suggests “Would we like the wing of a bird?!” Oh my god! I just smile and nod and tell her that sounds lovely.

Off to bed now we are going to the zoo tomorrow to see the Giant Panda’s – Hurray!!