Beijing: Day two — Tian’anmen Square and the Forbidden City

Matt in Tian'anmen Square

I woke up very early on Sunday morning, which is not all that surprising given that I went to sleep at 5:00 PM Saturday. “Very early” in this case is defined as 1:00 AM, so it almost wasn’t Sunday at all. It certainly wasn’t Sunday in Virginia when I woke up. I tried to go back to sleep a couple of times, but by about 3:30 or 4:00 AM I just surrendered.

I’m here in Beijing with Marek, a post-doc in my lab, who also got up early Sunday morning. We were both showered and dressed by about 5:30 or 6:00 AM, and we didn’t need to be back at the hotel for the meeting’s opening ceremonies until about 4:00 PM. So we decided to see some of the sights during the day. We at first thought we might be able to walk to the downtown area to see Tian’anmen Square and the Forbidden City, but after looking at the scale of some of the maps we looked at, we realized that we were close to 10 kilometers away from the city center, despite we were within the third beltway road (Beijing has five). Beijing is flat and gigantic, and growing at an unbelievable rate. It’s easily 20-25 kilometers both east to west and north to south. You have to take a taxi to get anywhere.

Of course, if you set foot in a taxi, you take your life into your own hands. It wasn’t just the guy that drove us from the airport. All Beijing taxi drivers drive like maniacs. They’ll honk at anyone– pedestrians, bicyclists, other cars, trucks– for the slightest provocation. They’ll change lanes between in a 20-foot gap between cars at 50 miles an hour like they’re in a high-speed chase. And they obviously only need about 6 inches of clearance around their own vehicle to get where they are going.

The driver took us to Tian’anmen Square, which is a huge edifice to Mao Zedong. Marek was accosted by a man in the sidewalk selling small red books with the quotations of Mao in Mandarin and English, and insisted on getting his picture taken holding the book in front of various Communist era monuments. Must be some sort of Polish thing.

We were trying to see if the Mao mausoleum was open when a young man who spoke pretty good English approached us and told us he was an art student who was having a free exhibition. He took us to a space above the gift shop for the Chinese National Museum and described some of the paintings he and his friend had made, and oh, by the way, they were for sale. We had a hard time getting out of there after that. Generally, people selling things to Westerners were very pushy. They followed you around and kept trying to take you into private rooms and sell you whatever they had for sale, so much so that by the end of the day I was very wary of gift shops. Several times as we walked through the Forbidden City, we were greeted by “college students” with “free art exhibitions”. What’s most surprising to me is that these people had space within official museums.

Anyway, Marek and I bought tickets to go into the Forbidden City, which is a sprawling complex of beautiful buildings, some of which are more than 600 years old. For many years, these buildings were the home of the emperors, and their queens, courts, and concubines. We saw an art exhibit of Russian art on loan from Moscow and walked through most of the City.

Oh, a quick note, if you ever travel with Marek, keep in mind he is a photography nut. I’m pretty sure he took like 500 pictures.

By the time we were done in the Forbidden City at about 2:30 PM, I was pretty tired and a little cranky. We caught a taxi back to the hotel and went to the opening ceremonies for the meeting. By 5:30 PM, I was having serious trouble staying awake. There was an opening banquet at 7:00 PM, and I excused myself early and went to bed.