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Tiananmen

Started: 2016-03-01 20:46:48

Submitted: 2016-03-01 23:41:41

Visibility: World-readable

19 January 2016: In which the intrepid narrator visits Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City in the bitter cold

I slept in on my first morning in Beijing, and only barely managed to get down to breakfast in my hotel lobby. With a daytime high forecast somewhere around 20°F, I wore as many layers as I could manage: a base layer under my pants, and an extra long-sleeved shirt under my sweater and jacket. This was barely enough, and I felt a little silly having come from Colorado, where cold temperatures in the winter are normal, only to freeze in Beijing -- though in Boulder I normally spend only a little time outside during the coldest days, which is harder to do when playing tourist.

Dramatic Communist sculpture in Tiananmen Square
Dramatic Communist sculpture in Tiananmen Square

I took the metro one stop west to the southern end of Tiananmen Square, and went through a security check (with metal detectors and x-rays for bags, never mind that I'd just come out of the metro with an identical check) to enter the square.

I first heard the words "Tiananmen Square" in the spring of 1989, from news reports of the student protests in Beijing, and the subsequent military response. The incident framed some of my earliest memories of China, and is still the first thing that comes to mind when I think about Tiananmen Square.

Tiananmen and Tiananmen Square
Tiananmen and Tiananmen Square

With all of the history and symbolism running through my head, actually stepping onto Tiananmen Square was a heady experience. The square itself was an austere expanse of pavement, several blocks on a side, surrounded by fences and police standing guard, flanked by the Ming dynasty gates on the north and south, and newer Communist buildings to the east and west. It was almost noon by the time I arrived in the square, and the police and paramilitary People's Armed Police nearly outnumbered the scattered tourists wandering around the square. It was clear that the square was in the hands of the police, who were willing to let tourists visit as long as we didn't try to say anything that might threaten the Party.

People's Armed Police march in Tiananmen Square
People's Armed Police march in Tiananmen Square

I walked around Mao's mausoleum on the southern end of the square, past the Great Hall of the People, and headed towards Tiananmen -- the Gate of Heavenly Peace -- the Ming dynasty gate that gave the square its name. The rest of the historic city walls had been demolished to make way for the modern ring roads, but some of the gates remained -- Chairman Mao proclaimed victory in the Chinese Civil War and the foundation of the People's Republic of China from the top of the gate in 1949, and now the gate bears a large picture of the Great Helmsman, flanked by a Chinese phrase I couldn't read.

Jaeger in front of Tiananmen
Jaeger in front of Tiananmen

I walked north through the gate, leaving the austere square behind in favor of the restored splendor of the Forbidden City. I picked up an audio guide to take me through the palace, used by the emperors and officials and their entourages of the Ming and Qing dynasties. The architecture was impressive and the buildings were fascinating, but it quickly became overwhelming: there was only so much imperial Chinese splendor I could take in at once. There were so many halls and gates and buildings that all looked basically the same, though the audio tour told me that they each were built at different times by different emperors and served different purposes.

Hall of Supreme Harmony
Hall of Supreme Harmony

After the Hall of Supreme Harmony I gave up on an exhaustive, breadth-first search of the grounds and wandered around mostly at random, picking off things that seemed interesting on the map on the audio guide, which had some sort of proximity sensor that started automatically playing the relevant section of the guide when I got to the right place.

Chinese lioness statue
Chinese lioness statue

I did enjoy the very small exhibit of artifacts from the imperial telegraph and telephone services, which included a telegraph that showed the encoding scheme used by the nineteenth century Chinese telegraph systems -- they transmitted numbers over the wire, which corresponded to Chinese characters.

Imperial Chinese Telegraph
Imperial Chinese Telegraph

I left the Forbidden City, ate lunch at a nearby cafe, and walked north towards the Drum and Bell Towers, two historic towers next to each other along the north-south axis that defined imperial Beijing. Along the way I passed a lake, frozen solid, which had been put to use as an outdoor ice skating rink.

Ice skating on Qianhai Lake
Ice skating on Qianhai Lake

I got to the top of the Drum Tower, up a long flight of steep stairs, just as the drums at the top of the tower were being played in a demonstration for tourists. According to the interpretive signs (and my guidebooks), the drums were originally used as a clock tower, and would also have signaled important events.

Drum demonstration at the Drum Tower
Drum demonstration at the Drum Tower

I looked out at Beijing from the vantage point on top of the tower, which was modest my modern standards, but the central neighborhoods of Beijing, around the Forbidden City, were still populated mostly by low buildings along narrow winding hutongs. I could see more modern high-rise buildings in the distance, disappearing in the haze of the late afternoon.

View of Beijing from the top of the Bell Tower
View of Beijing from the top of the Bell Tower

I climbed down the Drum Tower and headed across the plaza to the Bell Tower, which was essentially the same except that it held one very large bell at the top of the tower.

Bell in the Bell Tower
Bell in the Bell Tower

I left the top of the Bell Tower just before 16:00 and headed a few metro stops to the east to try to visit the Confucius Temple, but I didn't arrive before the temple closed. I looked around the shops lining the main road, packed with souvenir and trinkets -- including more Tibetan trinkets than I expected to see anywhere in China (there was a Tibetan temple across the street).

I headed back to the metro and looked around a mall and adjacent shops in search of either worthwhile souvenir or a scarf I could wear. I was inspired by the large Chinese lion sculptures I saw in the Forbidden City and wanted to buy a matched set. (I really wanted bookends, with the lions flanking not a doorway but a set of books, but that seemed like it'd be impossible to find.) I looked through a multi-level crafts store that transitioned abruptly from expensive souvenirs to cheap clothing on adjacent floors, and finally found a scarf at a small shop on one of the main roads, as I walked back to the metro.

By this time I'd killed enough time that I could go eat supper, so I took the metro to eat at Veggie Table, a small vegetarian restaurant serving a variety of western food. The food was good, though the service was a little slow.

After eating I took the metro back to my hotel and began to plan my next day in Beijing.

For more photos from my day in Beijing, see Photos on 2016-01-19.

Modern mobile phones make my head hurt, and I speak as the owner of a
sheepskin that proclaims me to hold a degree in computer science.
- Charles Stross, What I want for Christmas