In one day we visited Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City and the Hutongs in Beijing. I couldn’t think anywhere else where three places within the same city which represent such different ways of life.
Before I get into the day and what happened I just want to take a moment to say our tour guide had a flag 😀
We arrived early in the morning to Tiananmen Square to find it fairly quiet however our guide told us that many Chinese come at sunrise to see the flag raised every day. She gave us a brief overview of the square, telling us of the buildings surrounding it and the civil war monument in the centre. What she didn’t tell us spoke more clearly about the square than what she did.
Our guide made absolutely no mention of the tank and the man who stood in front of it during the student protests, making it conspicuous by it’s absence as she described Chairman Mao’s tomb, the people’s hall, the national museum and the red gate. Eventually one of the other member’s of our group asked about the tank. Our guide didn’t understand at first and then went very hushed, she told us that people of her generation generally don’t know that event even happened, she only knows because people on her group started to ask her about it and she used a VPN to Google it. It is not something that is talked about in China and they present what they see as the positives of Tiananmen Square and miss out what it is most famous for in the rest of the world.
I took this picture from roughly the spot where our guide told us the tank man stood, however after looking it up it appears our guide was mistaken.
While we were in Tiananmen Square we had our first experience of being asked for our photo.
From Tiananmen Square we went through the red gate to enter The Forbidden City. As we walked through the gate, images of “The Last Emperor” flashed through my mind.
Everything was larger than life, including the crowds. The effect of the crowds was slightly odd actually, there were certain places where it was so crowded you could barely move and other areas that were completely empty. Everyone seemed to be queueing up for specific places, snapping a few photos and then moving on. This is where I found my height to be a bit of an advantage, I could get the shot most people queued for from the back of the crowd and then enjoy the areas which weren’t full of people.
The complex of The Forbidden City was much larger than I expected, you could get lost in there for days without retracing your tracks. The colour scheme was all red and gold, red because that is always a lucky colour for Chinese and gold (or yellow) because that was the colour of the emperor. The walls were red with gold roofs, which made it incredibly pretty sparkling in the sunlight we were lucky enough to have.
Each gate and building in the central complex had three entrances with the central one being the largest, there were also two smaller entrances at the peripheries. The central entrance could only ever be used by the emperor with the exception of the empress on her wedding night; the two other large entrances were used by the royal family or those invited by the emperor to The Forbidden City; and the entrances at the peripheries were used by the staff.
Most of the main buildings in The Forbidden City had burned down and been rebuilt several times as they were made from wood. There were large pots scattered throughout the complex which would be filled with water at all times for the use of quenching fire. During our wandering we found one area which was much older than the rest. It was very quiet as the crowds didn’t seem very interested in it, I thought this must have given more of an impression of what life was really like in The Forbidden City in the times of the emperors when people were only admitted on invitation of the Emperor.
All through The Forbidden City, and actually I have noticed it throughout our trip so far, there has been a theme of four animals: the lion, the dragon, the tortoise and the crane. The lion represents the strongest animal, that is why they are often used in doorways and other entrances. The lions are always in pairs with the female on the right (because women are always right) with a cub to represent family and the male on the left with a globe to represent the universe. The Dragon represents the emperor and the crane and the tortoise represent longevity.
The last section was possibly the most stunning and unexpected. We made our way to the Imperial Gardens, expecting well manicured gardens as we had seen elsewhere in Beijing, we found incredible rock gardens almost like something from an alien planet. There were even a few polystyrene rocks for good measure, hiding secret doors.
After visiting The Forbidden City we opted to go on a Hutong tour. Hutongs are the traditional housing areas of Beijing and are generally lived in now by the poorer inhabitants of the city. We met our tour guide who was a resident of the Hutong and he took us to our lunch stop, in the courtyard of one of the houses where we were given a home-made meal. Like most of the food I have had in China so far it was absolutely delicious and very plentiful.
Once we were finished the meal we were invited into our hosts home to have a look around. Unlike most Hutong housing our guide explained that this particular one had been in the family for so long and was so old that it was worth more than most modern apartments.
We were soon off again, this time we were traveling in style, on rickshaws. On the hot day it was nice to sit back and feel the breeze go by and I didn’t feel too bad for our rickshaw cyclist as his bike was electric assist.
We flew through the Hutong taking in the sights and smells around us. It is clear that it isn’t just a tourist attraction; there is the hubbub of life going on all around, with shops selling everything you could want, people sitting out watching the world go by, and competitive games of Mahjong.
We stopped again and our guide explained to us the relevance of doors in Hutongs. Firstly the number of posts shows the social standing of the family; there are up to four posts on a the door, in the case where they have a gold accent there must be some connection to The Emperor. Below the door, the number of steps must compliment the number of posts, with the more steps representing a more important family. There is often a threshold as well which keeps the bad spirits out (apparently they don’t have knees) and the water in as according to Fung Shui water in the house means good wealth. On either side of the door three are two statues, these include the lions I described above but will also include either a drum or a book to represent military or civilian families respectively.
We hopped back onto our rickshaw and soon reached our next destination which was Mr Liu’s house. Mr Liu was quite a character, as we approached his house it became clear he owned quite the menagerie. We were there to learn about cricket fighting, but before any of that Mr Liu gave us a history of himself and all the famous people he had met over the years.
He showed us where the crickets live, and the tools for training them. He also showed us what a baby cricket looks like and his prize cricket which he called Tyson, like Mike Tyson. A fighting cricket only lives for about 100 days but is worth about $10,000 once trained, people bet high stakes on these crickets.
After learning about the fighting crickets, Mr Liu brought out some singing crickets and let us hold them, they were beautiful. This was followed by what I am fairly sure was a bearded dragon, but due to our inability at Mandarin, we kept being told it was a lizard when we asked which type. My husband was also very taken by the number and types of fish.
This brought an end to the Hutong tour. I feel like this day gave us an insight into so many different lives, from the communist era of Tiananmen Square, the imperial lives lived in The Forbidden City to the every day in the Hutongs.