“So,” said Cesca loudly and clearly, just as I was drinking from a water bottle, “What’s all this about China and Tiananmen Square?”
I almost did a spit take.
“Quiet!” I said and I looked around, wiping water running down my chin. Yes, we were standing bang in the middle of said location.
Cesca was annoyed and went red in the face, “What?!” she said.
“Don’t mention the protests in public!” I said in a hiss, “We’ll get deported!” I was acutely aware that I sounded like Basil Faulty around Germans.
“Oh don’t be silly,” she said with an incredulous look on her face.
I wasn’t being silly not in the least. Tiananmen Square was made world (in)famous by the 1989 student protests overzealously put down by guns and tanks. The Chinese government had learned a hard lesson in public relations that day, and a lot of protesters learned one too about the Chinese government.
In some respects I understand. It must be, for example, really hard to control this enormous country. Moreover, the history of China, written large in this square since 1400, has let flow more rivers of blood than any country other than perhaps Russia. After all, the long-gone Emperors of China had lived in the giant palace at one end of the square for a thousand years, but theirs had not been easy dynasties. Highlights include the Mongols marching in so successfully that most people forget it happened, the British fighting their way in, the Boxer Rebellion (a mind-meltingly hideous period of Chinese history), the Japanese invasion of WWII, and then – of course – Chairman Mao’s revolution and his cult of personality. Compared to those events the shooting of a few thousand uppity students hampering for Western Democracy doesn’t measure a blip. Tragic story that it is, horrible, murderous and paranoid that the reaction was, given Chinese history, I am not in the least bit surprised it happened.
However, it is true that the “love” for the great leader is long gone and for most little more than lip service. No one is praying daily to his photo any more for example. I’m glad. The problem with Maoism is not that the country is communist, communism is a really good idea, it is that Mao (in the same way that Stalin did) inserted himself in the mix at the top and was determined to stay there. China under Mao was a disaster because there were none of the “checks and balances” found in western democracies. For example, US Presidents, no matter how “great” or “powerful” can serve only two terms. Any attempt to change that will result in civil war in a heartbeat. In the UK, an all together more civilised nation, the Queen has the power to force an election on behalf of the people. A queen has done it before. Her power to do this is in the army (plus the police) because who do they swear allegiance to? That’s right; the Queen. Would they force an election out of an unruly government if the Queen said to? Yes, you bet your arse they would, they would enjoy it.
Not so in China, here power is concentrated in an élite ruling clique and without accountability to the people, shit happens. On that night the general who put down the protests was, from his point of view, protecting his capital and thereby his nation’s structure – but from everyone else’s he was protecting a political élite and it was to they that he was accountable. Of course, British generals have committed similar murders in India and Ireland but, and here is the rub, not against their own people. Not that he had a choice, even questioning verbal orders was almost a death sentence and the first general that night, who asked for written orders, was lucky to only get 5 years in jail.
So, the whole event is still an open sore for the Chinese government and wary of future protest they have installed undercover agents all over the square looking for troublemakers. I thought everyone knew that.
Still, it was a very impressive sight. The square is huge (the 3rd largest in the world) and a major civic junction. Moreover as a visitor to this city you will definitely come here; it’s simply impossible to ignore. At least you will walk across it a few times. The first thing you notice is that it is intensely political in focus with massive pictures of Mao adorning the palace and statues to the man’s theories prominently displayed.
This is a form of belief-building all nations do. The British, after all, have Nelson’s column and statues of other warrior leaders all over London silent of any historical judgement of them.
Amazingly we stayed only 2 minutes from this sight and could almost make it out from the window. Beijing, I quickly realised, is an incredible city. In places so modern it is breath-taking, but in other places – often overlapping – it is so ancient that one simply struggles to imagine that far back. Again, similar to London in that respect. Our visit was the culmination of our trip to China, and while we did have a mission while there (changing our Japan airline tickets – an adventure that would take 2000 words just to outline), we were really there just to be tourists.
Our first outing was to the palace of the Forbidden City itself and this was truly one of the highlights of my entire year away. There are two ways to do the palace and which one you take will define your experience.
The first way is to take a tour. This seems natural as there is so much to see and some expert guidance is welcome. However, this is often a great mistake. The City is roughly a succession of giant courtyards of varying importance leading front to back with a huge garden at the end.
You can walk directly through it in this regard and this is what the tours do – a basic straight run down the middle. Big mistake. The courtyards are all very samey and if you don’t know much about the intricacies of courtly life in the City before you get there, then you won’t understand it at all.
If you are very short on time and must take a tour (that in itself is a tragedy for this is one of the largest museums in the world) then I strongly suggest that you watch the TV series on Empress, the “Dowager Cixi” (one of the most fascinating and maligned women in history, whom is the source of the phrase “the power behind the throne”), which will give you a good primer to the place. Even so, you will miss much…
The second way is to go it alone and hire the wireless guide with headphones. This allows you to wander around the place and most importantly to the other large courtyards to the sides of the main areas that house the treasures and museums of which there are many.
The wireless device, which looks like a plastic slice of toast with a little map drawn on one side, is GPS controlled or some such and as you walk around it suddenly kicks in with commentary on what you are seeing, where in the city you are, and the history of that area.
Highlights for me included the incredible museum to Chinese pottery
(China’s pottery is the best in history – so much so we even call fine pottery “China”), the fascinating clock museum displaying the Chinese Emperor’s infatuation with Western style timepieces and mechanics (indulged as only a truly despotic regime can)…
…and the treasure chambers (which has diamonds the size of acorns).
Then, at you own pace, you can peer at the greatest Chan Buddhist treasures in the world (collected here by the obsessive Chinese Empress mentioned above who likened herself to a Buddhist deity)…
…and, finally, wander satisfied in to the gardens at the rear.
Both Cesca and I were simply amazed by all of this and loved our visit. We were then surprised by some of our traveller friends’ negative stories and it was only when we compared them that the above two experiences emerged.
After the visit we walked back across the square and to the food district for a Duck meal. This was a very touristic experience (they come and carved the duck at the table), but it was so delicious I didn’t care!
Next we visited the great park known as the “Summer Palace“.
This enormous area surrounds a large lake in the middle and was the playground of the Chinese Empress where every whim was indulged and nothing encapsulates this better than the marble “boat” the Empress had carved for parties.
The park takes a whole day to do, easy, and if the weather is nice is probably the best place to be in Beijing.
The tourists are out in force here, but there more than enough space for them all. There are also many interesting events occurring during the day including a dance troop of very attractive young Chinese ladies dancing in one of the courts.
The quality and maintenance of this place belies its history. The truth is that it is really the *second* Summer Palace. The first one was even more impressive and the real place from which the Chinese Emperor governed. That once housed the greatest treasures of the huge realm, some over 3500 years old, most of which are now hidden in lofts in Wales.
Yes, Wales. In Britain.
When the British and French destroyed the Chinese army (1856, the 2nd “Opium War”), marched into Beijing and forced the Chinese government to buy our Opium (whatever their objections to the health costs), they also decided to teach them a lesson for putting half our trade delegation to death. One they would not forget. By this time China’s Emperors were so pathetically corrupt that the country was essentially heading towards starvation while they lived a life of luxury. Much like what happened in France; a great (despotic) leader built an empire (France had the “Sun King” and China the Chin Emperor) who ushered in a new dawn only to have subsequent generations get fat screwing it all up.
So, the lesson taught to the Chinese was to burn the Summer Palace down. It took 3 days. That is, of course, we burned down what we didn’t loot first. Consequently, some of the very very best China, Jewels and historical treasures of this country can be found in the lofts and kitchen cupboards of the ancestors of those Welsh Engineers and French gronards.
Not surprisingly this is still a sore point with the Chinese and another thing not to mention in polite Chinese company. The Empress had the current palace built to replace it (the original has never been restored) and, after the revolution, it has become this splendid public park.
We had a really great time here, despite the crowds, and went back to our hostel happy.
The next day we decided to do a walk on the Great Wall and so caught a bus out-of-town in its direction.
It is often claimed that the Great Wall of China is visible from Space – it isn’t. Nothing man-made is, but it is fantastically long from the land. Historically an almost country-bankrupting barrier, the wall was designed to funnel the Mongol hordes into a single defensible point from which they could be picked off. In the end, so many died building it and it cost so much to maintain that the general responsible was quietly pensioned off and the wall abandoned. Soon after, sure enough, the Mongols just went through the gap in the center and took over the country. Nevertheless the achievement of building it was spectacular. As a tourist there are two main sections you can walk. The nearer of the two is easier and also busier. The further is not so easy, or safe, and is a hike of about 4 hours up and down the hills (of which there are many). If you have the chops I recommend the furthest section.
When you first arrive on the bus and are let lose to attempt the walk, you think to yourself that you will be alone on the wall and isolated. However, the wall is packed solid with touts selling cold drinks of all types, which got very tiring for Cesca who hates that sort of thing. Also, the wall was cleverly designed in a way that doesn’t help you as a modern hiker.
The general knew all too well that the Mongols may simply climb the wall and take over whole sections. So the entire wall is also designed for defence against itself. Each section (about 100 meters) can repel not only those on the ground, but also from the left and right.
There are multiple designs for this from steep sections, interior odd spaced walls, large holes, narrow turns, etc. This means that in many places you are literally climbing up to the next tower. I can just imagine how hard it must have been trying to assault this fortress of a wall. Bugger that!
All alongside the main built structure lays some simply breathtaking sites in terms of countryside.
The view is one I will always take with me. Unfortunately the modern Chinese appear to care little for it. I saw a group of bored looking teens throwing rubbish off the wall with no cares at all. This got Cesca very angry indeed, something that was picked up on by said teenagers and they mocked us for our concern. I was acutely away that we were standing on a 5 meter wide wall of over 20 meters in height, deep in the wilds of China and miles from anywhere.
Falling, or being pushed, off would be a bad thing so we moved on. A pity that they were not cherishing the place like we did. In the end, this hassle and the touts coloured Cesca’s memories of the wall, but if you look in the photos at her you can see that actually she really enjoyed it.
After an exhausting 4 hours we came to a large iron bridge structure and the end of our walk.
Worth. Every. Penny.
Next Cesca wanted something special and signed up for a Calligraphy lesson from an outreach society. This required a journey through the excellent public transport system (much better than London’s!), which I remember had a slightly humorous, and presumably accidental, inflection on the English words to get off the train – making it sound a little like a strained order.
On the journey to the class, we got to see the city in a wider context.
The streets were clean and people seemed happier than those in India (for example). It was pleasantly laid out and in general a good experience to commute across. I could imagine if not living then at least working there.
Strangely we saw smog only on the last day, which appeared as a fog hovering in the distance. I am sure that sometimes the city suffers immeasurably, but as an honest reporter I cannot say I saw much of it.
Finally our long tour of China was coming to an end. We had managed to sort out our flights to and from Japan and I was excited to visit the one country I had always dreamed of.
I will be honest, I had not expected much from China and that had been a mistake. A big mistake. Cesca was right that China and I were made for each other in many respects. The ancient traditions and philosophy of Daoism had accorded with my own thinking so closely to be nothing short of spooky. Indeed a few months after returning to England I suddenly had a realisation while walking through Liverpool St station and bang – I was a Daoist (and proudly put it on the UK census). While China may not have this affect on everyone, it is the nature of travel – and especially travel to places you don’t know well – that you will have your horizons broadened and even perhaps your life changed too?
China, no matter how alien a world it was – and how frustrating it could be – was a place I didn’t want to leave.