Saturday 3 October, 2009 – Beijing
Today we visited Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven. We were to have visited the Summer Palace, but given the huge crush of Chinese visiting their national monuments during the Golden Week holiday, we decided at lunch time to give it a miss and return instead to the Pearl Market. But back to the beginning…
We were collected by Crystal from our hotel and taken in a taxi to another hotel east of the city centre to collect a total of 14 for the day tour. After calling at a few more hotels, including one where our driver very nearly came to blows with a taxi driver who was parked over the entrance, we headed through the bumper-to-bumper traffic to the southern end of Tiananmen Square. Thousands upon thousands of Chinese, as well as other hapless tour groups ,were doing the same. Accessing the Square required passing through a security point, where bags were x-rayed. The crush was amazing. I feared losing my bag, but managed to retrieve it. In the square, we just had to do our best to keep up with Crystal, who set a cracking pace. Fortunately she wore a bright pink cap, so I was able to see her in the crowd, and most of the rest of the group said they were following me!
Crystal did her best to give us a grounding in the history of the sites as we went along, in her vocal delivery style that could politely be described as staccato. As with yesterday’s guide, there was little sense of developing a theme, rather a stream of names, facts and figures that left little overall impression. Especially in the crush.
The floats and displays that had formed key elements of Friday’s National Day parade were still lined up around the square, and I snapped shots of a few of them as the human tide swept us past. At the top end of the Square we entered through an underpass to cross the road to the Forbidden City (known as the Palace Museum by the Chinese). Crystal had to leave us by the entrance and go and join the huge queue to purchase our tickets, which alone took half an hour.
Inside the Forbidden City, the crowds were again incredible, especially at the points where we had to pass through the numerous gates and doors to progress from one courtyard to the next. The size of the crowd was enormous even by the monumental standards of this incredible complex. Again, it was all we could do to keep up as the tides swept us along. Interiors of the pavilions were closed, or at best, all one was allowed was a peek in the door as the crowd swept past. There was no opportunity to visit any of the various displays mentioned in Lonely Planet, or to even feel that one had experienced anything other than a human tsunami.
A little Filipina lady in our group in fact became separated from us for some time; it was only when she managed to phone Crystal that we could arrange to return to where she was and collect her. I had forgotten to bring either water or a hat, so was pretty thirsty after nearly three hours of this, with the sun beating down on the paved courtyards and little shade. We left via the East Gate and I just managed to grab some water from a little shop as we raced past on our way back to the minibus.
Next stop was the Temple of Heaven, for which our hotel was named. While the crowds here were not as huge as earlier, they were still pretty vast. More security checks, including a rather energetic pat down with a wand by a young official – doesn’t make for a particularly wonderful visitor experience. Again, interiors were either closed or so crowded that Maria and I just found places to sit in the shade during the couple of brief ‘exploration’ breaks. It was impossible to get any sense of history or significance from the tour under the circumstances.
Lunch was at a restaurant near to the Temple of Heaven – another tourist trap serving execrable food of the sort that was served in Chinese restaurants in Australia years ago because that was what the Chinese thought we liked and we did not apparently complain. I noticed that the Chinese diners around us were eating much more interesting looking dishes. There was also ‘cultural’ entertainment; young lads singing ‘folk songs’ at us at the top of their amplified lungs and young lasses in headdresses that looked more like last year’s Christmas decorations performed ‘traditional dances’, all to loud electronic accompaniment. There was even a couple of lads who beat cymbols and gongs as we entered the place.
We told Crystal we’d leave the tour here and she said she would drop us at the Pearl Market, which was close by. Instead, once on the bus, she took us to a pearl jewellery shop and factory (the obligatory shopping stop) several blocks away; Maria and I made a run for it and made our own way to the Hongqiao. There I saw the opticians about my new specs; after a lengthy chat and a lot of scratching of heads they ‘worked out’ what the problem was and agreed to fix it, which impressed me.
This meant another couple of hours’ wait, but Maria said she was happy to keep looking around. We wandered down the back of the main building and found ourselves in another of the same size with even more stalls of the treasure of the orient. We bought more gifts, t-shirts and odds and ends, and then found ourselves in the basement which had a large food hall off to one side. We weren’t hungry, but were thirsty so after finding someone to staff the refreshment stand, I ordered a large beer and Maria a soft drink.
Eventually the specs were right, and we find the same taxi driver – 40 Yuan seems to be the going rate for foreigners to anywhere, when the drivers fail to convince the gullible to pay US$10 or more.
After a rest at the hotel, we headed for a last supper at our favourite shop. Unfortunately the massage place seems to be closed for the holidays.