Today we began with Tianemen Square, big enough to hold 1 million people – and it sure felt like it! Bloody massive is the term that comes to mind It’s surrounded by various buildings including the one where the government sits (which also hosts concerts!), the Southern Gate, and Tianemen Gate. The square itself is mostly open space apart from an obelisk and Chairman Mao’s tomb – which was undergoing renovations in anticipation of the Olympic Games next year. The mausoleum itself was just a square grey building, but apparently the queues can go twice around the square when it’s open!
Mao rears his head once more as you pass through Tianemen gate, and there are several more gates before reaching the entrance to the Forbidden City. All the gates (which can be up to 30m high) along this north-south axis have several entrances, and the Emperor was the only one allowed through the central one. The lower your rank the further away from the centre was your entrance – if you were allowed in at all!
The Forbidden City is ostentatious in its use of space as much as in its decorations and buildings. We only saw a small section of it, but you could easily imagine the Emperor living there separated from his people and living in luxury. It was a shame that several of the buildings were under renovation, as it spoiled the effect somewhat. However it was still impressive. We exited through the Northern gate in the 10m-high wall, crossing the 35m-wide moat, all powerful symbols to the surrounding population and any visitors.
I think perhaps the Chinese people’s apparent acceptance of their collaborative social order is due in part to hundreds of years of Imperial rule. Or perhaps it’s an inbuilt trait which allowed strong leaders to take and keep power for so long, holding together so many people with diverse ethnic backgrounds, dialects, and customs. Even since the end of the Empire the country seems to have stuck with autocratic leadership.
In any case, we took a welcome break from the heat and humidity with lunch in a local noodle restaurant. We were greeted at the door, and once Terry indicated how many of us there were the waiter called out the number, which was greeted with cries from all the other waiters followed by a beckoning call from the particular waiter who had a table of the right size available.
The atmosphere was great, full of life and the buzz of conversation – though we could understand none of it of course! We ordered some noodle dishes and fried rice – Adam’s favorite dish now The noodles arrived along with different sauces to mix into them. The taste was reminiscent of teriyaki, and quite tasty. As with most of our meals it was very cheap – less than €20 for us all!
We continued our tour with a visit to the Temple of Heaven – another old Chinese building By this stage we were flagging, so we headed into the surrounding park where Terry provided a kite each for Adam and Cora. We found a shaded area to put them together, and used a quiet pathway in our attempts to get them airborne. Unfortunately only occasional brief gusts of wind arrived, and the still, humid air couldn’t lift the kites – it just raised a sweat as we ran like fools trying to get our eagles soaring, just to see them twist and tumble to the ground
At this stage we needed to get out of the heat, so we headed back to the minibus and its glorious air conditioning! Terry took us to one of his local restaurants, pointing out his home on the way. We had Chinese barbeque food – chicken wings, chicken skewers, fried rice (for Adam, naturally!), roast potatoes that were more like crisps coated in chilli flakes, and strange ear-shaped mushrooms you dip in a wasabi sauce – with extra chillis if that’s not hot enough We declined the “Devil’s Tears” chicken wings (eat ten and your meal is free!), but Adam and Cora really took to the regular ones, even though they left your mouth “tingly”, as Cora put it They are both taking pretty well to the local food, dispelling our fears that we wouldn’t find anything they would eat. Rice seems to be the best bet, and Adam is getting more adventurous each day.
We returned to the hotel and freshened up before heading out once more to see a local show. It told the story of Chung Yi, and how he became a monk as a young boy, learning Kung Fu and seeking enlightenment. It was full of noise, movement, and spectacle, with just enough “plot” to string together the various martial displays. Some of these were impressive, others less so It struck me as a kind of oriental Riverdance.
One particular performer – the hero of the tale – displayed how his skin had become “like iron” by leaning on a pair of spears, bending their shafts, being suspended on three spear points, having wooden staves broken over various bits of his body, breaking three metal bars simultaneously with his head, and finally lying on three swords with a concrete block studded with nails resting on his torso supporting another “monk”, who in turn had a concrete block on his chest, which was smashed by a sledge hammer! Thus he proved he had found enlightenment, and following a big battle with the other monks, the abbot realised his work was done, passed his mantle on to his student, and went and lit his funeral pyre, his work in this life complete!
During the whole performance Cora kept up a stream of questions, such as “where has the little boy gone?”, and “will he see his mother again?”, and so on! No attempts at hushing her or encouraging her to whisper worked. In contrast, Adam slept through most of the performance! I’m not sure how he did since the noise was really loud at times, but the heat and the walking had taken their toll In fairness we were all tired, and myself and Adam were asleep by 10:30, though apparently Cora struggled on till 11:00 before finally getting to sleep. It was a full day with lots of walking and lots to see – tomorrow will probably be more of the same!