It seems slightly baffling that I spent a week in Beijing and yet have very little to say about the usual ‘must-do’ tourist places. Of course, we went to see a lot of them, including Tienanmen square, the Forbidden city, various temples including the Temple of Heaven and Behai Park. In fact, we were very lucky to see these as several of the tourists we have talked to afterwards informed us that all of these sites were closed shortly after we visited in preparation for the National Holiday celebrating Japanese defeat and the end of World War Two for China. But in my memory these were less significant than the atmosphere of the city, my enjoyment of being in one place for more than a few days.
Looking back at my journal, I see that my experience with these tourist attractions was also largely hidden behind other experiences. For instance, after Laura and Ruth joined us in Beijing we headed to Tienanmen Square. In my journal I wrote:
I realise now that the walk [to the Square] must have been overwhelming for the two newbies- it was incredibly hot and stuffy, there were countless tour groups, and all the sights and smells were strong, accosting the senses. There were food and souvenir stalls competing for space along the outside of the [Forbidden] city walls, and for the first time we really saw poverty. Alarmingly, this was coupled with disability- a man with only one arm, a child in a crumpled heap, with conspicuously curled hands. Next to these beggars, old women and young boys sold melting ice lollies and frozen water, capitalizing on the heat that sent streams of sweat running down our backs.
I also was impressed (read: overwhelmed and somewhat intimidated) by the amount of security and ‘crowd management’, which seemed a constant priority for the forces. I had expected a square similar to the Red Square in Moscow which has occasional entrances closed off, but only when the Lenin Mausoleum is open to visitors or when there is a special event. Here, it was clear that security was a constant presence. Armed men stood protecting each statue and monument, every entrance and exit and underpass had security checkpoints, and movement between various spaces was tightly controlled through fences and stern looking police (or even more intimidating ‘Men in Black’ lookalikes). Granted this has historical reasons but it was a shock to me, who thought Russia was an over demonstrative military state and didn’t expect so much in Beijing. It was apparently also not that effective- in the evening after our visit we heard news that someone had attempted to set themselves alight on the square that very day.
The Temple of Heaven (or as Ruth’s friend and native of Beijing preferred to say, the ‘Temple of the sky’) was a welcome relief from this people management and over securitization. Although you still had entrance tickets (35 yuan) and multiple ticket checks to get through, you found yourself in a very large park, where you could avoid too many crowds by heading around corners away from the main path. Of course, we still found various tour groups and several people who asked to be able to take pictures with us, but in general the mass of people was more dispersed over a large space and hidden behind various trees.
Of the tourist sites we visited, the Temple of Heaven impressed me the most, primarily because so much effort had been made to allow me, as a foreign tourist, to understand the significance of the location and the rituals that used to take place there. Perhaps we just went through it in a more logical order, but I remember being very glad for English plaques and translations, and a series of images that described the Emperor’s religious practice at the winter solstice. This was a strong contrast to the Temples in the Northern part of the city, where everything had a nameplate but only little description of the purpose of the room or item.
I think that my experience in Beijing was so good not because of the attractions but because of the hutong life, early morning runs and the fact that we took our time. I think in our slow, calm exploration style we could have probably filled another half a week to a week, and on our last evening, taking a last look at the bright lights on the Houhai lake, I was sorry to be leaving.