Day one proper in China started with breakfast, as most good days do.
It was surprisingly recognisable. Mainly, but not wholly, due to the fact it was labelled. Risk of accidentally eating meat was low. Traditional Chinese options were supplemented by elements of a full English. Noodles on toast it was then.
Beijing, formerly Peking, is currently the capital City of China. It has not always been that way, but trying to keep track of the toing and froing of Chinese power bases over the centuries requires several decades study. The city is over three thousand years old and the old sits comfortably next to the new, with ancient temples nestled in among ultra-modern sky scrapers.
Tina was on time to pick us up from the hotel and shuffle us into our awaiting carriage. We were soon heading down the longest street in the world to Tiananmen Square, the biggest square in the world (according to Tina – seventh largest according to Wikipedia). Tiananmen was scene of …. well, I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you why it is famous. Or maybe that should be infamous.
Actually, thinking about it as I type, lots of really famous things have happened on the square since it was built in 1651. The fact that the events that unfolded in July 1989 are what it’s most famous for speaks volumes about the significance of that protest.
Before hitting the square proper we hit the mausoleum of the man himself, Chairman Mao. We are not allowed to take photos, talk or even pause to actually look for more than a fleeting glance at the body of the great leader. Thousands file past to pay their respect every hour.
It is difficult for most outside of China to comprehend why Mao is so revered in China, but there is no doubt that revered he certainly is. On his watch, through the Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s and the Great Leap Forward of the late 1950s, an estimated thirty to seventy million people died as a result of starvation, imprisonment and mass executions. He was a bit on the ruthless side, to put it mildly. Getting on his wrong side was not good for your career. Or in deed for your life. He is considered by many in the west to have been a totalitarian dictator.
But also on his watch, imperialism was driven out of China, decades of internal conflict came to an end, land reforms redistributed wealth, life expectancy almost doubled and education improved. He turned China into a world power and in today’s semi capitalist China you can find everything from Mao posters and copies of his Little Red Book, to fridge magnets and mugs with his face on them.
Queues to visit his mausoleum (or should that be Maosoleum) are enormous. And we don’t get the impression this is something forced upon people, it feels like a genuine outpouring of love. Is it propaganda from the west that paints him in a bad light or propaganda and historical revisionism in China that makes people love him?
I suspect it is something very different and far more complicated that those outside of China simply cannot grasp. They see that the good he did outweighs any bad he may have done. Necessary evils for the long term good of the people. I suspect this trip will raise more questions than answers. Chinese history, after all, is more complicated than Game of Thrones.
Tiananmen Square is quite big. We arrive just as they are preparing the square for the seventieth anniversary of the formation of the People’s Republic. There is lots of scaffolding around and lots of security. Not to mention lots of tourists – although not as many as I had feared.
We are advised to bring our passports to get through the security around the square, which has been tightened up in preparation for the seventeenth anniversary. But oddly, groups of foreign tourists are fast tracked through security whilst individual locals have to queue for hours. At least I think is what was going on. It’s sometimes difficult to grasp the situation and we are slightly insulated by Tina smoothing the way for us.
As I sit here editing, I consider maybe the security is why the square is not as busy as I had expected. Maybe my expectations were just misguided.
After the traditional round of photographs we pass underneath the iconic portrait of Mao into the Forbidden Palace. If you have ever wondered how the portrait stays so fresh, they put a new one up each year.
Talking of which, we are bombarded with factoids about the Forbidden Temple. You would be better of checking out wikipedia (other pedias are available) to learn about its history, but here are some of the facty type things.
It is the largest wooden structure in the world. No smoking is allowed (they take your lighter off you on the way in and give you someone else’s lighter on the way out). The big fuck off fire buckets are made of gold. There’s shit loads of gates and the guest list for each door used to get more and more VIP as you went along.
The last emperor was only three years old. He had 3,000 concubines and 1,000 eunuchs. Quite what use a three year old has for 3,000 concubines is anyone’s guess. This might be an appropriate time to check out Wikipedia.
There was also a bloke wandering around painting portraits onto plates for the equivalent of fourteen quid. None of us were stupid enough to be caught out. Well… most of us weren’t.
Once out the back and strangers lighters are nicked, we head for the old town and a rickshaw ride.
The chirpy rickshaw drivers are chuffed to bits to see us and full of smiles. Although when we split up and the lucky driver that has to pull me around sees us, he’s not so fucking chirpy then.
After short journey of sweat and a near heart attack, we are dropped off for a tour of the Hutongs, the old working class area of town, the bit without concubines and eunuchs.
We are told about lots of history but the only fact that sinks in is that they put bits of wood over the tyres to stop dogs pissing on them.
We are invited into a family home. When we saw this on the itinerary it looked a bit intrusive. But we needn’t have worried, they were quite used to it. In fact they had a gift shop in the front room. None of us were mug enough to buy anything though. Well, most of us weren’t.
On the way back rickshaw man bizarrely tried to have a conversation with us. Fair play. He could only just breathe. At one point he had to get out and just push us.
We then headed for a rather splendid Chinese restaurant. Although, given we are in China, perhaps I should just say restaurant. The food that flashed before our eyes on the rotating table centre piece thing (Lazy Susan) was spectacular. Best Chinese food in the world.
After lunch we headed for the Summer Palace. Not the original one of course, because as us experts on China will know it was originally burnt down by the British during the opium wars then by a load of other European American and Russian dudes during the Crystal Meth Wars. (You might want to check Wikipedia again – or watch the film Fifty Five Days in Peking).
It is fair to say that prior to the formation of the People’s Republic in 1949, China had gone through a rough patch lasting over a century. Colonial powers from Europe had raped and pillaged the country for decades, along with the Americans. Their neighbours over in Japan had also been a bunch of bastards.
The Emperor’s mam eventually rebuilt the Summer Palace by nicking money from the coffers of the navy. Before you get excited about her ground breaking plough shares direct action, you should know her redistribution of wealth led to the navy getting a good hiding and China being conquered again. (Japanese this time I think. Yes. Check Wikipedia).
Our visit to the summer palace, which luckily for us is also open in the autumn, started with a ride on a boat on what was probably the biggest lake in the world. Or was it China? Maybe just Beijing. When we got to the other end we went for a bit of a walk down the longest corridor in the world. Not all the way though because it’s very long.
On returning to the hotel we did what any red blooded valley’s gang would do in a city with no pubs. We bought cans from the off licence and sat in the car park annoying people.