How complex it all is. Travelling to such a large country with so many aspects and cultures – one is faced with a mammoth feast of learning.
We arrived in Beijing in the late morning after our overnight flight. A huge modern Airport with miles to walk and full of well dressed, uniformed people. There we met the rest of the tour group: Elizabeth, a hypnotherapist cum colonic irrigationist with pretensions, more money than sense, smug and egocentric (herein after called Mrs PC – politically correct, perfect and controlled, psychotherapist and colonic); Tom, her lap-dog husband and general factotum (Mr GF); Jane, a 30-ish loner given to little conversation and a good bit of resentment at being herded in a group as she fits better within the back-packing fraternity; and finally there was Ina, artistic, forgetful, interesting; nursing a leg ulcer and a recently operated-on eye
A first impression of Beijing – cosmopolitan, wide roads, loads of new buildings being built and really not so very different from other major capital cities. Our Hotel is different, though. Huge, red lanterns of welcome, hanging under Chinese-style, multi-layered shaped roofs of The Grand View Garden Hotel. And here’s one thing you cotton on to immediately – the Chinese ability to see meaning and symbolism in everything, oblivious to the wider surroundings. There really was no ‘Grand View’ and the garden next door wasn’t visible from our window, we had to suffice with 3 huge satellite dishes!
The tour included trips to all the famous places:
The Summer Palace built as the summer home for the emperor and his court, the Summer Palace is a series of buildings nestled in a hilly, wooded setting on a large stagnant lake, (hill and lake are man-made) with gardens, bridges, pavilions, halls and towers fit for a king. The contents of the Summer Palace were plundered during the Cultural Revolution but it still recalls the opulent lifestyle of the privileged few during Qing times. Empress Cixi (pronounced Sissi) embezzled 5 Million taels of silver from navy funds to have it restored after the Anglo – French in 1860, had burned it down. That Empress was quite a character – initially a concubine, then favourite wife to whom a child was born, but the Emperor died when he was aged 30 and she managed to have her son made Emperor in infancy and she acted as Regent. She became very powerful and ‘manipulated’, in turn, three Emperors! Two things of note there are the marble replica of a Mississippi steamboat, sitting immobile in the green lake waiting for its next ‘Tea party’ and the lavishly painted Long Corridor meandering alongside the lake. I found the place a bit sad. It seemed tired and in need of a good wash and paint. Maybe it was because we were tired, the day very warm and humid so that even the names of the various Halls and Pavilions didn’t manage to raise their appeal: Garden of Virtuous Harmony, Benevolence and Longevity Hall, Cloud Dispelling Hall, Spring Heralding Pavilion.
Tiananmen Square which is said to have the capacity to hold one million people. (Beijing has 11 Million) It is vast – with vast buildings on either side proclaiming a Government determined to inspire awe in its subjects. (The Great Hall of the People, the Museum of Chinese History; and the Museum of the Chinese Revolution.) On 1 October 1949, Mao Zedong inaugurated the People's Republic of China in this square, and 40 years later, the square became infamous for the student demonstrations and subsequent government massacre of democracy-movement demonstrators. Tiananmen Square is also the site of Mao Zedong's mausoleum – where he lies embalmed and waxed, yo-yoing up and down into his personal freezer. Flag ceremonies are held in the square at sunrise and dusk every day, the soldiers standing rigid under their shady umbrellas in between their stiff bits of ceremonial marching. This Square would give ‘square bashing’ a terrible dimension!
At one end of the Square is a high deep red brick coloured wall – the first entrance to The Forbidden City but there are many more! Twenty-four emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties lived in this palace, now officially known as the Palace Museum. The 14th-century walled compound was named "Forbidden City" because it was off limits to ordinary citizens. In the grounds are six palaces and 800 smaller buildings, in all containing more than 9,000 rooms and halls, making it the largest architectural complex in the world. The City was home to up to 3,000 concubines of the Emperor, 1,000’s of eunuchs and 1000’s of servants. (Must watch the film ‘The Last Emperor’ again as much was filmed in the Forbidden City) Most of the treasures that once filled the rooms were looted by the Japanese during World War II or taken to Taiwan by the Nationalists in 1949. We walked through huge courtyard after huge courtyard, each with its own large, elaborately decorated Gatehouse. Roof tiles in every direction glazed yellowish gold, the colour for Emperors, and at each and every roof corner a line of glazed pottery animals - protecting the building. The site is vast and would take weeks to see all; elaborately painted buildings nestled on tiers of carved white marble the large courtyards with enormous bronze tubs for water (fire precaution) but no trees so no-one could hide and attempt to assassinate the Emperor. The Emperors Garden with its multitude of oddly shaped lumps of stone – each with a usually impossible to guess symbolic name – like ‘Black Iris’, ‘Intertwined Goldfish’, ‘Carbuncle on a Pothole’ or ‘Dragon weeping’ needless to say looked nothing like their name! We were struck by the amount of carved marble in each of the squares and how the pure lines gave them both simplicity and majesty. The Hall of Complete Harmony and the Hall of Preserving Harmony led towards the living quarters of the Emperor – much more human in scale, almost intimate. There were 5 identical bedrooms – to confuse potential assassins! A whole section of houses for the concubines – Halls of Satisfaction? In most of the Palace we were reduced to peering through grubby glass at what dusty relics were inside.
Linked to the Palace is the Temple of Heaven situated in a large park and built between AD 1406 and AD 1420 for use by the Emperor for ceremonies honouring the god of harvests. The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest is one of the most beautiful examples of Chinese architecture. It's a circular, deep blue tiled (symbolizing the sky) temple on a marble terrace and looks like a giant cloisonné building. The main building, with its three cone-shaped roofs, has become the symbol of Beijing and is entirely fitted together without nails or pegs. Rebuilt many times since 1420, lastly in 1890, it is another place full of symbolism, carved marble slabs with dragons and phoenix and an open-air altar complex of purity and simplicity that is quite unique. The use of space and contour is exceptional.
And after all this evidence of earthly privilege on to the Ming Tombs and evidence of privilege extending well into the after-life. The long ‘Soul Way’ which is lined by huge stone animals, intriguing semi-caricatures of lions, camels, elephants, griffons and monkeys, leads to the tombs. They are quite splendid, carved in the early 16C and still nearly perfect! Unlike tombs in countries such as Egypt, these are not so elaborately decorated inside but they contained all sorts of beautiful, valuable items buried with the Emperor and his concubines for the next life. The tomb we saw was 190 steps down into the ground – cool and delicious! Marble vaulted rooms with marble carved doors linked by vaulted corridors. The original burial casks have been vandalized but there were huge, dark red, monolith replicas in place and everywhere Chinese money stuffed into cracks between glass cases – something to do with increasing good things in the afterlife / next re-incarnation. There’s so much symbolism, so much ‘gim-crack rubbish’ as my Grandfather would have said! (Other Emperors include Qing, Ding, Jing, Kang, Yong, Yu, Mao!)