Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, The Great Wall of China and Home

Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City are like two sides of the same coin. Both are enormous, imposing. Both display the glory and power of their respective regimes, and reflect the egos of the men in charge of them. Standing side by side it would be easy to appropriate the one into the context of the other, a line of Chinese building which follows the same philosophy, if not the same aesthetic concerns. The Forbidden City is overwhelming, an overt display of wealth, a series of daunting, stunning courtyards and palaces dedicated to the glory of one man. 9,999 rooms make up the palace, befitting the son of god (whose palace in the heavens is said to contain 10,000 rooms). Tiananmen is similarly hard to take in all at once, barely a square, just a vast, open tract of concrete, with a statue in the centre and buildings barely hemming in the sides. From the gate towards the Forbidden Palace, Mao looks down upon his people. At the other end stands his mausoleum, queues of Chinese tourists backing up far into the square for the briefest of glimpses of the formaldehyde-preserved body of their former ruler. Yet there is stark difference between these two immense feats of architecture, and it is ideological as much as it is aesthetic. The Forbidden City was built to glorify the Emperor and was, as its name suggests, closed to the general public. Only the Emperor's wives, concubines and advisors, along with foreign dignitaries, were allowed inside. Despite the cult-like representations of Mao, Tiananmen was designed to be public, open at each corner, capable of holding 500,000 people in one go. Of course, it has fame for other reasons too, ones which my guide did not mention and neither - for fear of censorship - will I. Be that as it may, there is something in these two structures that draws hundreds of millions of Chinese tourists every year, flowing from one into the other, paying their life savings in some cases, just to see these two icons of Beijing before they die. Tiananmen may now have a reputation less conducive to the idea of a free populace, but this area is one of Mao's victory, Tiananmen being the conduit through which most visitors will enter, and judge, the excesses of a bygone age found in the Forbidden City.


In China, everything may not be for sale, but almost everyone is trying to sell you something. Our guide takes us to a Jade museum on the way to the Great Wall. Museums like this one are based in factories, so our tour takes in the different types and manufacturing processes of Jade as described with ruthless efficiency by a woman in a business suit and shiny silver trainers. Brief lecture dispensed with, we are dumped in the shop and told to address our questions to more semi-formal employees, ruthless salespeople who stalk us as we browse, always following a step or two behind. I buy nothing (despite the forceful attention of one of them). My guide, who appears to have a vested interest, notices this. At the next place, a ceramics museum-factory-shop, she follows me around making helpful suggestions. "This pen is lovely. Look, only sixty yuan. That's less than ten dollars... You could buy your mother a present. You like this teapot?"

At the Great Wall, our guide leaves us to explore by ourselves. My companion is a retired headmaster, a warm, kind man who appears to have a better idea of what my trip is about than I do. Our starting position gives us two options: an impossible looking steep climb to the top of a mountain and beyond, or a more leisurely path. My companion's air of hardy anticipation leaves me in no doubt as to which one we'll be following. I set off reluctantly behind him, knees aching from the initial two-foot-high steps. Half an hour in and I'm gasping, desperate for an exit strategy. Irritation and anger set in. In this impossible challenge, I'm beginning to see the rest of my trip stretch before me. Long days, difficult journeys. And for what? I don't care if I reach the top of the mountain. I don't care if I keep travelling for a day or a week. Why not just give up when it becomes hard?

The surprise comes at the last hut we stop at before turning back, a sweaty hour straight uphill in bright sunshine. We enter and decide to check out how much further there is to go. Every time we'd reached a hut we'd found it had hidden much of the path beyond, and more misery awaited us (or me at least, since my companion seemed delighted to keep going). This time, though, there is no more. Even if we'd wanted to go on, we couldn't. The wall ends in a miniature balcony over the hill. It is only on the way down, noticing how many more people there are at the bottom than the top, watching people falter a quarter or halfway up the path (at points where I paused and then struggled on) that I begin to feel really good about the whole thing. My legs are shaking with adrenaline, sweat's pouring from my back and legs, but I'm buzzing, my mind racing, my body stronger than it was a moment before. Walking down the hill I start to see the benefits of travelling clearly, how stepping out of my comfort zones may be awful at times, but will serve me well in the long run. How much stronger I can feel from an uphill climb. And how much better the world looks from the top of a mountain - but only on the way down again.

No comments: