I was very excited to begin my last day in Beijing, for today we were reuniting with Joe! Our hilarious and amazing tour guide met us at the hotel and took us on a bus to Tiananmen Square. Before we left, our guide book warned us not to talk about the tragedy that occurred in Tiananmen Square. In 1989, government crackdowns against student led pro-democracy demonstrations killed hundreds of students here, and as I expected, Joe mentioned none of that, stating only that the area was “politically charged”. This was striking as Joe had previously joked about the president and Taiwan, but even he would not go near Tiananmen Square. The Square was by far the busiest place I had seen in China. The massive open area surrounded by imposing government buildings and monuments was packed full of tourist groups and soldiers. At the end of the square was the gate to the Forbidden City and the portrait of Chairman Mao himself.
I knew the Forbidden City was huge, but I was not prepared for just how huge it is. We walked through massive gate after massive gate, passed by countless palaces, courtyards, and streets. It’s hard for me to imagine the opulent lives the Chinese emperors lived, especially when many of their subjects were so poor. It seemed like every member of the Emperor’s family had a separate room for every hour of the day. All the buildings were beautiful and the paint incredibly elaborate. In the garden, I saw a worker repairing stonework by hand, as in he was picking up tiny stones, brushing them off, and then cementing them onto the ground. The craftmanship was incredible. We left the Forbidden City and ate a huge lunch at a tiny little restaurant, where Joe ensured we got extra courses, even though we can never finish the regular number of courses! The delicious green beans from the Great Wall made a return, so I was very satisfied.
Our next stop was a tour of a Hutong, the narrow alleys that were the traditional living conditions in old Beijing. First, we were treated to a rickshaw ride through the Hutong. The rickshaw drivers were having a great time: they jested with each other, rammed into each other, and swerved about. The whole area seemed very poor, there were broken bikes on the side of the street, the houses were old and shabby, and there were gross smelling public restrooms. But when we went inside a house, all this was explained. Residents use broken bikes to save parking spaces. The reason the houses are shabby on the outside is because the government does not allow renovations, to preserve the history. The houses in the hutongs are incredibly expensive because land in the center of the city is so valuable. You must be reasonably wealthy to live there. This was evident from inside the house because it was decorated with artifacts from the Ming dynasty. I didn’t understand why these people didn’t just sell and move somewhere more modern, but I learned the houses are passed down generation to generation and people stay there because of the incredibly close relationships the families form. It was nice seeing a different side of life in Beijing in the Hutong.
We got back on the bus and drove to the Temple of Heaven, a complex used by the Ming and Qing emperors from animal sacrifice. We had a group sing along walking to the Temple and earned the stares of all the Chinese people in the process. A group of Americans draws enough attention, but a group of Americans obnoxiously singing drew extra stares. The temple was beautiful. I saw a picture of Japanese troops occupying the Temple during World War II. It’s amazing to me that China has been through so much history, war, and violence, yet these ancient structures remain intact. We participated in a Tai Chai class, and many people watched our lesson. I’m still having trouble grasping the idea that its ok in China to walk up to a group of strangers and start recording them. I don’t think I’ll ever get used to it.
The Temple of Heaven
For dinner that night, we decided to return to the hot pot restaurant, this time with our fantastic guide Liliana. Getting there was an adventure though, as we went to the wrong mall twice and wandered around lost for a while. During this period, I finally tried some vending machine orange juice. To my surprise it was delicious and tasted very fresh. At hot pot, Liliana ordered pig throat, duck blood, and duck gizzard for us. She made us try it before telling us what it was. To my surprise, I liked almost everything. Then we received ominous news. Liliana had to leave early because someone in our group had apparently gotten sick and was going to the hospital. We assumed it was nothing. After dinner, we decided to try and find a bakery to snag some snacks for the long train ride the next day, but I had barely stepped out of the hotel when I bumped into my friend Lauren from high school! Lauren had moved to China after graduation to be an au pair. I knew she was in Beijing but we couldn’t find a time to meet up. I was amazed that in a city of 23 million people I had casually bumped into the 1 person I knew. Also, Lauren’s apartment was only 2 blocks from the hotel! I went back to hotel happy from seeing my friend, but then I found out 2 more people were sick. Things weren’t looking good as our time in Beijing came to close.