[Click on pictures to enlarge]
It has been a strange week. A few meetings in Beijing, but mainly I have been on conference calls with Europe, lasting - because of the time difference - into the late evening. It has been oddly tiring, although not unusually busy. Today, however, was reserved for leisure. I can't visit a new place without some exploration.
Fairly strenuous it proved to be as I walked around the city for five hours. At several points, I paused to reflect how lucky I am to have such a life; to have the chance to visit the far-off places I dreamed of as a boy. My whole family has lived in one square mile of what is now Wales, probably, since prehistory. It seems to be my destiny to improve our averages when it comes to travel.
The Forbidden City was not quite what I expected. Yes, it's huge and impressive and oozes history. Yet it also feels rather sad. It's as if the Emperor had just walked away and no-one had quite decided what to do with it. Renovation of such a complex must be a huge burden. It covers 7.8 million square feet and comprises 980 buildings. It is a city within a city. A city that feels, in parts, abandoned and neglected. Some structures are quite dilapidated, although crews were working on others. The task of maintenance is eternal. While it's a "World Heritage Site" and rightly so, I can't help feeling it would be better put to use. Such wonderful spaces should be occupied and enjoyed, not just gawped at by the likes of me. The occupants would also pick up on minor repairs that would otherwise become major while waiting for scheduled maintenance.
It was crowded, particularly at entrance and exit where I was pressed closer to a mass of strangers than any Englishman can well endure (yet without ever feeling in danger, or worrying about my wallet). After a while, the masses de-merged into family groups and I could observe the Chinese at leisure. My main impression was of extended families. I saw some old people so thin and drawn that it was hard to believe they were mobile. Yet they were cheerfully led, or pushed around by their families and looked happy in their company. The welfare state in Britain has destroyed so much. Such skeletal specimens would be in a "home", out of sight and out of mind. Here they cheerfully chatted to the family's infants, who seemed completely relaxed (as they should be) in the company of the old and frail.
Basking happily in the bright sunshine in their leisure wear, many Chinese wore English slogans. I never understand why our language has such glamour for strangers. Apart from the usual brand names (paid for or otherwise) there were random English words. One lady had "Praisworthy" (sic) emblazoned on her blouse. I don't know why our scruffy leisure costume has been adopted at all. Traditional Chinese clothes are so much more attractive, but I only saw a few people - usually very old - wearing them. Even most of the very elderly sported trainers and jeans. I noticed the cheap and brightly coloured baseball hats handed out by tour organisers so they can recognise their flock in crowds were lined with the attractive check that Burberry has now pretty much had to abandon, so "common" has it become.
Tienanmen Square (天安门广场) did not disappoint although, as my Chinese teacher in Moscow had warned me, the full visual effect of its vastness (440,000 square metres!) has been diminished by the erection of Mao Zedong's mausoleum in the centre. In the short film I have posted, the mausoleum is behind me and you are only seeing half, perhaps less, of the full square. As a young teenage Maoist I had dreamed of joining the Red Guards there to see the Great Helmsman in person. I sat to reflect for a while and chuckled at the idiocy of youth.
The only blights on the day were the street vendors and other sharks in the tourist pond. The first couple, claiming to be art students, talked me into viewing an "exhibition" of their works. They proved to be mere flimflam men for vendors of cheap tourist tat. Another "student" tried the same script minutes later but got even shorter shrift. A motorcycle rickshaw driver tried to charge me more than 10 times the most expensive taxi fare I have paid in China. I paid him a mere 4 times and threatened (bluffing) to call the police if he didn't get lost. A passerby laughed and said "the police will want money too", but he backed off. This was entertaining enough in its way, but sad in its effects. I spent the day avoiding engagement with other people, when I could have practised my Chinese more.
I would probably have bought something today, if not constantly wary of being tricked. I am sure such people damage a tourist economy far more than the benefit they gain themselves. If you spend 60 years telling people that capitalism is theft, however, and then tell them to be capitalists, it's not entirely surprising.
Despite that, all in all, it was a great and highly memorable afternoon. I have saved the Great Wall and much more for future trips. Tomorrow, I fly to Shanghai for two more weeks of work before returning to Moscow to tidy up my affairs and hand over my practice to my colleagues and friends before moving permanently to China.
At my advanced age, it's a wonderful thing to have a great adventure ahead - and so much more to explore.