China day 13: Tiananmen Square and Forbidden City

Woke up to the sound of renovation on the floor above us. Hammering, drilling, scraping, grinding, dragging, all day long.

Sabrina is still weak today, so we spent most of the morning in bed. Still, with the help of another Tylenol, she felt well enough at noon to venture out.

We had lunch at one of the hotel restaurants, specializing in Szechuan. It was pretty expensive, but good. Beijing-style cucumber salad, some kind of bean curd salad that I really liked but Sabrina did not care for, beef with green chilies, Szechuan-style green beans, fish in spicy oil, and a simple soup.

After lunch, Sabrina still felt well enough to head out to see some sights. We walked to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City.

We passed a bunch of government buildings on the way. All surrounded by guards and a 20 to 30 foot high cement wall. The Communist Party is at least as well-protected from unwanted contact with the common rabble as any emperor could have wished for. The Peoples’ Republic of China hasn’t been a republic since the 20’s (if ever), and any lingering illusion that it exists for the benefit of The People died in 1989.

Really only saw a little bit of Tiananmen Square, mostly just the big gate building at the end of the square, the one that features that huge picture of Mao we’ve all seen on TV

Whenever I see huge pictures of political or religious leaders, I always immediately distrust them. The bigger his picture, the more he is not to be trusted.

Immediately beyond the gate, you can buy tickets to go inside the gate building. The security here is pretty tight, with some incomprehensible policies. Why is Sabrina not allowed to bring her handbag up, but my camera bag is fine? Why does the rule against guns and explosives, also prohibit bringing in ‘xeroxed documents’? Is there some Anarchist Cookbook recipe for making photocopies into weapons? After a while, and a reading of Chinese version of the rules, we realized that probably because they don’t want The People dropping political leaflets off the gate into Tiananmen Square.

After we cleared the security, we were held back from entering the gate building for a while. Apparently some big-wig was visiting the gate. After a while, a Western guy came out, surrounded by security people. They got into a bunch of big black limos and drove away. Finally we were allowed in. I have no idea who this guy was, but I already don’t like him.

From the top of the gate, you can look out with quite a good view of Tiananmen Square. There’s not much inside, just a TV playing a tape of a big military parade down the square with Communist Party honchos watching from the gate, where we had stood just moments before. A very impressive display of military discipline. But in my mind, I kept seeing it overlayed with images of that same military in that same place murdering The People for daring to want actual democracy in their Republic. It would be really cool if somebody could sneak in there and replace the videotape with that.

Photos of the view from the gate, and everything I photographed today, are pretty poor because of the haze and fog.

From there, we proceeded into the Forbidden City itself. I got an automatic guide, a cool little flat box that knows where you are, and tells you about it. It has a map on the front panel, with a flashing LED to show where you are, and a magnetic compass in the corner to get oriented. Pretty slick! But it tended to talk for too long, in too much detail, no way to skip ahead or pause it.

The Forbidden City complex is really enormous. Pictures don’t do it justice. Many of the side buildings are now museums, but we didn’t have enough time to see much.

The coolest thing I saw was an exhibit of scientific instruments, from the time of the Qing emperor Kangxi, who was quite interested in science and technology, and had many Western people come to educate him. He also did a lot to combine Chinese and Western mathematics. I wonder if this how the Chinese Remainder Theorem came to the West? Sabrina says he is remembered as one of the better emperors of that dynasty. I’d like to learn more about him.

Other buildings housed various imperial treasures, the ones that haven’t been looted by foreign armies and never returned. We didn’t have time to see much, though. The museums were all closing, so we had to spend our remaining time outside in the rain. Made our way to the imperial garden at the back of the compound. This was a nice place, better than the vast field of stone pavement that makes up most of the City. But it was raining and unpleasant, and Sabrina was becoming tired, so we headed home. Managed to snag a taxi outside the back exit.

Back at the hotel, Sabrina want to bed, after taking another Tylenol. I went down one of the hotel restaurants and special-ordered a bowl of ginger congee for her.

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