Friday, December 05, 2008

12.4.08: Beijing

Today began with an exhaustive group tour of Tienanmen Square and the Forbidden City. Visiting Tienanmen Square was really weird for me. I was about 12 years old when the student protests and subsequent massacre of protesters occurred here, and I still remember it so clearly. I was deeply moved by the fact that these young people, only a few years older than me at the time, were fighting and dying for a democratic society that had been handed to me on a silver platter. I can easily say that the incident planted one of the seeds for my incident in social activism, and there we were, snapping photos just like all of the other tourists, while our Chinese tour guide not only didn't mention this unfortunate part of her nation's recent history, but she probably could have been punished for doing so.

Needless to say, I was eager to get out of there and move on to the Forbidden City across the street. The Forbidden City was the residence of all of the emperors and their entourages (including up to three thousand concubines) for the more recent half of Chinese dynastic history. The buildings inside were as grand as you might imagine, and bountifully maintained, so the gold, green, red and blue paint on the architectural details pooped out on almost hypercolor against the grey sky. Our friendly tour guide, Vivian, provided us with a zillion details about the various dynasties, which I will spare you here, but I found the most interesting tidbits to be about the drama among the concubines as they vied for the emperors' attention. Vivian seemed to particularly relish telling us the details of a failed plot among the top twelve concubines to murder one of the emperors. When his wife discovered the plot, she made examples of them by cutting off all of their flesh, piece by piece, while they were still alive. Yikes. It seemed to work--no such plot was ever attempted again, even against future emperor.

(Forbidden City garden)

After the Forbidden City, we visited a non-profit recreation center for the developmentally disabled, where the "trainees" made us lunch, gave us a calligraphy lesson (I attempted to write "Elizabeth" in Chinese, but it probably turned out more like "Ebqztr") and put on a highly entertaining song and dance show. One of the aspects of that attracted us to Intrepid is that they support such ventures. The center was located in a hutong, so we spent the next couple of hours with a small group from our trip, wandering around these stone alleyways and sampling shaped and colored street snacks.

The difference between the wildly colored royal buildings of the Forbidden City and the grey stone of the "common people" is purposely striking, but I actually found the hutongs as interesting, if not more than the emperor's quarters. The homes, steaming food carts, children playing, men crowded around game boards, and all the trappings of everyday life brings a real vitality to the cold stones.

So that pretty much brings us right back up to the top of the previous entry, boarding the train to Xi'an. See you there!

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