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Beijing Cultural Day: visit to Tian’an Men Square, the Forbidden City, and the Great Wall of China

This past Wednesday was our cultural day for seeing some of the significant cultural sites in and around Beijing. The bus first left us off adjacent to Tian’an Men Square (yes, it is officially this and not the Tiananmen Square as we know it in the West), the world’s largest square which can hold more than one million people. I had hoped to be able to visit the mausoleum of Chairman Mao Zedong, which is also on the Square, but in recent years one needs to bring official documentation (in our case, passports) and queue up several hours to file past Mao’s body, so we had to miss this unfortunately. The Chinese people still revere Mao for his leadership and accomplishments, and on this morning there were many people obviously from the rural areas in Beijing to see Mao’s embalmed body. We did get a group photo on the Square, which I will digitize and update this post when I get back home to Indiana.

From here, we walked across the remainder of the Square and towards the gates of the Forbidden City, which from the fifteenth century until 1911 was the exclusive residence of the Emperor of China and his thousands of concubines, eunuchs and senior staff. The nearly 9,000 buildings in the Forbidden City are slowly being restored to their former glory after being neglected from 1911 to sometime in the 1970s when the Chinese government recognized the value of the City as a tourist destination and cultural heritage gem. The Forbidden City these days is known as the Palace Museum, open to everyone and chronicling this most important of Imperial China’s splendour. We walked through the Gates of Heaven and succeeding gates through to the places immortalized in Bertolucci’s wonderful film, The Last Emperor. I was in absolute awe. I never had thought that I’d ever see this in person, and was absolutely delighted with the experience. The scale, grandeur and extreme sophistication of the buildings we toured was breathtaking. I understand about 500 of the nearly 9,000 buildings have been restored to date, and as I thought about the need for whole new specializations in architectural antiquity preservation and restoration I realized what a daunting task this was. We only got to spend about 2.5 hours in the Forbidden City, and if I ever come back here, I’ll set aside a couple days to explore the huge compound.

For lunch, we went to one of Beijing’s Friendship Stores upstairs to have lunch. After lunch, we had some time for shopping in the state-run large store, mostly of Chinese cultural souvenirs, artwork and jewellery. I picked up a few things, and then we were off to the Badaling section of the Great Wall of China. Several miles outside of northwest Beijing, this was the section of the wall that President Barack Obama visited in a 2009 visit of China. There are actually two paths one can take at this section of the wall, an easy route and a hard route. I and another delegate chose the easy route, and started our trek up the wall.

After walking a few minutes on this, I was thoroughly winded. This section of the wall was about 10-12 feet wide, and follows the contours of the geography that it goes over, with extreme inclines and descents as one might expect in this part of China’s mountainous regions. The width of the wall would make a possible military highway for Chinese imperial troops, but boy would this be hard work moving men and supplies for very long. Added to this, along the wall are battlements every few hundred meters or so, and these only allow enough space for an average man to pass through. So why then did they make the Wall so wide? The wall is an average of 3-4 metres high at least in this section of it, and this was the main disincentive for troops outside of China’s northern borders for getting in. Approximately 5,500 miles in length, the Wall was not usually manned except in particular sections that had active battles/skirmishes ongoing. So we got to the third battlement, and the next section looked incredibly gruelling, so we decided to stop, take photographs and enjoy the scenery for a few minutes before heading back.

We headed back to the hotel after this thoroughly enjoyable day. Dinner was at a nearby restaurant with reasonable prices, excellent service and decor and good food although somewhat bland to my taste. I prefer fiery Sichuan, and there was none to be had on this menu, unfortunately.

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Filed under: librarianship, travel reports

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