Monday, July 16

Five cultural classics

We packed a host of sights and sounds into our third day in Beijing. By the time our heads finally hit the pillow we’d soaked in five separate cultural experiences. The day began with a visit to Tiananmen Square, often considered the nation’s symbolic heart. I love seeing the reaction of first time visitors. Everyone is astonished by the square’s size and scale. It’s quite extraordinary.  It runs north to south for 880 metres, east to west for 500 metres; for a total area of 440,000 m² or 109 acres.

It eastern and western perimeters are framed by large, monolith Communist constructed buildings while its northern and southern boundaries are marked by two ancient, massive gates. In its centre lies the massive mausoleum of Mao Zedong. The square itself is open, with neither trees nor benches.  It’s simply an expansive mass of concrete, dotted by ornate lamp posts festooned with security cameras. 

 On the Western boundary sits the Great Hall of the People, the closest equivalent in China to a traditional parliament or senate chamber. On this occasion we didn’t venture inside to see its enormous plenary session hall with seating for more than 6000 people, or the state banquet room with room to seat 5,000 diners.

Instead we ventured through the Tiananmen Gate on its northern boundary which serves as the outer entrance to the Forbidden City. For almost 500 years, until 1912, the Forbidden City was the home of China’s emperors and their households, as well as serving as the ceremonial and political center of Chinese government. It’s an enormous complex, of which only a small part is open to the public. According to Wikipedia, the Forbidden City is a rectangle 961 metres from north to south and 753 metres from east to west. It consists of 980 surviving buildings with 8,886 rooms, a figure which excludes antechambers.

As a result, it takes well over an hour to walk from one end to the other.  Along the way you pass through six ceremonials gateways into six distinct courtyards, before finally ending up in the Emporer's private garden.  Each courtyard has its own unique highlight making for an overdose of mind-blowing facts, figures and data points. Dad kept trying to document these details in his travel diary but soon gave up trying to capture all but the most cursory of notes.

Our third cultural highlight was a trip to one of Beijing’s last surviving Hutong districts called Shichahai.  The area is bound by three scenic lakes whose shores have become a popular night spot lined with neon-splash bars and restaurants. Mum and I stopped to enjoy a few drinks at a rooftop bar overlooking Yinding bridge while Dad returned to our hotel to rest.  This bridge crosses a narrow canal linking the area’s two largest lakes, making it a fascinating people-watching spot.
The hutongs are a fascinating arrangement. A grid of streets supported a series of homes centered around a small central courtyards. Three generations of family often shared the courtyard; the parents lived on its northern boundary, while their children and grandchildren lived along the eastern and western boundary.  Guests were usually housed in rooms on the southern boundary.

Dad then joined us for cultural experience Number Four; a classic Peking Duck meal. Over dinner we watched our chef carve a freshly roasted duck, made duck pancakes, sampled lotus root and generally ate far too much.  From there it was on to the day’s final cultural experience; an evening acrobatic show.

I’ve seen three of these shows in Beijing and they never fail to impress.  The numerous contortion and juggling acts on display are beyond description. Over the years I’ve watched plate spinning, umbrella juggling, human pyramids on bicycles and so on. Mum and Dad were suitably impressed. It’s hard not to be!

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