After breakfast at the hotel, which was a mix of their idea of a western breakfast with bacon and eggs, and some Chinese food like rice, egg rolls and smoked whole eggs, we headed towards the Forbidden Palace and Tiananmen Square. The temperature is hovering steadily around freezing, and there are patches of frozen snow from last week’s snowfall. The temperature is uncharacteristically cold, as usually it’s around 5-15 Celsius in November.
We walk through a frozen park with surprising patches of green bamboo growing around drained ponds. There are guards, police and soldiers stationed on street corners and at metro entrances. We are in Beijing at the same time as president Obama is touring Asia; he just arrived in Beijing and is going to meet with the Chinese premier. This may explain the added security and military presence in the center.
The infamous Tiananmen Square is overlooked by the Gate of Heavenly Peace and a huge portrait of Chairman Mao. The gate used to be part of the wall that encompassed the imperial complex. To the left and right of the Mao portrait are two slogans “Long Live the People’s Republic of China” and “Long Live the Unity of the Peoples of the World”. There are lots of tourists, mostly Chinese locals, taking pictures in front of the gate and the Mao portrait. Strangely American flags are hanging on sign posts along side Chinese flags for the American visit. The gate serves as an entrance into the Forbidden City.
As we enter and pass through the courtyard and come up to a second gate that leads to the ticket office, we see that the entrance is blocked by police tape, a police car and a huddle of people peering in. Even though a sign outside is only in Chinese we realize that the complex is closed for the day due to president Obama’s visit, which he will be visiting later. We stand around a bit with all the other gawkers, but it doesn’t seem like anything is happening, and its not really clear when Obama will be visiting, so we exit the complex.
With nothing else major planned, we go to walk across the street to Tiananmen Square for a better view of the gate. To cross the wide streets we went down into an underpass, where before entering the square our bags were x-rayed by police. The square is a rather large expanse of paved emptiness; it has held a million people in party rallies, but mostly hosts hoards of tourists, soldiers and plain clothed police ready to stop any unwanted activity. As we are taking pictures we see the stream of cars stop and in a few minutes president Obama’s motorcade speeds by with 4 limousines, just as many black jeeps, and followed by Chinese police vans and black official audi sedans. After we lose sight of the motorcade we cross the square passing the obelisk in the center which is The Monument to the People’s Heroes, The Great Hall of the People (parliament) and at the far end Chairman Mao Memorial Hall or his mausoleum. Lenin would totally be jealous, because the building is HUGE. During imperial times the area of the square and surrounding buildings was occupied by various ministries and temples, and a thousand foot corridor with multiple other gates used to lead into the Forbidden City.
Past the square the neighborhood starts to get more real and less pompous. There is a mix of old soviet style buildings with wires strewn between roofs and more modern updated stores. We find a long shopping street with rails and a tram that goes up and down the street every half hour. It’s a mix of clothing stores, jewelry stores and food shops, and it’s really really loud. Almost each store has an employee devoted to procuring customers from the street, which they do by yelling at the top of their lungs, and sometimes through loud speakers. Off of this main street are smaller alleyways called Hutongs, these small streets filled with one story or two story houses used to make up most of Beijing. Many of them are in pretty sad shape and are being razed and replaced with modern buildings. The livelier of them are like a mix of Brighton Beach and China town, filled with cheap stores, tea houses, eateries and restaurants.
By this time we are frozen from wandering the streets in our layers of summer clothes and head back to our hotel. As we are walking back we are stopped by police right before coming onto the main street and told to wait 300 feet away. It seems weird since we see people walking on the main street’s sidewalks. After 5 minutes we see police cars speed by, followed president Obama’s motorcade. Being cynical DC residents we scoff at this mundane presidential sighting for the second time and proceed to our hotel.
For dinner we decided to go the mall again, go figure right? Its just Beijing is so spread out that to get to many of the recommended restaurants we would have to take a cab or the metro which works only till 11. Restaurants close early at 10. So after walking around the mall for a bit, we found a decent looking place with lots of locals and cheaper prices. It turned out to be a make your own brbq on your table plus hotpots type of place. We went for some local beer and ordered two hotpots, one – an oxtail broth and the second – a dog meat stew. Guess whose idea it was to try the second one? We both tried it though, and it didn’t taste too different from PHO meat flank…just a bit more sweat. With 3 dishes, a large beer and jasmine tea it all cost a whopping 98 Yuan ($14).
Roma and Natalia are world travelers, photographers, and an all around fun couple. When they are not travelling far away continents or driving around USA in their trusted Highlander, they can be found in San Francisco, California.