Forbidden People Enter the Forbidden City: Beijing, China

I awaken this morning in my historic hotel room in the Hutongs of Beijing before my alarm sounds. I lay quietly for a while listening to the sounds around me. I hear the most soothing sound you could ever know……the sounds of a little baby boy softly breathing. My roommates, Katja and baby Jules, you may be glad to know, did not awaken me and I slept like a baby myself.

I reflect for a moment about what it means to be here in this vast city of over 30 million inhabitants on the other side of the world. I can’t believe I am in China! It seems so crazy! If you live in the United States you have to know that you’ve probably heard a lot of negative propaganda about China….how the people in China don’t enjoy the freedoms that we do, how the air is so polluted your very life is in danger, how the Chinese are taking over the world, buying up real estate everywhere, how their industry is trouncing the rest of the world, how their military is becoming stronger with each passing day, how their currency is manipulated. It’s probably enough to keep most of us from venturing to this incredible place on the other side of the world.

The main thing that I notice this particular morning, however, is that I am addicted to Facebook. Facebook is banned here, and I find myself clicking on the icon on my iPhone just in case for some miraculous reason Facebook would actually open up. As you might suspect, I am not that lucky. I resolve to the reality that I will be facebookless for about 9 days. I know facebookless is not really a word, or is it? I heard that Zuckerberg and his wife are making China their home now. I guess it is perhaps an attempt to manipulate the Chinese powers-that-be to allow Facebook to operate in China. Just think……a billion new Facebook users overnight! That’s brilliant. I wonder if it will work, and if it does at what cost to the freedoms of other users worldwide. After my failed attempt at accessing Facebook, I try a quick search for something on only to realize that this search engine does not work here either.

Finally I give up and I join the others for our hotel breakfast. It’s not the best hotel breakfast, nor is it the worst that I have encountered. The omelette is a cross between a Swedish pancake and a fresh spring roll. Yes, it is good.

This morning we are going to the Forbidden City. I am not really sure how the palace complex has been named the Forbidden City, but I guess it is not forbidden now, as I see thousands of tourists entering the complex when we arrive.   As it happens we are forbidden access! Our entrance ticket purchasing is complicated by the fact that a passport is required for each ticket, and some of our group members left their passports at the hotel. Our tour guides solve the problem by purchasing tickets from two different ticket agents using the same passports. Just kidding! Finally we have tickets in our hot little hands.

The Forbidden City is a 178 acre palace complex in Beijing that was used by the emperors of China from A.D. 1420 to 1911. In total, 24 emperors occupied the Forbidden City, so named because it could only be accessed by the emperor, his immediate family, his women and thousands of eunuchs (castrated male servants) and officials.

Oh. That’s weird. I guess if I were a man in that era I would have wanted to stay far away from this palace. I wonder how many of the thousands of tourists here know about this part of the history of the Forbidden City? The narrated tour guide does not mention this tidbit of information at all. Maybe that is a good thing. I wonder if the emperors of the past would be “turning in their graves”, as the saying goes, if they knew that so many thousands of common people are walking upon the grounds of their palace complex today – fully intact people at that. Isn’t it crazy to think how different things are today even in this part of the world as compared to even as recent as 1911!

To be perfectly honest with you, I don’t think even if I had been alive in the era of the emperors I would have wanted to enter this forbidden place. It must have been frightening in so many ways. What if the emperor were to be displeased with you for some reason! Would your very life have been in danger?

But I digress….I should get on with my story. The bride’s father, Erkki, was almost not able to come on this trip due to a back injury that he sustained just prior to the departure date. He managed to get approval from his doctor to travel, but he is using crutches to get around. We use an electric cart to get close to the entrance.

The Forbidden City promises to require a lot of walking, so we decide to rent a wheelchair for him, however, the wheelchair rental place is some distance off and they demand that the person requiring the wheelchair needs to come to their office to prove that they actually require assistance. The office is a fair distance away, and it seems silly to send him hobbling over there, so I take his crutches and practice walking like I have a broken hip or something. Now if you know me well, you would know that almost comes naturally for me. When I was a kid my older sister used to always ask me, “Is that a wiggle, or a broken hip?” Needless to say, I practiced very hard not to wiggle. I hobble my way over into the office and I have no problem convincing them that I need a wheelchair.

Once our patient is safely in the wheelchair we proceed on into the Forbidden City. There are literally thousands of people here! The truth be known they only allow 80,000 people per day here. We are finally ready to impose ourselves upon this place that historically forbade entrance to many people.

The palace grounds are indeed beautiful in their unique way. As I cross the first threshold I breathe in deep. My breath seems to catch a bit in the back of my throat. What must it have felt like for the minions who were granted access and crossed this threshold many moons ago? I suppose one would have felt very lowly and meek. Maybe all eyes were on the newcomer?

That’s how it is for us this morning. People are taking selfies with us in the background, or training their camera phones right on us, or obviously videotaping us. The baby is especially vulnerable to the adulation. Everyone ooohs and aaaah’s over him. I kind of think that maybe this is what it is like for celebrities. Honestly, I am not a very special person, yet I feel like somehow even I am being elevated on some kind of pedestal, most undeservingly. Somehow it feels wrong. Just because we are westerners, somehow we are special? Would that Chinese travelers to the United States or Europe should receive such a warm reception!! I should think they don’t.

Our patient has already ditched the wheelchair. I guess it is hard for him to sit when the wheelchair goes over the bumpy ground. Might as well put the wheelchair to good use….one way or another.

After a bit I end up ditching our group and I go through a couple of museums. One is a clock museum, and another holds valuable artifacts. I find the big wooden water clock interesting, and I can hear David in my mind telling the kids how it works. He would be busy explaining all the cool intricacies of all these items to the kids if he were here now.

Now, I don’t want to be negative, but I do have to say that it seems like there is little consideration taken for preserving the items considering that the rooms housing the artifacts are not temperature controlled. Notably the items are housed in plexiglass cases, but the glass is not clean which distorts the images, the items themselves are often dusty, and the little paper cards that explain what the item is are smudged and dirty.

My eye catches a young man who is wearing a traditional Chinese cap. His parents are happy that I take a picture of him.

No sooner than I take a picture of him, I see this darling girl who is practicing doing the splits. Her parents excitedly give me permission to take her photo as well. Well, obviously I was not able to ask them permission to post these pictures on this blog, but they are here for you to enjoy.

I keep my eyes peeled for some great shots, of which there are many.

When the tour is over we walk back to the hotel from the Forbidden City. The buzz of traffic is constant. Bicycles, mopeds, carts, cars, buses, trucks, taxis….each jockeying for their rightful place on the road. The bride is walking beside me, sharing her stories and knowledge about China and its culture and customs. It is a pleasant walk which ends almost too soon, and is followed by a lunch that the groom has ordered delivered to the hotel. We ask for permission to eat in the hotel’s dining room, which is granted.

After lunch we head over to the 798 art district. It is a fifty year old military factory complex that has transitioned into an art district. I pay $10 to get into a gallery that houses American artist Robert Rauschenberg’s 1/4 mile art display. Apparently he made this art over a 17 year time span. He traveled extensively and a lot of his art work was inspired by his travels.

Now, I have to admit that I am not an artist. I am truly not that sophisticated, and I don’t really have a talent for understanding various art forms. Often if someone tells me that I am artistic, I reply with a fake British accent that, “yes indeed, I am autistic” – – not that being autistic is anything to joke about. Normally of course this joke would only be used if I am comfortable with the person to whom I tell it. But I digress, as I said I am not an artist, but after seeing this display I am almost convinced that I could become one. Essentially all that he has done is take trash and make it seem like it is art.
Check out this pile of cardboard boxes. Is this art?

How about this wheelbarrow? I would argue that my photo of the wheelbarrow is pretty artistic. ¬† I like how the tire is flat. That is how our wheelbarrow is, so whenever you go to use it you have to figure out how to pump up the tire, and then hope that it holds air. It’s such a nuisance!

Or this sign?

Or these random clothes hanging on the wall? I find myself wondering who wore them, if they were worn at all. What was the person’s life situation when they wore these clothes? Were they happy? Were they poor or rich or middle class? Were they stylish in their day? Did they travel? I seem to sense that the person who wore these clothes traveled a lot. They seem like perhaps these would have been comfortable traveling clothes. Perhaps they traveled to China like I am now. Perhaps they only dreamed of going to China someday, or maybe they vowed that they would never go to China. That would be the ultimate if indeed the wearer had never wanted to go to China, and yet here are their clothes many years later posted on the wall in an art museum in Beijing of all things!

Or these stacks of books? They must be heavy to haul around. Maybe I will do that in my next house, which we plan to have a modern design. Maybe this would fit into a modern style home? Or maybe not. Perhaps the book titles would have to be more modern? I think what I might do is choose books that are really diverse, and appeal to a broad base of people and cultures and backgrounds. That would be an art form in and of itself. I know David is really talented and he could figure out how to drill a hole in the books and insert some kind of strong metal rod to support the stacks. Or should it be designed so that should you want to read a book you could take it out of the stack? Maybe some day I will have a lot of time to read books. I notice a book about the KGB. I would like to pull it out of the stack and thumb through it. And I see a book by Steinbeck, my husband’s favorite author. I almost say aloud, “Hey David, here is your favorite author!” Steinbeck’s tales to me are depressing and long winded….maybe kind of like my blog?

Or this row of what looks like flour sacks or pillowcases hanging on a pole? What makes this art? I look a little closer. Are they pillowcases? Are they flour sacks? I don’t know. The contents will remain a mystery. Right now they are probably filled with fluffy cotton. Who would have thought of hanging sacks on a pole and calling it art? Certainly this could not be incorporated into interior design. Or could it? Could I hang four random pillow cases or flour sacks on a pole in my living room? Would I be considered eccentric by those who visited my home? Do people already consider me a bit eccentric? Is it okay to be eccentric as a person ages? Should I embrace my eccentric personality if indeed that is how I am perceived? Perhaps it’s okay to be eccentric, or different, or weird, or strange. Artistic. Perhaps it’s okay to be artistic, to embrace things that are out of the mainstream, that are out of the norm, that make people think and question. Perhaps it’s okay to be artistic.

Perhaps the art in this gallery is indeed more artistic than I initially gave it credit for. Certainly my reluctance to accept it as art has made me think a lot, and perhaps that is the true purpose of such art forms. The 1/4 mile art display is indeed just that, a quarter mile long, but even so it ends as soon as it started.

There is a light rain falling again when I leave this gallery. I pick up my umbrella from the lockable umbrella storage rack, which is a new thing for me. In Arizona if it rains we consider it a miracle and don’t mind getting wet. Well, that’s not entirely true, but we definitely don’t have umbrella storage racks.

I walk aimlessly down the streets in the art district covered by a large umbrella that I had grabbed from the hotel lobby earlier. As I walk my longing for my family intensifies. I ask myself again what I am doing here alone without my husband or kids? David would love to be here. The kids would have a blast exploring. They would bring life and meaning and purpose to this moment. David would be pointing out things to the kids, and laughing and joking with them. He would tease one child or another in his endearing fashion, explaining one thing or another, exclaiming about one thing or another, delighting in one thing or another. He would grab one child or another gently by the shoulder, or gather all three about him, and he would direct their attention to something that had piqued his own curiosity, and a discussion would ensue, sometimes philosophical, sometimes abstract, sometimes factual. He would hold a hand or two, or all three would jockey for a position about him, and they would walk along exchanging ideas and observations and plans and hopes. I try to bring the moment alive in my own way behind the lens of my camera. I try to capture the sights that a child might notice or pay attention to.

At the end of one street I find a true art form. It’s a bike shop with a beautiful Cervelo road bicycle gracing the window. True art, I declare! My heart almost skips a beat. What is it that I love so much about cycling? That’s a good question. I doubt that you would really want to use a bike like this one here in Beijing. I wonder how long you would survive if you did. If the motorists didn’t get you then maybe the smog would.

I meet up with the group again for coffee, followed by an Uber-ish ride to another restaurant. I am a little amused when we arrive. Our host had called up two cars and the one that I ride in arrives earlier than the other. At the restaurant the employees insist on seating us before our host arrives, and no one here speaks any English. We attempt to no avail to gesture that we are expecting more guests to arrive. Somehow they understand that there are 6 more people coming and we get placed into a large enough dining room.

While we are waiting some of our group members looks over the menus. I hear comments like, “maybe we can each order our own meals” and “we don’t need to share, do we?” We all notice that this restaurant has two sets of chopsticks at each place. Two black and two brown. A suggestion is made that the black ones be used for scooping food off the community plate. I know that all too familiar uncomfortable feeling of sharing food around the table. It doesn’t feel right to all be grabbing food out of the same plate. But alas, I know the custom here in China, and I don’t think that you can really break that custom in this type of setting. I hear myself say a very familiar Finnish saying, which when translated sounds quite harsh. “Maassa maan tavalla tai maasta pois”, which means “behave in a country as the countrymen do, or leave”. Perhaps my words are not taken well, although I mean well. In the end I think my fellow travelers will learn to love the Chinese dining tradition.

Some dishes are ordered before our hosts Charles and Tara arrive. When they arrive, Charles takes over and orders his special choices. He is familiar with this restaurant and has in mind just what he wants us to try. One dish includes bull frog. I try a bit of it. I don’t really mind the taste of the meat, but it is quite bony. For that reason alone I don’t think I would order it again. I am not sure what these little green pepper like things are, but when you chew one your tongue and mouth become numb. If you have an aversion to needles you could chew a batch of these before heading to the dentist and you won’t need any novacaine.

Then there is this chicken dish with chips. Man, it’s delicious! Man could live by this dish alone!

Now I would be remiss if I didn’t tell you a little bit more about my friend Andrea. She is a therapist, originally from Detroit Michigan. She married Erkki whom she met in Finland when she was there for a year of school. I wouldn’t be lying if I told you that one of her criteria for marrying him was that he was well educated, but obviously there must be other reasons too, since they have made some beautiful kids together. Here are their three daughter, Tara, Katja and Suvi. Then after that they have 10 more kids of which four are handsome boys, and the remaining 6 are equally as beautiful girls as you see here! Not only are they beautiful, but they are super brainy, too, and have hearts of gold. These kids are some of the most sympathetic, kind and loving people you could ever meet who would always put others first. I dunno, something is really right in this gene pool!

When all the dishes are finally finished we enjoy some fresh fruit for desert. Watermelon here is so delicious. Fist bumps all around the table for the delicious meal, and yes, everyone took their food from the same plate, and the black chopsticks and the brown chopsticks got all mixed up.

We all return to our home in the Hutongs. This is more where I belong, back in the Hutongs with the average folks. Forget about the Forbidden City and the uppity folks who made that place home. I would have never fit in. I would have never conformed to the societal norms therein, and likely would have never made it back out.

When I log in on the slow hotel wifi I catch up on news form back home. My mother and father have sold their house in Vancouver, B.C. They are moving to the Canadian prairies to be near my sister who will be taking care of them there. Unfortunately because I had this trip planned I was not able to fly out to Vancouver to help them pack up their house. My passport was expired and then once I got a new one I had to send it out for the ¬†Chinese visa. I am just listing all my excuses here. To sort of absolve some of my guilt I ended up paying for part of Emerson’s way there so that he could help along with my sisters. Their darling home is sold, and they are on their way to Saskatchewan, where I know my sis will take great care of them. I think they will like it in Saskatchewan.. The people there are very friendly, which should make up for the harsh winters. My dear, dear father gives his signature wave from the front porch. If you have ever visited my parents home you would know that my father always went out on the front porch to wave goodbye as the company left.

I am kind of torn as to what to do about tomorrow. Suvi and Anthony have invited me with them to go to the Swim Cube at the famous Olympic stadium in Beijing. That sounds very tempting. The others are planning to go to the summer palace. Let’s see how I feel in the morning. Maybe I can make it to both place? Charles assures me that in this vast city it is not possible, and he is probably right. Sleep comes easy tonight.