The Forbidden City

I remember when I first moved to Canberra, thinking how strange it was that I would soon regularly commute past Australian icons like Parliament House, and drive past the PM’s residence like it was just another house. I wondered how it would be to settle into the rhythms of life in the nation’s capital and find that sort of thing normal.

Of course, upon closer examination, it’s perfectly obvious that everyday life should mill around monuments and architectural feats of cultural and historical significance. Everyday life gave rise to these items, ordinary people give it its meaning by valuing or viewing them as something great.

Being a citizen of a young country such as Australia and living in a house built in the 50s, a legacy of the mini population explosion brought on by a torrent of public servants laying roots in what was then little more than a bunch of sheep paddocks, it’s easy to feel like I have woven into my life a small piece of Canberra history. But I can’t ignore that for citizens in many, many other cities, 60 years of history is a blip on the radar. And just as the daily activities of Canberrans revolve around Capital Hill literally and figuratively, they conduct their activities around icons and monuments that have featured on postcards far longer than ours have.

In visiting China, I was determined to visit and experience all its major icons. In Beijing and Xi’an, at least. No trip could be complete without walking the Great Wall of China; or, alternatively, being blocked by the great firewall of China. I was also eager to see for myself this awesomely named Forbidden City, the beating heart of Beijing, and walk where tanks once rolled in Tiananmen Square.

As it happened, I had only the most fleeting sense of being in Tiananmen Square when I was there. Instead of the wide, monolithic expanse I expected, all I saw were two wide footpaths straddling a busy road. I travelled from Tiananmen East subway station down to the entrance of the Forbidden City. I saw Mao gazing out beatifically from Tiananmen Gate. I looked around, and in not recognising anything that stood out to me as being the Square, followed the crowds through the Gate.

Visiting just about any public tourist attraction in Australia, you rely more or less on what Lonely Planet has to say and muddle your way through. Visiting the Forbidden City, however, or the Terracotta Warriors, you will not be able to avoid being approached by a local with a lanyard around their neck and a certain hawkishness, especially if you are alone, female, and look like you know next to nothing about the Forbidden City, which I didn’t.

I politely declined the solicitations of the many tour guides who came up to me, though in Xi’an I did accept the services of one middle-aged Chinese gent who regaled me with the ins and outs of Emperor Qin and his warriors.

I admit, I did not enjoy being in the Forbidden City. I’m sure that back in the day, there was a lot more going on, far more distractions and things to engage with, people to say and things to buy, but this modern-day tourist, just wondered how anyone could have withstood all the walking living within those walls would have required.

I took photos. I marvelled over the brilliance and artistry of the architecture that had existed 600 years ago. And then I just wanted to leave.

I watched as other tourists snapped away with abandon at the buildings around them. I watched couples languidly stroll along, and groups with kids chatter excitedly. I watched various strays explore off the “beaten path” and wanted to have their enthusiasm, all the while taking an as-the-crow-flies route as much as possible.

I felt a bit like I did visiting Ikea when it first opened in Perth – a store that I think is the biggest Ikea in the southern hemisphere. (And by the by – Canberra is apparently going to get one of its own. Though most probably not as big as the one on the west coast). Long after I’d tired of its offerings, I still had to follow the painted line on the floor all the way through the store and through the exit. I knew no other way; it was an absolute maze.

Soon I found myself looking at the maps of the Forbidden City at each Hall (‘Hall of Supreme Harmony’, ‘Hall of Medium Harmony’, ‘Hall of Union and Peace’) not out of interest in its context in the greater city, but to determine how far I was from the end of my walking tour.

I struggled on, cursing my cold, bracing myself against the cold, removing my gloves and putting them back on after each photo. An hour and a bit of this and I emerged through the north gate and was free of the Forbidden City.

Immediately I was beset with offers of transport. I dismissed each of them, certain that a subway stop was conveniently close, and kept walking. And walking. And walking.

I saw the odd bus, but couldn’t be sure of where they would take me. I was quite sure that I wouldn’t be able to communicate with the driver to discern his or her route. So I just kept walking.

I ended up taking the same journey as I had going through the Forbidden City but this time in the opposite direction and on the other side of the wall. Another hour of putting one foot in front of the other.

I passed government offices, guarded by unfriendly-looking men in army green. I passed modest cramped homes, the odd store, hutongs. I passed cement walls with tiles that looked like brick and stonework plastered to them. I navigated around cars parked on the sidewalk, gazed longingly at a sleeping girl being carried by her father. How I wanted to stop, rest, be out of the cold, maybe imbibe some warm fluids or a snack.

Early on in my journey, already wearied from my previous hour and a bit of walking, on top of the walking I’d done just to get to the Tiananmen Gate, I had seriously contemplated casually pilfering one of the long row of bicycles I passed leaning against a metal barricade. I so badly wanted to progress faster than my two feet were allowing me to. I imagined cycling all the way to the south end of the Imperial Palace, deserting the bike, leaving perhaps a thank you note or some money. But ultimately I simply kept walking, and soon the row of bicycles fell away.

Eventually I made it back to the main road, W Chang’an Avenue. I disappeared into the bowels of the Tiananmen West subway station and sank gratefully into a train seat.

I can barely remember now what my plans were for that day beyond going to the Forbidden City. I think what I ended up doing was returning to my hostel and crawling into bed.

In the way that sleeping dogs sometimes jerk their legs like they’re running, I’m convinced that in my dreams, I was still walking endlessly.

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