Thursday, October 25, 2007

Strolling through the Impermissible Town

We dedicated a healthy number of hours to the Forbidden City in Beijing, and rightfully so. At 760,000 square meters, it's about 70% larger than Vatican City. It's arranged on a north-south axis that extends through Tiananmen Square and still represents the geographical crux of all of Beijing, and within its 1,000 buildings are a massive collection of imperial art and artifacts. Want to compare the calligraphic prowess of various Chinese emperors (their skill was uneven, I can tell you)? This is the place.

When you enter the Forbidden City through the massive Tiananmen Gate, you're greeted with a huge courtyard (with ample kitsch shopping) and another massive gate. Surprise! You're in the Forbidden City, but not the Forbidden Palace. That's where the real action is. Now fork over your entrance fee and proceed.

To me, the most remarkable thing about the Forbidden City is that its buildings are all made out of wood, yet in remarkably good condition given their age. How is this achieved? Simple: lacquer. Massive amounts of lacquer, applied liberally and re-applied regularly. Of course, this may also explain why all of these beautifully-preserved buildings have signs in front of them that read, "First constructed in 1420 during the Ming Dynasty, [insert building here] burned down and was rebuilt in 1680 during the Qing Dynasty." Did it occur to them that all of those intricate and beautifully-colored patterns were extremely flammable before, or after, 50% of the buildings on-site burned? The thing is, I've used the year 1680 in my quote, but they actually burned in different years. This just kept happening over and over. Some burned down several times. The Chinese emperors were committed to this architectural style, fire safety be damned!

There is a tremendous amount of imperial pomp and circumstance to the place, and Chinese imperial tradition seems to be the most formalistic I've encountered. Along the whole north-south axis of the Forbidden City run 5 parallel paths. The center one was reserved exclusively for the emperor, and could not be trod upon by ministers, counselors, empresses, or even favored concubines. The imperial path is made out of solid marble, and in many stretches is intricately carved with intertwining dragons and phoenixes (both imperial symbols). While the path was quite attractive, it did lead me to wonder, did the emperor realize that he had reserved the most grossly uncomfortable route for himself alone? What areas of carved marble I could trod upon were unpleasant for my modern shoes...I have to assume 15th century footwear fared no better.

In spite of all the grandeur, I was mostly miserable for the first half of the day. In a country overflowing with irritating, enormous tour groups, the Forbidden City was (unsurprisingly) the most overrun place of all (more shoulder-checking than ever). Even worse, our theretofore lovely Beijing weather gave way to gray skies and rain for the first half of the day, and I am pathetically weather-dependent when it comes to mood. Observe. Me during the first half of the day while the rain fell:


And now, me during the second half of the day, as soon as the sun emerged:


Pay particular attention to that rain picture. What's that you see in the background? Scaffolding. In particular, scaffolding not only covering, but blocking access to the largest and most significant palace in the Forbidden City. If there's something in the world I hate more than pandas, it's scaffolding, and this hatred arises not out of principled indignation, but personal slight. I visited Italy, Greece, and Turkey in 1999, and all 3 countries, with all their rich histories, were totally caught up in the preparations for the year 2000 celebrations. Nearly every major historical sight in all 3 countries was covered, to some extent, by scaffolding. The facade of St. Peter's Cathedral was so obscured that, the day after visiting the Vatican, I saw a postcard depicting the front of St. Peter's, picked it up, and said, "Wow, that's impressive! Where's that and why haven't we visited?"

So my beef with scaffolding goes back a good 8 years at this point, and between that and the gray skies, I was feeling pretty sour (and not unjustifiably so...look how much better things look bathed in sunlight). So much so that, when I learned that there was a Starbucks inside the Forbidden City, I was determined to end my lifetime streak of no Starbucks visits outside the United States and order my usual, the nonfat sugarfree vanilla latte, extra hot (I call it the Long Island Special). But I was denied even that little comfort, as we approached the place where our guidebook claimed Starbucks would be located, only to discover that within the last 2 years, it had been nationalized and converted into a government-run coffee shop. This represents at least the fourth time I can recall that I've agreed to go to a Starbucks outside the United States, actually walked to one, and arrived to find it closed (either for the night or forever). Fate has taken substantial measures to prevent me from Starbucksing abroad, and at some point, I should probably just stop trying. It also represents the first of many times that our Fodor's guidebook revealed itself to be a miserable failure (more on that when I discuss Shanghai later).

So as the long day went on and the weather improved, I progressed from sullen to happy to exhausted to delirious. By the time we arrived at our final sight within the Forbidden City, the ironically massively-overcrowded Garden of Heavenly Peace, my keen observational eye had dedicated itself full-time to identifying double entendres in the amusingly-translated signs and immaturely acting out sexually suggestive interpretations. Just to be clear what's happening in this picture, I am staring at my own crotch with a smirk while standing in front of a sign that describes a "mottled and milky trunk" that is "noted for its longevity" and whose "protruding root looks like a crouching dragon." Mmm. Yes, folks, I will be graduating with an Ivy League law degree in 7 short months.

Happy to make y'all proud.

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