It is hot. Hot and humid – the air is just thick with moisture, and the pollution adds an additional haze to the haze of heat.
We have a late start to accommodate Dad’s new time zone. We eat at the hotel (NOTE: If you can avoid buffets at nice hotels, do so. Our meal was outrageously priced for what we got, and I imagine it was solely because we were staying at a Marriott brand hotel). Our first stops are Tienanmen Square and the Forbidden City. There is a press of people outside the turnstile, as the security guards are implementing an ID policy and only letting people in one at a time. The bottleneck is intense, with people shoving each other, jockeying for inches of space. I look nervously at my Dad, who hasn’t had to deal with this sort of shoving in a long time. If I had not already been living in China, I would have called the whole vacation off based solely on my experiences in this morning rush.
He handles it better than I do, actually. I warned him ahead of time, yet I’m the one growing progressively darker as all semblance of personal space disappears. There’s a fat man behind me, shirt rolled up under his armpits. He uses his protruding belly to try and nudge me forward when he thinks I’m not moving. After fifteen minutes of his incessant rubbing and not so gentle shoving, I decide to push back. Playing stupid, I stand still and inch myself forward slowly, taking pleasure in his obvious annoyance. All I can think of is how disgusting it is to have a stranger wiping fat sweat on your shirt. I get knocked about a little because I’m short, and people are screaming at each other, at each imagined slight. But we cannot help but move forward, and through the turnstile to the plaza.
Tienanmen Square is impressive in scope – a vast flatness of concrete surrounded by massive Party buildings. It is full of pride and patriotism. But it is just that – a giant plaza. There is nothing to really do save take pictures framed by the buildings. Ted, our guide, skirts the political issues embedded in the history of the location, noting only that the infamous demonstration happened. He couples this with a funny story about country boys misunderstanding Chairman Mao during a different speech. I bite my tongue.
We continue on to the Forbidden City. The scope is again, impressive – the sheer size of everything is only matched by the sheer number of people present. Everything is big. But there is this strange hollowness to the Forbidden City. It’s like all the people moving through don’t matter. Big buildings have that effect sometimes, but this place reeks of indifference. Notre Dame feels old and full of souls. The Forbidden City could care less whether you walk its halls or not. That is probably because it was built to keep people away. It was built for a man and his harem, not for crowds. Still, the yellow tiled roofs are pretty, and I like the personal gardens and the tiny little hallways which offshoot from the main paths. The detail work is wonderful and present throughout the giant space.
The heat does not relent, and we’re flagging by lunch. We find our driver and head to the pre-arranged restaurant. It’s a tawdry thing, our tour package lunch. It’s westernized Chinese food – a strange sweet and sour chicken, fried rice, and what I think is General Tso’s chicken. Overhead a CD of sad saxophone music plays dreary covers of movie themes. It’s laughably bad, and so we laugh. This is “safe” food for us – non-threatening and bland so as not to offend. Having eaten hot pot for months, it’s a stark contrast. Even if I hadn’t been living in China, I was still really disappointed with what they thought we would want to eat. Why not just give us McDonalds?
Next is the Summer Palace – where the Empress Cixi chose to live. She was the original “Dragon Lady” and our guide tells stories of frivolous spending, cuckolding, and executions. She built a giant marble boat just to have a giant marble boat (it does not move – just a symbol). The Summer Palace is beautiful as well, set on a lake that is partially man made. There are elegant bridges and long wooden porches. It’s beautiful, but so humid.
I tried to buy a milk tea, and after some confusion was given a piping hot milk tea. My guide laughed at me and patronizingly said to let him handle such things in the future. I was properly knocked off my perch. I do understand his attitude, though. I was in a snitty mood all day, uncomfortable in the heat. I had told him earlier I did not really want to hear the history of a rock (literally, I shooed him along after seven minutes of a story about an argument over a giant rock that had been moved from one place to another). I had little patience for Ted’s upsell of a rickshaw ride. I had declined it on the original itinerary, and now I get to do so in person. He was probably hoping for some opportunity to remind me who was the tourist.
Again, I don’t feel particularly welcomed by the architecture or the landscape. If I had to make a comparison, it would have to be Versailles. While not as big as these palaces, it is so opulent it is off-putting (especially when you consider how everyone else was living at the time). There are beautiful scenes – picturesque, grand, elegant – but it’s also aloof. I feel like I’m walking halls filled with nothing but ghosts, even though I’m being pressed by people. I feel inconsequential. And that is the point of these buildings – to make us feel like we don’t matter. We are but a conglomeration of shadows, the living and the dead just stirring dust forever on the flagstones.
It’s like looking at jewelry in a museum – it’s a removed beauty.
By the end of the tour day, Dad and I are exhausted. The oppressive heat and humidity sapped my energy, and I am content to stay in that night and eat satay at the bar.
Tomorrow it’s the Wall, and climbing. Tonight it’s cushioned pillows and sleep.