I have rarely seen so many people in one place; we arrived early at the Forbidden City to get a jump start on the crowds – we thought. Despite the fact that the Forbidden City is the largest Imperial compound in the world, it didn’t take long for the grounds to become overrun by people curious to glimpse the remnants of a long and rich history. An interesting fact about the buildings within the city – and many that you will see throughout China – if you look closely at the roof line you may see small carved characters adorning the building. These characters indicate the importance of the occupants – the Emperor’s home will have nine characters – everyone else will have a fewer number dependent upon their importance – the Empress, for example will have seven on her dwelling (although people joke that really, her rooms are the most important in the Forbidden City).
Tian’anmen Square, too, is a very busy place. Surrounded by many of China’s most famous buildings – such as the national opera house and the national museum of Art, it is a focal point for many of China’s people. Tian’anmen Square is the sight of a significant event during the ‘Cultural Revolution’ – do you know what occurred there and why it remains a sore spot in China’s history? There is a daily flag raising ceremony that takes place at sunrise and a guard stands silently near the flag – ready to protect what his flag symbolizes. In fact, there are numerous guards circulating about the square, plain clothed personnel too, making sure everything is in order and no one is ‘ill behaved’. Many young families come to the square for a walk and there are toddlers seemingly everywhere. The parents are so proud of their children; they love to have their pictures taken and several times a baby has been placed in our arms for a quick snapshot.
(Side bar: As far as pictures go, I’m told, I’m sort of a ‘celebrity’ over here with my blonde hair and blue eyes – something the Chinese people do not see much of. I’ve been asked several times to have my picture taken by curious onlookers – perhaps the most funny incident was the group of teenage girls that followed me for quite a distance until they got the courage to come up to me and ask if they could snap a photo with me).
Today a second flag flew next to the Chinese National flag on the street posts – it was the flag of South Korea displayed to indicate that the president of this country was visiting. In fact, when we were in the Forbidden City, a section of the one square was roped off as the dignitaries arrived and made their way to the Imperial Palace.
After leaving the Square we grabbed lunch at a restaurant near the station (the largest train station in the world) and took the train from Beijing to Shijiazhuang; we paid extra to have our luggage taken to the boarding area and I’m glad we did. There were several flights of stairs that stood between us, the luggage, and the train (it is unusual for Chinese people to travel with so much luggage). The workers that handled our luggage piled them high on two luggage carts, strapped them down, and balanced the carts along a narrow strip parallel to the stairs. The men couldn’t have even weighed half as much as the overflowing carts. They braced their bodies against the front of each cart and leaning into them slowly left the momentum of the grade and weight move the carts down the strip. For a split second I thought at least one of the men would succumb to the speed and weight of the rolling cart and be crushed – thank goodness there were no little children at the bottom of the ramp!
Our evening was complete only after a welcome reception from the Hebei Education Department at the Peking Duck, perhaps China’s most famous restaurant. Our hosts were very gracious and couldn’t seem to do enough to ensure we were happy. But let me tell you, there is way too much food; I think it’s a form of torture (smile) - no sooner than we’re done with lunch, they seem to be ushering us off to dinner. The food is very good, but even so I’m beginning to cringe at the thought of eating one more thing!