Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Tiananmen and the Forbidden City

We had tried multiple times to explore Tiananmen, leaving this usually for night. We figured we'd pay a visit in our last full day in Beijing, during which time we would visit the Forbidden City, another obvious tourist spot. Along with our Aussie travel buddy, Ben, we started with the usually high-energy Beijing breakfast outdoors, which is a bowl of sweet warm soy milk with dumplings. The soy flavours were extremely powerful, like sour porridge, but there is something very moreish about it. Pardon me, I'm just having to get my iMac to 'learn' the word 'moreish'. Traveling around Beijing on this sunny day was a brilliant chance for some photos. Children, flags, bikes statues and of course, the city.
We were wondering if it was worth popping by and visiting Mao Zedong's mausoleum, but we turned away when we saw there was a bit of a line (11). The line is like that always, so we figured that people from all over China flock to Beijing to visit the body of Mao. Seeing the line and feeling the heat, we figured we'd best leave it for people who genuinely wanted to pay their respects, rather than us, who were just a group of tourists. However, we did end up in something of a line (17) when we crossed the road through the underpass. For those who don't know, another factor that adds to Beijing's labyrinthine quality is its underpasses. The roads are so huge, and traffic control is already such an issue, that underground tunnels are built so that people may get across. If you see the picture, you'll understand why it's easier than getting people to cross the street. However, at least we'd be getting fresh air (relatively fresh, this is Beijing after all). Every inch of the tunnel was crammed with people, and we were moving along at a snail's pace. The heat was building up, and everyone was sweating profusely. Children were panicking and crying. A toddler next to me was crying in a clearly stressed manner, so I took my traveller's map and waved it against his face, which almost instantly calmed him down. A little cool air is all he needed. The Mum was grateful, so I let her have the brochure so she could continue waving it against him. Funnily enough, out of all the amazing experiences I had in China, getting stuck in that stifling hot, overcrowded tunnel and cooling down that stressed child, was one of the most memorable. All the tourist sites and interesting people in the world can't replace a moment like that.

We went to the Forbidden City by foot, taking an alternative route from other people so as to not get swamped along the way. When we first got to the city, we were greeted by a tourist guide, 'just call me' Tim. He chased us down like a smooth car salesman on a naive immigrant, offering us a deal to 'show us around' the city. Many tourists, I think, would turn down the offer, thinking that either a tour guide is just not a very necessary use of 200 yuan, or that Tim was just another one of the many, many Chinese finding ways to make money of tourists. I was feeling the same way, until Suzanne convinced us otherwise - that hiring the tour guide was a good idea. It wasn't until halfway into it that I truly realised how important a tour guide is. For one thing, you may think you can self study everything you see and experience, but you don't truly know what you're looking at without a guide. You can look at any piece of artwork, architecture or anything, and they'll tell you so many facts, some random trivia, others essential knowledge to your experience. In fact, if you visit without being informed of this information, you may later learn of such things on the internet, and wish that you could go back and experience it again, armed with this newfound information. You may think you can appreciate things without a guide, but you don't really know what you are looking at without one. Secondly, a guide shouldn't just be seen as a 'guide' - they can be seen as a companion, an extra travel buddy, or a friend. They are someone you can talk to, laugh with, enjoy your company with just as much as (sometimes even more than, depending on the scenario) your actual travel partners. Thirdly, there is the term 'experientialism.' (another word for you, iMac) - it's good to spend your money on things that give you experiences, not just souvenirs and food. 200 yuan could buy me a few flashy pieces of clothing and some dinners, or it could get me a trip on the Great Wall toboggan or a tour guide to make your trip a whole lot more interesting. Overall, a tour guide will make your visit a much richer, interesting and fun experience, so it's always worth it. And you'll feel extra good knowing if it's his only source of income, and he's constantly out there breaking his back looking for prospective customers. It's difficult not to appreciate his work, and admire the effort he put into it.