We began our first full day in Beijing, exploring the narrow streets around our hotel. The maze of alleyways ablaze in a riot of colourful lanterns, wall hangings and advertising. We came here for this; everything seeming magnificently alien with unrecognisable tones and language, strange and tantalising aromas and hundreds of smiling faces. It soon dawned on us that we were the real aliens and that the smiles were actually amusement at our weirdness, but the local people went out of their way to be helpful and accepting.
Later that morning we took a short walk to the spectacular and iconic, North Gate of Tiananmen Square (the Gate of Heavenly Peace), yet it was the size of the crowd that truly astonished. It moved as one monstrous breathing entity in every direction at once. We entered this chaos with a good deal of apprehension, sure that we would be swallowed up by the beast. Despite our hesitation, we managed to move relatively freely.
We pulled ourselves above the crowd, as we climbed up into the North Gate; marvelling at the view of the square. Directly below us we spotted the start of a queue that literally stretched for miles. We found out later that it took about five to six hours to shuffle into the mausoleum of Chairman Mao. For each pilgrim’s suffering in the blazing heat, they received a single glimpse of the great man of China; six hours for two seconds; that’s dedication!
From Tiananmen Square, we continued north in a crush of humanity, until we reached the Forbidden City. Everyone’s seen pictures, but it didn’t prepare us for the sheer size of this imposing compound. Sitting atop towering red walls we discovered a building of intricate architectural designs, decorated in a range of bright primary colours. Somehow this clash of colour worked its magic on us; it felt wonderfully peaceful despite sharing the experience with half of the planet’s population.
By mid-afternoon the temperature in our unshaded and overcrowded square, rose to such a point that I become a puddle. Even my eyeballs seemed to perspire, yet Katie appeared to be oblivious and happily unsympathetic, perhaps because of her years suffering the cold in Freeburgh.
Before retiring to cold showers, beer and air-conditioning, we decided to walk back to our hotel, via the Beijing Performing Arts Centre. If you ever experienced the movie Independence Day, then you could be forgiven for thinking that an enormous silver-domed space craft just landed in a lake in the midst of the city; presumably to load up with dumplings, fish heads and some obligatory Peking Duck, before heading to a galaxy far … far … away.
Given that winter time at home in the mountains isn’t the best period for wearing sandals, we were unprepared for the resultant wear and tear from such a long, sweaty walk. Suffice to say that feet are much more attractive when they are covered with skin. As we continued our tortuous trek back to the hotel, we noted our first older model, rust-covered and severely dented vehicle. It turned out to be a beat-up old Kombi van, driven by some European hippies; lost in a time warp. They seemed to be looking for a road back to the sixties.
As Katie and I knocked down the last of our medicinal beverages, we entered into a discussion concerning the day’s events and an anomaly in our observations. We didn’t manage to see one bird in all of our march. How could this be possible, given the amount of large trees lining the streets? Perhaps they somehow disappeared in the smog, or the heat drove them into hiding, or perhaps our excessive body heat made us delusional and we just didn’t see them. Whatever the reason, our deliberations could wait for a good night’s sleep and breakfast, once we found a decent dumpling house.