If this is Wednesday, this must be the Forbidden City

Regaining a conscious state on Wednesday morning, we gather ourselves and head for breakfast. Feeling more adventurous today, we order the Chinese breakfast. I do not know how to describe the Chinese breakfast without making a Westerner think it was unappetizing, but it was not. First, the Chinese believe in a savory rather than a sweet breakfast. The basis of the breakfast was a thin, hot cereal called congee. A small plate of pickled cabbage(?) and a 1″x1″ square of tofu were served to go into the congee. The congee was totally bland, but the pickled vegetable made it quite good. I think we made a mistake with the small square of tofu. We added it to the congee and ate it in one bite. There was something (a filling?)  in the tofu that was quite strongly flavored and our mouths got a bit of a (not unpleasant) shock. The breakfast also came with a selection of small, cold bao (dumplings) which were quite good. In fact, one of the selections was a bao filled with red bean paste. I have had these in the US and am not particularly fond of them. But in the US, the bao are much larger. In this smaller package, they were quite good.

We met our tour guide for the first day of active touristing. His name is Liu Xi, but goes by the English name of Yoshi. He meets us in the lobby of our hotel and we go over the days activities. Yoshi speaks English pretty well, having majored in English in college. We learn later, as we tour around, that Yoshi knows an incredible amount of information. After reviewing the upcoming day, we climb into a car with a driver and head for Tiananmen Square at the southern border of the Forbidden City. The square is huge and we are told that it is the largest public square in the world. I can believe it.

Everything about Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City is determined by symmetry. The long axis of the Forbidden City lies on a north-south axis and the buildings are reflection symmetric about this axis. Yoshi explains that in China there is a concept of whether something is harmonious or in conflict. Symmetry tends toward the harmonious. Not too long ago there was a Starbucks outlet within the Forbidden City. This was eventually determined to be non-harmonious and removed. Tiananmen Square was flanked by the People’s Congress Hall on one side and a huge museum (?) on the other. Along the axis was a monument to the Chinese who died fighting the Japanese in WWII and Mao’s mausoleum. (I was reminded that sometimes I think we in the US take too much credit for winning WWII. On both the European front and the Pacific front the Russians and the Chinese respectively were dying by the millions in the same fight.)  I bowed to the WWII memorial. We did not approach Mao’s tomb. That these memorials are on the north-south axis is very significant as by ancient custom, the axis is reserved for the emperor.

As we walked north to the Forbidden City we approached an ancient gate that those of our generation have seen many times on the news. It is the reviewing stand where Mao and party officials reviewed the troops and was the iconic image used by the news media to represent Chinese power. Now, that same gate has an enormous portrait of Mao just below where he would have stood at the center of the balcony (and thus on the north-south axis of the Forbidden City).

There is also a scale invariance. Once inside the gate, there is a sequence of another gate, a building, another gate, and a large structure. North of this, the sequence is repeated, but on a smaller, more human scale. The smaller scale version comprises the actual abode of the emperor and empress.

I am thrilled to be here to see the Forbidden City in person. However, similar to my reaction to Mount Rushmore, the Forbidden City looks a lot like the pictures I’ve seen of it. My words cannot compete with the images you already have in your mind from movies or TV so I will not try. Our tour included admission to the Hall of Jewelry, which might be the only thing that is not commonly pictured. The jewelry on display mostly comes from the last imperial regime, the Qing Dynasty, as the older stuff was carted off by the Nationalist Chinese in 1949 and is on display in Taiwan. But what remains is very nice, especially the jade.

Fortunately, the Forbidden City has a northern gate by which we exit, saving our already tired feet from walking all the way back through the Forbidden City to get out. Our driver picks us up and we head toward the Summer Palace, northwest of the center of Beijing. On the way, we are taken to a pearl “factory” for lunch. We are escorted to the second floor where there is a giant dining hall. Though it could seat maybe a thousand people, it is currently occupied by about thirty who appear to be from a cruise ship. We are taken to a smaller dining room with several tables set for two, four, or eight diners. As we enter the room, there are four women arranged in a arc with hands extended to guide us through a right hand turn toward our table. There is only one other couple in the dining room. This was one of our first, and certainly not our last, where it felt as if the entire nation of China was concentrating on serving just the two of us. The service was doting, the food was very, very bland. But we were hungry and ate it up even though we were disappointed in its lack of culinary interest.

After lunch, it was downstairs to see the opening of a freshwater oyster and the extraction of its multitude of small pearls. The many pearls from a single oyster are due to injecting foreign material into a live oyster. By adding various metals to the water the oysters are raised in, the color of the pearls can be varied. (Is it possible to abuse an animal as lowly as an oyster?) The most beautiful and expensive color is a gold color that I had never seen before. Then it was off to the shop to be pressured to buy pearls. Every sales trick was tried. My manhood was questioned if I did not buy Kris a $1000 necklace. Kris was inveigled by many means from vanity to the supposedly great value of buying it at the factory. But Kris was not in the market for pearls having been festooned with same by her sweety on a few previous occasions. So we admired the work and left.

The Summer Palace used to be the favorite haunt of the last empress of China and I use the word “haunt” deliberately as, by all accounts, she was something of a controlling witch. (Or is that just sexism. After all, aren’t emperors all controlling by definition?) I guess the point is that she was not well liked by the people in general. Now, her favorite hangout is a lovely city park, complete with gardens and a very large lake. We walked along a beautiful promenade where two of the cutest little girls posed for pictures for us in souvenir headdresses of imperial court handmaids. A smiling man began hovering around, looking at me and painting on a porcelain saucer. As could be expected, he then tried to sell me the saucer, which had a rather crude likeness of me and the Chinese characters for Summer Palace, 2008. I firmly declined to buy before he could apply fixative, so he could rinse off the ink and reuse the saucer. Our tour of the Summer Palace ended with a cruise on the lake in a dragon boat. As the weather was quite warm, this was a nice, cool, treat. Our driver picked us all up and delivered us back to our hotel through heavy urban traffic.

We were on our own for dinner and were too footweary to do anything other than eat in one of the hotel restaurants, the California Shabu Shabu. This turned out to be quite an adventure as the menu had all those delicacies that you read about but can’t imagine anyone eating. Some of these delicacies cost over $100 per dish. We read carefully and had a seafood noodle dish and Kung Po Chicken. These dishes cost about what one would pay for them at Hunan Garden, if Hunan Garden had access to excellent seafood. The Kung Po Chicken was outstanding; the best I have ever tasted. The noodle dish was less exciting, but the seafood included chunks of crab, abalone, and shrimp, and they were perfectly cooked. A little more chili sauce and this dish would have been great as well.

In a familar ending to the day, we rode the elevator to the seventh floor, entered our room, collapsed from fatigue, and died.

Tim

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