This morning we headed for the world famous sights of Beijing: Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. The Tiananmen Square area was only a fifteen minute walk from our hostel so it was really easy to get there. I hadn’t anticipated how big it would be- there’s the square itself but lots of significant buildings around the outside, such as the government building which is also pictured on the 100 Yuan note.
Tiananmen is most famous for the student protests which ended with abject bloodshed- the story of how the protests escalated into such a tragedy is really interesting, and it’s even more interesting when you compare the reports on how many died on that night. The Western newspapers reported 2000 to 3000 were killed, the Chinese reported 20-30. It seems there is no evidence to be able to prove an accurate figure, but what we do know is that the dissatisfaction of the student community resulted in major and violent uprisings across the country which were ultimately quieted by a Government that rolled in army tanks on its own people. It doesn’t seem that either side were blameless to the general onlooker, but it is clear that what happened in Tiananmen was absolute massacre.
We also saw the building in which Chairman Mao’s body is housed. He died in the 1970s but they have preserved his body and put it on display, much like the Russians did with Lenin who died in the 1920s, but I saw layer out in 2007. Many people see it as a huge honour to see the body of their former leader. I did find it rather strange, much as I did in Russia, that even though some of the atrocities at the hands of both of these leaders are publicly known now, people still idolise and adore them. I don’t know if this is product of indoctrination or denial, and I’m not sure anyone ever will, but particularly in the older (and younger but less educated) generation there is still a lot of love for Mao.
Our guide bravely told us some of the stories of what happened to her family under Mao’s regime. Her grandfather had worked for the police in quite a superior position, but anyone who had power when Mao became leader was seen to be somewhat of a threat. Her grandfather was labelled a spy, imprisoned and the family were exiled to the countryside where they would have to wear large signs publicly shaming them for what their family had been accused of. The government has issued an apology to her family for what they did to them, but I’m not sure scars like those can ever fully go away.
We also learned about the control mechanisms in place currently. The internet is significantly controlled and it is very difficult to access social media as the government is suspicious of its ability to facilitate anti-government ideas. The whole time we were in China we had to use a VPN to get around the government controls. Most young Chinese people use VPNs but it is interesting that the government is still so keen to control the people.
Our guide was a masters student of history, focussing on the last one hundred years. She spent one and a half years researching her paper, struggling to find resources because of the amount of history that has been erased and re- written. It turns out that public knowledge of the truth still isn’t on the government’s to do list; she was awarded zero and told she had to restart her masters thesis. The restraints on Universities clearly have not been lifted.
We made our way through the Forbidden City, the former home of generations of Chinese Emporers. We learned about the concubine culture and what life would have been like for the concubines and eunuchs housed there. The architecture is quintessentially Chinese and the area is vast. It may be plagued by bus loads of tourists but it is certainly worth a visit.
We headed on to Jingshan park, another part of the Forbidden City which is separated as it is the location of an Emperor’s suicide. It sounds grim but it really was a beautiful place with a high look out point across Beijing.
Georgia and I spotted an area where you could pay 25 Yuan (£2.50) to dress up in traditional Chinese clothes and pose on a golden throne- no surprises I was all over that. We had a photo taken and ended up in a bit of a dispute with the staff who didn’t remember us paying- it didn’t get too heated as I think they believed us in part, so we paid a little extra and walked away unscathed and (more importantly) without being arrested.
Our next stop was the world famous fake goods market. I have to say, I was rather sceptical and expected to find Ray Berries instead of Ray Bans and Michael Wors instead of Michael Kors. I was surprised. The extent of the fake goods is incredible- you name it, they have it. They even have secret destinations hidden behind book cases and underneath concealed trap doors containing the hardcore goods. I made friends with a handbag seller called Helen who told me all about how many silly Americans she has sold £30 worth of handbag to for £300. She was great fun and called me ‘cute’ a lot whilst asking all about England. I do have a picture with Helen, but I’m not sure it’s a good idea to post it in case she gets into trouble for her trade!
Da Dong is one of Beijing’s culinary jewels: frequented by celebrities and recently visited by Michelle Obama on her tour of China, I had to get in on the action. We all got ourselves dressed up nicely (which was rather special considering I had predominantly worn Lycra running gear for three weeks) and the girls even got the curlers on the go- we scrubbed up a treat. None of us quite thought of checking the weather forecast though and emerged from the metro station to find a scene from The Day After Tomorrow. Getting a table at Da Dong is no easy thing, so we had no choice but to ditch the fancy hair do and take a polluted Beijing sky shower. Soaked doesn’t even come close. Mascara trickled down my face like the bride of Frankenstein, and my perfect curls retreated into a Hermione-esque frizz: we didn’t quite look the part as we tumbled over the threshold pouring water out of our shoes……