So, when you’re in China, you have to do some sightseeing - right? I set out to do so on my second day in the city. Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden city were on the agenda. First challenge: find the subway exit that actually leads to the square. There are three subway stations in the area, each with multiple exits of which many leave you stranded on street corners that are fenced in with hundreds of meters of barriers guarded by policemen. As my host, Bamor, had told me, police had increased their presence since preparations were under way for a huge World War II commemorative event of great political importance. That probably also explained why the whole area had been turned in a maze in which hordes of tourists were trapped. In the midday heat, I slowly worked my way towards the square and finally found the entrance - also, like every subway entrance guarded by a security checkpoint that seemed to have more of a theatrical function.
The square itself is vast, flanked by impressive architecture on all four sides, with a portrait of Chairman Mao gazing down on sweaty visitors from its position on the northern gate. Thanks to all the barriers blocking the way, people are taking pictures with Mao from a comically large distance away. Hustled by drinks sellers and tourists wanting to take a photo with me I left the square pretty quickly, in order to have a look around the forbidden city.
This proved more difficult than expected. It took me about one hour to find the entrance to some kind of park. “Forbidden City?” “Yes, left, go, go! Forbidden City!” There were certainly some old buildings there, but nothing like the awe-inspiring architecture I had heard of. Another 30 minutes later, and I stumbled into a vast courtyard with ticket booths for the “Palace Museum”. I stopped in the shade to study the various terrible Lonely Planet maps I had carried with me. Then, everyone was asked to leave. It was then that I realized that what we call “Forbidden City” is called “Palace Museum” in Beijing. What they call “Forbidden City” is essentially the enclosed park south of the palace moat. Take note, potential Beijing Tourists.
Anyway, I had managed to arrive at that conclusion at exactly the time the “Palace Museum” closed it’s doors, at 4pm. I returned 2 days later, when it was cooler and my frustration with my botched sightseeing attempt had subsided. The palace with it’s hundreds of small halls, all with wonderful tiling and intricate decoration was indeed impressive. Even more impressive were the Chinese tourists though. It seemed that the act of documenting every single moment of their stay was more important than actually visiting the complex. I saw one guy taking a picture of every single vase in the ceramics exhibition, not even bothering to move his eyes away from the screen of his cell phone.
It seems that Chinese tourists are even more obsessed with cell phones than other nationalities. At the Great Wall, which I visited with a Spanish couple, people seemed to climb endless stairs just for the benefit of getting a better selfie. One lady in a flaming red dress, armed with a selfie stick, was visibly struggling with the physical exercise but only rested when she had assembled her family for yet another photograph. It’s great fun to watch these scenes unfold. I also spent far too much time noting down the comical Chinglish phrases other tourists wore on their t-shirts - I found some great ones, such as “Devil Nut” and “My Faxed Joke” and deeper truths such as “Hello Mr. Lonely” and “All Money, no Bank”.
In the end, while I enjoyed visiting those ancient sites and cultural treasures, I found the experience also very exhausting and - in parts - somewhat disappointing. For the majority of visitors, the quality of the experience seems to be measured in likes gathered for WeChat posts. And, the hundreds of locals living of selling merchandising, over-priced food and drinks and manipulating tourists into rip-off day tours, I’m always left with the distinct feeling that I’m just a wallet on legs.
That said, I'm glad I can now add my very own Great Wall pic to my Facebook collection of must-have "round the world trip" photos!