[Hmph, for some reason, blogger is not uploading images. Oh well, y'all will have to wait for pictures.]
Much to my surprise, I managed to sleep most of the night. I did dream that the driver I had hired turned out to be an enterprising Gujarati who didn't show me any sights, but tried to take me to sell me various things instead.
The real guy (from the fantastic Beijing Three Dragon Tour Company) turned out to be an amiable chap by the name of Yeng-he ("English name And-lu"), who spoke passable English. He even showed up early, with a large navy-blue mini-van (hence his seeming disappointment when it turned out to be just me!). Soon we were hurtling through Beijing's mad traffic. Much like Bombay, only much faster.
Beijing is a huge city. "We have six ring-road. Big city" says Andrew. And its growing fast -- construction everywhere, and cranes dot the skyline. There is a madness in the air as the approaching 2008 Summer Olympics dominates all urban planning.
About 30 minutes later, we turn onto the broad Xiehangan Jie, which separates the Forbidden City from Tiananmen Square, the largest public square in the world. And it certainly lives up to its reputation!
Andrew parks the car about half-way down the square, and we step out. And then it hits. The cold. Yes, I knew that Beijing was freezing. Today's high was 32F. But the wind! Like an icy knife, it cuts through every opening. In a few seconds my hands are numb. Looking around I see why everyone is wearing coats much burlier than mine, with layers of scarves covering their mouths. "Hen leng" I say to Andrew. "It's very cold." He laughs in agreement.
First stop is Mao's Mausoleum, a huge Communist-style structure that dominates the center of the square. I line up with some 60 visitors, almost all Chinese. I get a few curious stares, and smile back. Andrew stays back, with my camera (not allowed inside). Members of the People's Liberation Army, in their signature billowing green coats shout instructions at the line through megaphones. A loudspeaker somewhere is reciting a non-stop stream of Chinese. I imagine it's various sayings and slogans from the great leader. After some 10 minutes, the line starts moving. A few break ranks to purchase flowers (one single stem of pink or yellow roses). A hush descends on the crowd as we enter the mammoth structure. A sign asks that all hats be removed. This is, after all, a sacred spot of pilgrimage, dedicated to the cult of the founder of the Republic. In the foyer, a large, white marble statue receives scores of flowers from the pilgrims. We round a corridor into the room where the Chairman's earthly remains lie pickled, with that deathly, waxy look. The line shuffles past respectfully. All I can think of is the millions who lost their lives because of this man. There's souvenir stands on the other side, selling medals and trinkets.
The walk up to the Gate of Heavenly Peace, the southern end of the Forbidden City, requires heroic staying power. The wind is killing, and I turn around and walk backwards, dodging souvenir sellers trying to unload their Mao hats and cheap copies of the Red Book on me.
Well, that was Tiananmen Square. A few people wandering about, and the support cast of the tourist trade. It's hard to imagine what this must have been like in 1989.
I cross the frozen moat and walk under the Gate of Heavenly Peace, and thaw out a bit on the leeward side. 40 Yuan ($5) buys me an entrance ticket to the Imperial Palace grounds. Andrew leaves me here, to wander around the next hour and a half, in this gorgeous collection of bright red and ochre buildings, palaces and courtyards, the former headquarters of the Ming and Qing dynasties, whose historical function (according to one sign) was completed after the 1911 revolution that established the first Chinese Republic. After a while, and as long as one stays out of the wind, the cold recedes into the background, but is ever present. Seriously, I cannot recall being this cold ever.
Maybe it was the cold, but I found the Forbidden City, while quite beautiful, to be a bit (no pun intended) cold and impersonal. Maybe it's because I don't know much (if anything) of the details of Chinese history, or I was too busy trying to keep from getting frostbitten. By the time I reached the back gate, my thoughts tended to converge around "heat" and "food" but mainly "heat."