With the recent protests in Hong Kong and their call to Beijing supporters to rally at Tiananmen square, we thought it was an appropriate time to write about our recent experience at Tiananmen in Beijing, China.
We started out that day planning to visit the Forbidden City. It was a Monday and as we’ve mentioned in our post about things to know about Beijing, many things are closed on Mondays, especially government run buildings. So, while we knew this, we decided we’d venture that way, see what was open and tour a bit.
Tiananmen Square – Where Things Feel Bigger-Than-Life
We hadn’t walked that far before being stopped by a female tourist from the US who asked where the museum was. We all pulled out our maps and confirmed she had been walking the wrong way. Since we were going in the same direction, we invited her to join us on our walk. What we thought should have only been a short distance ended up feeling like we had been walking for hours, which we probably were. We weren’t aware that the distances indicated on our map were not proportionate.
All three of us eventually made it to the National Museum where our temporary travel companion was looking to go and we realized it was part of a huge complex of buildings including the Forbidden City, Tiannanmen Square, Mao’s Mausoleum and many other government buildings. The road along this stretch of buildings was, without a lie, a ten-lane road. The area felt massive.
Giant towering buildings, the huge expanse of the road, the square ahead of us a wide open space and the large entrance to the Forbidden City had an imposing and intimidating effect. Added to that feeling was the heavy police and military presence on the sidewalks, the barriers to the buildings and on the roads and everywhere we looked there was some form of security check.
We reached a gated area which was covered with police where we inquired about the museum and the Forbidden City and learned that both were in fact closed, but that the royal gardens surrounding the Forbidden City were open and accessible for 2RMB (40 cents CDN).
Our American friend had already been to the royal gardens and told us we should go on in and she would leave and continue exploring the area. We parted ways and went to the police officer allowing people through the gate. Since we noticed everyone was showing ID to get through, we asked if we needed to present ID. He asked for our passports, which we did not have (also in our post on 10 things to know about Beijing), he asked where we were from and after telling him we were Canadian, he took some time to chat with us about the gardens and a good area to grab some food.
He told us to make sure we had our passports with us next time and let us through, “I’m the police.” he simply said “Of course I can let you in”. So, what at first looked like a very intimidating amount of police and security and an impenetrable gate entrance quickly turned into a friendly conversation and a quick entry into the main area.
Once we entered onto the walkways around the various buildings and Tiananmen, we followed the sidewalk down under the main highway and up onto the other side to reach the royal gardens of the Forbidden City
The Royal Gardens – A Walk Around a Forbidden City
The crowds were still large, although not close to what we had been used to experiencing thanks to it being a Monday. We stood outside the main gates for a while, looking at the giant portrait of Mao hanging over the entrance and watching the activity on the other side of the street at Tiananmen Square before passing through the gates to get our tickets. It wasn’t long after we stepped in line with our tickets to get into the gardens that we experienced the typical “budding in line” that we had come to know so well in Beijing.
We’re pretty sure at least a half dozen people cut in line before we made it close to the front and we were about three people from the front when we let our guard down. We made a mistake we hadn’t made in days since getting accustomed to the queues – We diverted our attention to putting our camera in our backpack and let a hair-width of space between us and the person in front of us…and we left that space unprotected.
By the time we turned back to face the front, maybe a couple seconds later, we realized something was off. There were several new bodies standing in front of us and a few new ones behind. We thought we were used to it, but for some reason it still took us completely off guard.
After we got into the gardens, the crowds pretty much dispersed, or at least as dispersed as it gets in Beijing, and we took our time walking down the stone paths, looking at the old trees growing, the flowers, the buildings and architectural designs and the armed soldiers…wait, what? We weren’t too sure why there were so many soldiers lined up either. And a whole army (excuse the pun) of military personnel sitting in a group, fenced off and waiting to do something, or go somewhere.
This was our first real experience with so much military and police presence, first outside the government buildings and Tiananmen, and then again inside the royal gardens. We kept walking, because it seemed like the best thing to do, and continued to explore the very peaceful and serene grounds.
We walked around buildings, some part of the Forbidden City, and found some neat trees, gardens and other elements to explore on this large property. While we weren’t able to actually see the Forbidden City, we still had a great time in the gardens and found some interesting things. We saw many guardian figures on the rooftops of the buildings, a relaxing area of stone with a bridge over a stream, a rose garden, and an interesting large stone with a handle carved into it.
There were several areas for which we had to pass through large red doors. We noticed that many people walking through would touch one of the large golden knobs of the doors as they passed. We made sure to do the same even though we had no idea what it meant but later learned it is custom to do so for good luck and fortune.
We also happened upon a large court-like area with 7 bridges. Apparently, in days past, the bridge used indicated your level in the hierarchy of power, for example the center bridge was only used by the emperor. Carolann decided to take a walk on the emperor’s bridge as an emperor must have done ages ago.
Tiananmen Square – Remnants of a Volatile Past
Walking back down and under the busy street to where we started we tried to find the entrance to Tiananmen Square. We hadn’t come this far not to at least walk along this historic site. Along the gated sidewalk we noticed a guarded crosswalk to the other side of the road and the square.
We crossed and found ourselves at another security checkpoint, this time with x-ray bag scanners. Again, we were asked for our passport, and again we were allowed in on the condition that we make sure we have it with us next time. And so, with ID check and bag scan complete, we entered into Tiananmen Square. Tiananmen is the scene of the 1989 student-led protests and hunger strikes for democracy which ended in bloodshed as the Chinese military advanced on the protesters with assault rifles and tanks.
It is the road at Tiananmen square where the famous photo of the man with the tanks was taken. So while we were clearing security and preparing to walk around the square, we knew the significance and importance of this large space. That didn’t do anything to prepare us for the impact it left.
Looking around at the massive square, it was smoggy and only scattered with people unlike everywhere else we had been. We felt the gravity of the events that had occurred and both stood silently for a while taking it all in.
At the one part of the square stand’s Mao’s Mausoleum and several monuments in honour of historical revolutionary struggles. It wasn’t open that day but we’re told that once inside there is no talking as you walk through.
We took our time, quietly wandering a bit and after a while headed to the exit on the other end of the square and continued on our way.
The day summed up our entire experience in Beijing. Overwhelming. Crowds, pushing, cutting in line, smog, military and police and security checks, massive, bigger than life buildings and attractions, the unexpected, and a truly amazing experience. I don’t think we’ll forget our visit to Tiananmen Square. It really was just a typical square, though massive in size, but it meant so much more and you could feel the weight of history while you there.