China, Day 2: The Forbidden City and Tian’anmen Square

My second day in Beijing was probably my most tourist-y. Once again I woke up bright and early so I could visit Mao’s Mausoleum before it closed at noon. I had a better idea of where I was going this time, and I got on the subway with a feeling that I was really getting the hang of this whole China thing.

Day 2 012When I came out of the subway at the Tian’anmen Square exit, the first thing I saw was the huge portrait of Mao hanging outside the entrance to the Forbidden City on the other side of the street. It’s an image you see on a lot of postcards and trinkets, so it was exciting to see it with my own eyes. I  think that was probably the first moment when I really said to myself, Holy crap, I’m in China!

Before walking onto the area surrounding Tian’anmen Square, I had to show my passport and visa to two guards. Just a few feet past them I saw a stairwell marked with the names of various tourist sites in the area. One of them looked like this:

You see it, right? You see that it says Chairman Mao’s Mausoleum. Please tell me I’m not going crazy here.  Usually, when the name of an attraction is found above a stairwell it means that the stairwell leads you to that attraction. Nope. Not in Beijing.  I walked down the stairs, waited in a security line for 40 minutes, and went through another metal detector/baton/bag inspection procedure, only to come out on the sidewalk and learn that the mausoleum was over on the other side of the street where I’d first come out of the subway.

I found this out from a friendly Chinese guy named Kevin, who also told me that the body on display at the mausoleum is not Mao’s real body, but a wax figure. Mao’s actual final resting place is a state secret. After telling me all this, Kevin asked where I was from. When I said I was from the USA, he excitedly told me that he had been an art student in the States for many years. “In San Francisco.” He then invited me to take a look at some of his artwork in a small gallery about 20 yards away. Right away this probably sounds suspicious, but the gallery was in an office space connected to the Forbidden City. It’s not like he was luring me into a dark alley or anything. And I’m the kind of person who enjoys going off the beaten path, if only because I usually get a good story out of whatever happens there.

Inside the gallery, Kevin showed me a lot of garden variety Chinese paintings. Tigers. Chinese characters. Red lanterns. Women holding umbrellas…But there was also another series of pictures that had a Mark Ryden quality about them. They were very bright and featured childlike characters with large eyes and strange expressions. Before Kevin even had a chance to make a sales pitch, I asked, “Are these paintings for sale?” Well of course they were, and after a few minutes of painful deliberation (I wanted two but could only fit one into my budget), I walked away with this little lady.

paintingIf I remember correctly, the Chinese symbol in the top righthand corner means something akin to “happiness and good luck in the coming year.” (Can anyone confirm or deny this? Jessie? Fiona?) Whatever it means, I think this will look good in my writing room if and when I ever settle down and buy a house in the States someday.

After leaving the gallery, I walked down the sidewalk to the Forbidden City entrance where my selfie stick and I attracted yet another crowd of onlookers eager to point and giggle at the chubby American. As a general rule, I don’t like to be in pictures (especially selfies), but I wanted a pic of myself in front of the Forbidden City so I had to make an exception. It’s hard to get everything together when you’re trying to make sure your eyes, angle, facial expression, and background are just right. Even harder when you notice plain-clothes security guards watching you from three different locations. This was as close as I got to a good pic:


Just a hint of a smirk. It’s hard to smile when you’re being photo-bombed by a mass murderer.

In case you’re not familiar with it, the Forbidden City (via Wikipiedia) “was the Chinese imperial palace from the Ming dynasty to the end of the Qing dynasty. It is located in the center of Beijing, China, and now houses the Palace Museum. It served as the home of emperors and their households as well as the ceremonial and political center of Chinese government for almost 500 years.”

I’ll be honest and say that I wasn’t expecting to be overwhelmed. If anything, I thought the Forbidden City would be like one of the many temples I’ve seen – the kind of place you look at, briefly admire for its architecture, nod, say “that’s cool,” and then quickly forget about. Instead, I walked around for almost four hours, snapping pictures and reading placards about China’s various rulers. As a sidenote, the word “emperor” appeared in so many places that I finally just had to break out my iPod and listen to Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk as I toured the grounds.

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There were a number of official tours I could have taken part in, but I opted for an audio guide instead. (In my experience, tour guides almost always linger on details you don’t really care about and then try to sell you something at the end of the tour.) A funny thing about my audio guide, though: on one side it had a map of the entire complex with a blinking red light to indicate my current location. Mine was apparently drunk, because it had no idea where I was and always blinked on something a few hundred yards away.

The whole thing was amazing, but my favorite parts were the rock garden near the back of the palace grounds and the Nine Dragon Screen, which took my drunken audio guide map forever to find.

The Rock Garden

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The Nine Dragon Screen


“Legend has it that this Nine Dragon Screen was made up of 270 glazed tiles. The day before Emperor Qianlong’s inspection, one tile (the bottom of the third dragon) suddenly fell down. Since there was very little time left, and everyone would be beheaded if one part was left broken, as a last resort, a carpenter made a wooden one to look exactly like the original. Fortunately, the emperor did not discover the discrepancy and the lives of all the craftsmen were saved.”

On my way out of the Forbidden City, I spotted a souvenir shop where I purchased an overweight plush panda for my friend Grace. Before I left for China, Grace told me the food was terrible and that I “might come back skinny.” I gave her endless grief about her choice of words and decided this was the perfect gift for her.


It was far too late to visit the mausoleum – I would have gone back across the street earlier, but I didn’t want to stand in the security line for the Forbidden City again – but while I was in the neighborhood, I decided to cross the street and walk around Tian’anmen Square.

Tian’anmen Square

On its face, Tian’anmen is really nothing special. Imagine a very big parking lot with a couple of stone monuments here and there. That’s Tian’anmen Square. It is, as one of my co-workers so aptly phrased it, “just a square.”

And yet, it holds a special significance for me as the site of one of my earliest political memories. I can vividly recall watching footage from the 1989 massacre on television and my mom saying, “Oh my god, they’re shooting people.” A couple of weeks later, I went to a doctors appointment and saw pictures from the massacre inside a copy of Time Magazine in the waiting room. Even now I remember seeing images of bloody bodies covered with sheets. The caption read “a makeshift morgue.” Maybe I just wasn’t looking hard enough, but I didn’t see anything commemorating the massacre or the students who lost their lives anywhere on Tian’anmen Square. I also couldn’t find anyone who knew where the famous “Tank Man” staged his amazing protest.

What I did find were two college-aged Chinese girls who spoke almost perfect English. Actually, they found me. They walked up to me as I was buying a Coke, said hello, and then wanted to know what my name was, and whether I was alone, and how long I was going to be in Beijing, and what hotel I was staying at, and whether I had time to hang out and get some coffee or tea. Now, this is every male tourist’s dream, right? I was being solicited by not one, but TWO Asian girls. It seemed like a perfect way to make new memories about ole Tian’anmen Square…And yet, there’s a sixth sense you develop as a traveller that lets you know when something is probably way too good to be true.  I didn’t know what they were getting at, but I politely declined the offer and said I had to catch a train (which was true). And would you believe it? On my way back to the subway, I was approached by yet another girl with the same story. “Come with me. I know a great place for tea.” What is it with these hookers wanting to drink tea? I wondered.

Back at my hotel, I thumbed through my Lonely Planet guide to see if I could gain any insight. As it turns out, my sixth sense was right on the money.


They want the tea, not the D.

“A common scam in the Tiananmen Square area involves English-speaking young women inviting you to participate in a traditional teahouse ceremony. They will disappear before the end and you will be left with a bill running into hundreds of dollars.”

Ha! Those bitches didn’t fool me! I gloated out loud to Grace’s overweight teddy bear. But then I read just a little bit further.


“Avoid so-called ‘art students’ who want you to view their work: they’re not students and they will try to sell you overpriced rubbish.”

Ohhhhh. So it turns out my boy Kevin wasn’t being totally on the level with me…Oh well. He was a nice guy. He didn’t stab me and steal my money and passport. Hell, he wasn’t even pushy with me; I was the one who asked him if the paintings were for sale. He was a hustler, but I wouldn’t call him a con man.

The difference, you know, is that a con man takes your money and gives you shoddy work (or nothing) in return. The hustler has a real product; he just bends the truth or circumstances a little to make you buy it. The preachers on television promising miracles? Those are con men. The guy who sold pizza to my family and all the other people stuck in a traffic jam in Natchitoches after a Christmas fireworks show? He was a hustler.

Well played, Kevin. I set the painting down in my hotel room, put a few things in my backpack, and headed off for the train station.

Where was I going? Find out on Day 3…

About J. Wiltz

"Well, you know, there really isn't very much to say about me." - Andy Warhol
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