On my second day in the ‘Northern Capital’, I decided to officially turn into a tourist and take on the sights of Beijing starting with the most famous complex in town, the Royal Palace, a.k.a. the Forbidden City.
On my reconnaissance mission the night before, I had discovered a small travel agent near my hotel which advertised various day trips to sights in the Beijing area. I thought this would come in handy for longer trips where an organised tour could eliminate lengthy journeys by public transport and the possibility of not actually making it to the sight due to getting lost or being taken on a detour by an enthusiastic taxi driver with whom I can only communicate using hand signals.
Like most tourists, I had a list of essential attractions that I wanted to tick off during my short stay in the Chinese capital, at the top of which was, naturally, The Great Wall. To my relief, one of the ladies in the travel agent’s spoke perfect English and once we got talking, I knew I wouldn’t take my business anywhere else. After a brief chat, I quickly booked myself a trip to The Great Wall for the next day and asked her what route she suggested I should take to the Forbidden City. She waved her hands in the air and said ‘Oh, it’s not far. You can walk there from here.’ I was surprised to hear that as it didn’t look that close on the map, but I took her advice.
After having walked for about half an hour along one of the main thoroughfares of Beijing comprising an astonishing seven lanes on each side (yes, counting the number of lanes on each major road became my favourite pastime on this trip!), I was still nowhere near the Royal Palace. Lesson learned: ‘not far’ means ‘absolutely miles away and do not attempt to walk it unless you are a regular marathon runner’ when uttered by a resident of one of the largest cities on earth.
I didn’t mind the walk too much as it was a warm, sunny but pleasantly breezy day and being late morning, the humungous motorway by my side seemed to be almost void of traffic. The smog, however, was really getting to me. I did contemplate wearing a mask but I didn’t see many locals wearing one, so I reasoned that I would be fine, as I was only going to inhale those toxic fumes for a few days, while anyone living in this city would have to put up with it for a lifetime. It was a shame that even the strong May sunshine could not penetrate the thick layer of smoke generated by the approximately eight million private cars that use the enormous road network of this huge city on a daily basis. My throat and nose didn’t feel happy about the exposure to such a high concentration of unpleasant particles, but I carried on regardless.
About forty minutes into my walk to the ‘nearby’ tourist attraction, a very friendly middle-aged man joined me, who seemingly just happened to be walking in the same direction as me. His English was surprisingly good and he must have sensed that I had been deprived of my regular dose of daily conversation and would be more than happy to chat to him for a while. He said he was a teacher of calligraphy, which I found intriguing, and while talking about his life and asking questions about mine, he very ingeniously guided me to an art shop, where his friend was selling typical Chinese paintings depicting the four seasons, playful pandas and scenes of peaceful lakes with water lilies.
I couldn’t believe I had fallen for this again! Only the night before, while strolling along the shopping mall near my hotel, I had been approached by a ‘Professor of Art’, who also spoke surprisingly good English. I was happy to listen to him explaining the different styles of Chinese painting, the significance of certain motifs, such as plum blossom, and the four seasons representing the four stages in a person’s life. To me, it was a fascinating introduction to a culture and artistic style so different to ours and I didn’t mind spending some of my Yuan (quite a significant chunk of my cash, actually) in his lovely art gallery.
So here I was again, less than 24 hours since my last purchase, expected to buy at least two, perhaps three pieces of the amazing art hanging on the walls of this small shop. The salesman was very polite; I didn’t feel threatened or intimidated by any means, but I definitely sensed his determination not to let me leave his shop with my purse full. Naturally, there was some haggling involved, where the price of a certain piece on silk miraculously dropped to half of its original tag after I’d explained that I was already the proud owner of four beautiful paintings by an unnamed Chinese artist. Eventually, I agreed to buy the silk scroll, and was persuaded to add just one other small piece with an extremely generous discount, before continuing my way to the Royal Palace.
Unsurprisingly, by the time I reached my destination, I was positively exhausted. And I hadn’t even entered the vast complex of halls and palaces that was supposed to be the highlight of my day. I sat down under a tree and had a snack and a bit of a rest before starting my tour of the finest example of Chinese imperial architecture.
Written by: Erika Arvai