Beijing. Capital of the People’s Republic. Home to an eclectic mix of the majestic, the monastic and the macabre. And actually, despite what you might think,a decent sort of place.
Far more austere than Shanghai. Far more self-important. Far more removed from the hustle and bustle of demeaning commerce. And a whole lot poorer too. Altogether more imperial. More steadfast against the influence of time.
Come. Come along. Come stand in Tiananmen Square. Come spin around and take in the centre of Chinese might. See the mausoleum of dear Mao – alternately hero and villain in the storybook of recent Chinese history. Check out the Forbidden City (home to the Chinese Emperors) and wonder how such absurd opulence could coexist with the grinding poverty of the teeming masses. See the endless plain of flagstones on which students risked (and in some cases gave) their lives in the name of democracy.
Beijing is not so far from commerce, of course. This is China, after all. So in China’s main square you will also be harrangued by arts students (who want you to attend their shows and buy their paintings), hassled by hello merchants (who trade in maps, water and cheap souvenirs), and pursued by photographers who will capture your image together forever with the smiling poster-face of Mao, who watches over everything in this place.
If you get to the Forbidden City, be sure and take the audio tour and listen as the dulcet tones of none other than Roger Moore guide you about the wonders of the Imperial Palace. If you happen to catch what he says about the guy riding the chicken (who decorates all the ridge lines on the rooves), be sure and let me know. For I can no longer remember, despite seeing a great many men riding chickens in China.
I went to see Mao as well. He was unwell. In fact, he was having a wee lie down when I visited. But you can still pop in and say hello, in appropriately reverential tones. He doesn’t look too bad, for a guy who has been dead for decades. Maybe they should take him on tour to see other parts of the country. He could even go visit Lenin. He could probably do with the diversion. It can’t be that exciting having crowds come in and stare at you every day. Still, he does keep fairly short visiting times. Actually, perhaps Lenin and Mao could go visit Napoleon – although the ex-French Emperor’s seven coffins are going to interfere a little with any meaningful dialog.
You have to wonder why people go to visit him. Well, I do, anyway. I guess I went for the same reason you go see anyone famous. It makes you feel like you are part of something bigger than yourself. And it allows you to say “oh yeah, Mao, yeah, I’ve been to his place”.
But I did wonder how many of his visitors were there on the kind of quasi-religious pilgrimage that still takes people to Lenin’s tomb. How many were ex Red Guard who longed for the old days. Which of this motley collection of ordinary people were really here to mourn the passing of the true leader and reflect how great life was when the peasant, and not the merchant, was the apex of achievement.
So yes, Beijing. Highly reccommend it. Stay as long as you can.