Not sure why my last post didn’t save.
Anyway, trying again…
Thankfully the train from Xian to Beijing was relatively quiet, calm and peaceful. We shared a compartment with a couple from New Zealand, and for some reason the chaos of previous journeys was entirely absent – people got on, shut their doors and went to sleep.
Arriving bleary eyed in a new city and navigating the public transport system is always a challenge, but we worked the metro out and were at our guesthouse by 8am. They very obligingly gave us breakfast and let us into our room by ten. They also booked us tickets for the Forbidden City, and after a shower and short rest, we hit the metro again, this time in the direction of Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City.
Security in Beijing – and everywhere else we visited in China – was extremely tight – bag checks at every metro and train station, and even to enter Tiananmen Square. There were (of course) massive queues to get through the bag check and into the square, but we patiently joined the line and shuffled forward with the thousands of Chinese tourists and the odd foreigner.
I had briefed Lauren on the (infamous) history of the square beforehand, and shown her footage of the students facing off against the tanks, and of the famous ‘tank man’, who stood in front of the tanks and berated them, shopping bags in hand. Its all on youtube these days. Well, for those of us outside China or with a VPN. It amazes me how the Chinese government manages to maintain a complete media blackout about the events, and seem more and more paranoid about information getting out. 14 years ago it was incredible how they managed to keep a lid on it. These days, with so much social media and greater access to the West, its incredibly impressive and scary. According to Hong Kong media, pro democracy campaigners are forced to go on ‘vacation’ for the week before and after the anniversary, and the families of those who died are routinely harassed by police to this day. Local messaging app wechat blocks transfers of amounts of Yuan that could commemorate the events – so 64.89 or 89.64 for example (for 4th June, 1989).
Many years ago I was in China, teaching English on the anniversary. It was a rainy day and only one of my adult students turned up for the ‘conversation class’ at lunchtime. She immediately asked me if I knew the significance of the date, and I rather hesitantly acknowledged that I did. She then admitted she had been at the protests, as she was a student at the time. I was fascinated and should probably not have written all the vocab she needed up on the blackboard. When another student – this time 16, and as it turned out the daughter of an army officer – turned up late, I remember my board having the word ‘massacre’, ‘protest’, ‘tank’ and ‘democracy’ boldly written up.
I got into a teeny bit of trouble for that.
So for now, Lauren and I did little more than acknowledge that this indeed was where such horrific events happened, and moved on to the safer territory of the ancient past, with a visit to the Forbidden City, home to a number of Emperors and Empresses in pre-communist days. Not that they dealt with protesters any more humanely….
The buildings in the Forbidden City are huge, with vast open spaces of paved courtyards baking in the heat. We stuck to the edges trying to find some respite from the relentless sun and took a pragmatic approach to the visit – it would take all day to see all the Forbidden City has to offer (I know, I spent a day here years ago), but with the heat and the crowds we cherry picked what we really wanted to see, including the main outer courtyards where audiences would be held and business conducted, a few of the inner courtyards, the gardens and the treasury. The last was full of imperial ornaments, jewels and the accoutrements of royal life, and was thankfully inside away from the scorching sun.
After about three hours we had seen what we wanted to and emerged at the north side (you enter in the south and exit in the north). Bizarrely for one of the most visited sites in China, it was impossible to hail a taxi close to the exit, the buses were too full to take new passengers, and we were a kilometre and a half from the nearest metro. In the end we decided to walk to the metro, stopping en route for cold water and trying our best to find shade. Beijing in summer is not for the fainthearted, and Lauren did a great job of persevering despite being hot and tired. We treated ourselves to non-chinese food for lunch (we really enjoyed a lot of the food but there is always a certain amount of stress as we never really know what we are ordering or eating, and it does get a bit much every day) and then holed up at the guest house and played board games the rest of the day.