Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Beijing Blog 2

You can only call it the Forbidden City with a sense of irony anymore. Really, it could do with a lot more forbidding. At the moment, the mantra seems to be to pack ‘em in and pile ‘em high. I am in the middle of the Forbidden City, and the atmosphere is that of a vacuum-packed can of sardines. I have been to greatly crowded tourist spots like the Taj Mahal and Angkor Wat before, but this is something else entirely. Even growing up in India and working in Bangladesh did not prepare me for this. How could they possibly fit in so many people in an enclosed space?! Did I chance to come in on a day when they were preparing to enter the Guinness book, like those zillions squashing into Volkswagen Beetles in the sixties?

My day started in rather more tranquil fashion at Jing Shan park, directly north of the Forbidden City, and notable as an oasis of peace and greenery that the last Ming emperor decided would do as a place to hang himself in after disposing of his pesky family with a scythe. A plaque explains the murky details and is read with great interest by visitors. Something to do with enemies at the gate, palace intrigue, cheating wives and conniving eunuchs – a little bit for everyone, and a sure-fire magnet for crowds. The terraces atop the hill in Jing Shen afford great views of the layout of Forbidden City and I entered the City from the Jing Shen entrance, in reverse to the average visitor who enters from Tiannanmen Square.

The Forbidden City is stunning. Breathtaking. At least I think so, because between the Gate of Heavenly Purity and the Hall of Supreme Harmony, I enter a State of Incipient Panic owing to the thickness of the crowds. Either I am getting too old or have developed agoraphobia. But you do need the imagination of a Zhang Yimou to mentally erase the crowds from the Forbidden City and imagine it in its imperial splendour.

Late evening. I finally track down the Purple Bodhi, a vegetarian restaurant in Chaoyang where I am based. It is beautifully decorated but the waitresses seem surprised that anyone bothered to come in for a meal. The menu has been devised by a nature poet. I choose ‘Moonlight on the Lotus Pond’ (lotus root and button mushrooms in a clear soup) and ‘Eternal Happiness’ (medley of fresh green vegetables) with rice. How could I refuse dishes with these titles? You have to love the nature theme that runs through Chinese culture. A good meal, and and I leave a good tip, which is promptly returned to me by the uncomprehending waitress.

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