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China 3: Tiananmen Square

The first priority on our first morning on Chinese soil was to go to one of the most well-known and controversial places in Beijing. We went back the following night and there would have been a third visit as well had that attempt not bombed.

The sun was again stuck behind layers of haze but c’est la vie; we headed out after doing a double-take at two gorgeous huskies that bounded through the hotel courtyards. A few minutes walk took us to a subway station. The next part could have been a disaster but luckily I was not in charge. Extremely economical and efficient, trains run very regularly and cost only 2CNY, or NZ$0.40 cents! Thanks to Mike’s research and freakish ability to read subway maps we arrived at the other end and emerged to the street.

The Zhengyangmen Gate. It used to be the front gate of the imperial city.

The Zhengyangmen Gate. It used to be the front gate of the imperial city.

We found ourselves just outside Tiananmen Square. Lots of people and traffic; historical structures in front and behind. Across the road on the southern edge of the square was the Zhengyangmen Gate. Behind us was its companion structure, the Arrow Tower. If it had been the Ming dynasty, 1400s or so, we would have been standing in the barbican which connected the gatehouse with the watchhouse with the inner city wall.

The Arrow Tower served to defend the Zhengyangmen gate back when they were built in the 1400s

The Arrow Tower served to defend the Zhengyangmen gate back when they were built in the 1400s

Beijing had extensive fortifications, consisting of inner and outer city walls (perimeter 60kms) and 16 gates. Each gate consisted of a gatehouse and watchtower pair. The structures here at Zhengyangmen Gate, also known as Qianmen, are the last pair still standing.

The gate was occupied by the military up until 1980 and from the files of something-I-wish-I-knew-at-the-time, just outside the gate somewhere is the kilometre zero point for all highways in China.

We pondered how to enter the square as the barriers and presence of soldiers suggested there was no pedestrian access across the road. It finally dawned that we had to go back into the subway where sure enough there was a pedestrian tunnel. After re-emerging we joined a queue to get in.

Tiananmen (which my index finger always wants to add a t to the end of) Square is big: one of the largest in the world and four times the size of the original square created in the 1600s. It is named for the Tiananmen Gate at the northern end through which the Forbidden City lies. I’ve been aware of it for a long time – the mass protest and deaths in 1989 happened just after my 17th birthday.

We veered over to the Zhengyangmen Gate to be told that foreigners were allowed to go up there today – not sure what the exact story was but we assumed that there must be restrictions over the holiday weekend. After finding the Drum and Bell Towers closed yesterday, this was our first chance for an elevated view.

One modest entry fee later, we climbed up to be greeted by a scowling security guard who was hoiking and clearing the contents of his nasal passages. This wasn’t a good place to see the entirety of the square from but there were other great views, haze obscured though they were.

The Chairman Mao Memorial Hall, where Mao Zedong lies in state. If it had been open we may have gone in - depending on the queue which can extend hundreds of meters.

The Chairman Mao Memorial Hall, where Mao Zedong lies in state. If it had been open we may have gone in – depending on the queue which can extend hundreds of meters.

Looking west - the queue is where we entered the square.

Looking west – the queue is where we entered the square.

A Chinese man asked to have his photo taken with Mike. There was a bit of this over the next couple of days. We started keeping score and I think we ended up with 3 apiece.

A Chinese man asked to have his photo taken with Mike. There was a bit of this over the next couple of days. We started keeping score and I think we ended up with 3 apiece.

Back on the ground we skirted around the outside of the mausoleum. Maybe catch you next time, Mao.

One of the two clay sculptures in front of the mausoleum.

One of the two clay sculptures in front of the mausoleum.

And two human sculptures, one standing a little more relaxed than the other.

And two human sculptures, one standing a little more relaxed than the other.

Heading up roughly the middle of the square, we went by the Monument to the People’s Heroes which was once on the southern boundary of the square. It was covered in scaffolding which was removed on our second visit to the square.

The National Museum of China off to the east of the square

The National Museum of China off to the east of the square

I was very remiss (put it down to my own lack of preparation before the trip) in that we did not walk along the western side where you can see the Great Hall of the People, regarded as Beijing’s political hub. Eejit. However, this perhaps put us in the position we were to see a scuffle between a policeman and one of the touts selling tours.

When I last saw her she was lying curled up on her side, her arms covering her face, surrounded by people.

We were at the northern end of the square. Here it’s all about the flagpole which during the day flies the Chinese flag. Beyond it, across the road, is the Tiananmen Gate (unfortunately also with scaffolding on it) through which we’d shortly enter the Forbidden City.

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Sentinels around the flagpole. Behind is the Tiananmen Gate through which we'd enter the Forbidden City later.

Sentinels around the flagpole. Behind is the Tiananmen Gate.

Flag in Tiananmen Square

Tiananmen Square panorama - mind the distortions and stutters :)

Tiananmen Square panorama – mind the distortions and stutters 🙂

For this post we’ll jump ahead to the following night. We returned for the flag-lowering ceremony which occurs right on sunset.

Behind us the crowds were gathering for the flag-lowering ceremony

We were a few people back from the barrier and despite a natural height advantage, some shots required tippy toes. In the low light with a long lens this produced dubious results, but hey. It was impressive to watch, particularly the precision marching.

On both visits we noticed the presence of extinguishers - this is in case anyone sets themself alight, as has happened here on more than one occasion.

On both visits we noticed the presence of extinguishers – this is in case anyone sets themself alight, as has happened here on more than one occasion.

Day becomes night in and around the square. Note the cameras on the lampposts.

Day becomes night in and around the square. Note the cameras on the lampposts.

Soldiers returning to the Tiananmen Gate. I believe there are barracks just inside the Forbidden City.

Soldiers returning to the Tiananmen Gate. I believe there are barracks just inside the Forbidden City.

Having seen this I wanted to return for the flag-raising ceremony. I attempted this with a reluctant Mike on our last morning in Beijing. A horribly early start saw us armed with the destination written on paper and hailing a cab. But the cabbie refused to take us – we think he gestured that it was too early. This didn’t make sense but it seemed futile to try again, especially with one of us much less keen than the other. I trudged back to the hotel feeling decidedly aggrieved.

China’s National Day was held recently, after we returned home, with Tiananmen Square a focal point for celebrations. This would have been an impressive spectacle to see, though we were disturbed to read about the thoroughness of their preparations.

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8 Comments Post a comment
  1. Marnie #

    Cool, Hayley! Fascinating to watch other cultures at play (not a pun), isn’t it.
    The ancient fortifications/impressive towers reminded me of Japan…tho the style is slightly different. I loved visiting Japan. Everything looked so… well… Japanese! No doubt you felt the same about China! Funny, that!

    5 October 2014
    • Yes, China did look very Chinese 🙂

      6 October 2014
  2. Seeing this part of the world through your words, thoughts, and photos continues to amaze.

    5 October 2014
    • That’s lovely Cindi, thank you!

      6 October 2014
  3. Another fascinating post and great photos. There don’t seem to be any western tourists in your shots which surprises me – were most of the other tourists Chinese?

    5 October 2014
    • Thank you!! Yes most tourists were Chinese, though other nationalities were obvious later on in the day. It was a holiday weekend and I wonder if there would be a tangible difference on a normal weekend.

      6 October 2014
  4. Sigh. Place of must visit. Very nice photos again completing Your travel diary.

    25 October 2014
  5. I bet you felt quite moved being in the square. The iconic image of the man in front of the tank with his shopping, one of the most moving images of all time.

    29 October 2014

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