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.
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.
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.
Back on the ground we skirted around the outside of the mausoleum. Maybe catch you next time, Mao.
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.
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.
For this post we’ll jump ahead to the following night. We returned for the flag-lowering ceremony which occurs right on sunset.
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.
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.