Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Finally Getting Around to Doing the Beijing Thing

This morning, after nearly four months in Beijing, I made my requisite visit to the Forbidden City. It was a bit of a quick and dirty version - all in one morning - but I think I got in everything that I wanted to. At first the City was a bit anticlimactic, as much of it is undergoing remodeling for the upcoming Olympics. It's just like when I was in Athens, and all my pictures of temples came with lovely scaffolding. Quite a few of my pictures of the main halls in the Forbidden City, what you think of when you think of it, are covered in tarp and metal. Really quite beautiful.
However, the halls off to the sides were not only devoid of scaffolding, but also of orange-hatted Chinese tourist groups, so they were definitely worth a visit. The two most interesting side halls I visited were the Hall of Mental Cultivation and the Hall of Water. The Hall of Mental Cultivation contains sacred calligraphy works that date back thousands of years. It used to contain 3, as the name implies, but one of the emperors tried to flee with his favorite, and was caught. The confiscated piece is in the Nanjing museum. I found the Hall of Water after being directed down a random alley by a friendly guard. It was really cool. The hall was built on top of the site of the Palace of Prolonging Happiness, but it was never finished, so now there is this erie building that hovers shell like over a hole in which you can see the foundations that were to make up the cellar. The Palace of Prolonging Happiness burned down in the mid 1800s, so when they went to replace it, it only seemed to make sense to build a Hall of Water instead. (This is the same that the roof tiles of the forbidden city are all yellow, except for the library. Yellow is the color of the royal family, but black is the color of water, and hopefully will protect the books from burning down.)
Definitely the most worthy place (in my opinion) to visit in the Forbidden City is the Hall of Clocks. It's an extra 10 kuai to get in, but it's wicked cool. I made friends inside with one of the volunteer workers, a retired mechanical engineer with a passion for clocks who spends his Wednesdays showing people around the Hall of Clocks. He's been working on learning English so he can volunteer with the Olympic Committee next year, so we had a lively language exchange for a while, and he taught me a lot about those awesome clocks that I never would have learned from the plaques alone. It's amazing what those clocks can do - one runs simply on water, and another one can even write calligraphy!
During the course of my wanderings I met some artists and headed over to their studio South of Tiananmen to hang out for a bit. They were really cool, and now I have a bunch of awesome art.
It was a pretty exhausting morning, and I still have so much to do today. It's pretty overwhelming. But I have so little time left, and so much to squeeze in, it's just crazy. I finish my program a week from tomorrow, and leave for Tibet a few hours later. There is so so so much Beijing, and so little time.


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