My next rule of travel? Never be afraid to do more research, even after you’ve arrived. Between China and Ukraine, most of my planning went into the latter – I knew very little about Kyiv, so I wanted to find out what was there other than tour companies offering trips to Chernobyl. For China, I had three obvious sites and three days. Easy.
However, the subway trip to the Olympic Forest the night before gave me some time to kill, so I decided to check out what else I could do in Beijing other than the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square. So I did a quick Google search for “top 10 Beijing.”
Nothing came up. Oh, right. Firewall.
I did a quick Yahoo search for “top 10 Beijing” and found a couple of brief lists, all with the usual sights. However, the good thing about top-10 lists is that not only will they remind you of the obvious-but-possible-to-forget (i.e. Robb not seeing the Leaning Tower of Pisa in 2013) but when curated by locals, they’ll offer a glimpse into what they want you to see in their city, which sometimes may not be something you thought of.
On this list? Beijing Opera. It’s something I would have never thought to have looked for had I not read the list, but it was a perfect fit. Performances were in the evening, so that gave me something to do before my 02:00 flight the next morning. It was something I was unlikely ever to see anywhere else, and it made a nice change from “see this monument, see that temple.” I didn’t take much convincing, and the next day woke up more excited about the opera than the Forbidden City.
…which was probably a good thing, because the Forbidden City is (spoiler alert) perhaps the most overrated site I’ve seen so far. Ah well, sometimes it’s about the journey rather than the destination!
I headed off to the Tiananmen East subway station, presuming it would be the easiest way to access Tiananmen Square for a quick look before heading to the Forbidden City. The subway was on the wrong side of a barricaded road, so I had to settle for seeing the square from a short distance. I figured I could try again later, but I wasn’t really inspired. I missed out on tickets for the museums and had no interest in Mao Zedong’s Mausoleum (in fact neither did Mao Zedong, who desired to be cremated), so the only reason for going there would be to say that I had. So I didn’t.
After passing through a security check, we were finally allowed to stand in front of the Tiananmen Gate. There was no obvious entrance for individual travellers, only for tour groups, so I tagged myself on the end of a small group of Israeli backpackers being escorted through by an English-speaking guide. As soon as we were through, I split off from the group and went to get entry tickets and an audioguide.
Once I’d entered the complex and saw the Hall of Supreme Harmony, the “wow” kicked in. It was a truly impressive building and a terrific example of Chinese architecture. Everything else, however, paled in comparison. It was just more of the same for the next half hour – a case of “Hey, look at that building! And there’s a smaller one a lot like it. And another. And another. And an…what’s for lunch?”
A lot of the buildings did have items of interest in them, such as thrones or collected treasures. However, seeing them resulted fighting (almost literally) the crowds to get a brief glimpse. Tour groups would enter into phalanxes to cut off anybody who dared to get between them and the exhibits, whereas lone tourists were not afraid to push others hard enough that some visitors had to leave before they fainted. I’d managed to get close enough to see what looked like a throne behind a row of selfie sticks, despite a group of three Chinese tourists basically forming a rugby scrum to try and barge me out of the way.
(Note – as of the date I actually got around to uploading this entry, China was ranked 67th in the World Rugby rankings. New Zealand was first. I didn’t budge.)
I kept going, largely in the hope that there’d be something other than the Hall of Supreme Harmony worth seeing, and my patience was somewhat rewarded with the Imperial Garden. As lovely as it was, it wasn’t the same having to share it with the crowds, so I headed back to my hostel.
I was exhausted and a little crestfallen, but I didn’t regret going. Crowds are almost always going to the part of any travel experience. Even for someone like me who prefers their personal space, crowds usually aren’t enough to detract from the experience when visiting something new and exciting. The only issue is that the Forbidden City was not really all that exciting. I think I would have been just as disappointed had there been much fewer people there, although I likely would have enjoyed the garden more. However, seeing the Hall of Supreme Harmony was certainly worth it. Would I have done it if I knew what I know now? Yes, but I would have left much earlier.
I headed back to my hostel to recharge my batteries (both mental and cellular), wandered the hutong a bit more, and then headed out to catch an opera performance. I’d found two available that were largely the same price and content. However, one was held in a hotel conference room whereas the other was in a traditional guild hall. Easy choice.
Catching an opera performance really was the perfect way for me to end my trip, especially after how my morning turned out. The Great Wall and Temple of Heaven both blew me away, and parts of the Summer Palace were very special, but this was an unexpected surprise. I arrived at the theatre half an hour early, and was happy to spend most of that time just looking around. I read up on Beijing Opera on the train ride over, having committed to memory most of the symbolism that would be used during the performance. I did consider that as the performance was in Mandarin I wouldn’t be able to understand most of what was going on, but thanks to a pre-emptive explanation by the host as well as subtitles on a screen next to the stage I got the gist of it. They did two performances – one where a character in a blue mask stole the king’s horse, which involved a lot of miming, and another where a princess fought the Monkey King (yellow mask) involving a lot of stage fencing.
China was perhaps the most difficult country I’ve visited, but also one of the most rewarding. Seeing the Great Wall was alone worth the trip, but I also came away with fond memories of how crazy and lively the hutongs were. Next stop – Ukraine!