After the previous day’s late night, the promise of a sleep-in sounded really good. Unfortunately, sleeping in while visiting Beijing isn’t likely to happen, and when I ventured down into the lobby in the morning, the team was ready and waiting for their trip to Tienanmen Square and the Forbidden City.
Upon arrival at Tienanmen Square, the team was rather disappointed to say the least. From the group’s entry point, the Square itself was rather underwhelming and was dominated by a massive building that housed the embalmed remains of Mao (for those keen on seeing dead people, the body apparently is so well preserved that it looks like Mao is just having a nap). Moreover, there was an obvious absence of parading soldiers and screaming officers, something essential to any Western depiction of a communist country. However, we need not have worried too much, as when we ventured past Mao’s resting place and entered the front of the square, we saw an area that was both impressive and on a grand scale – and also had one or two guards thrown into the mix.
The massive square is set out in front of the Forbidden City, and is flanked by the Chinese National Museum and the Great Hall of the People. Both buildings are absolutely monumental in their scale. From a distance, neither building looks particularly large, but when one crosses the square to stand in front of them, their sheer size is revealed. Rather than performing any compensatory function, the Chinese socialists have a ‘big is better’ ideal and building on this scale is believed to emphasise the importance and longevity of the ideal. The square itself was first established in the 17th Century and over the years has been expanded several times. Following the 1950s, the final expansions were completed and the square can accommodate up to 600,000 joyfully happy people.
From the square, the group then traipsed north to the entrance of the Forbidden City. The city covers over 180 acres and was built in 1420, with a total of 9,999 and a half rooms (unbelievably, they ran out of bricks and the last room has been largely forgotten). The city is incredible and its architecture and design is unparalleled in the world. It is recognised as both a UNESCO Heritage Site as well as a Chinese National Treasure, right up there with Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee.
Exploring the place required some decent footwear and patience as crowds flocked lice ants all over the place. Our students, wearing their bright blue shirts, scattered like the aforementioned ants through the various courts and probed the immaculate gates. The group spent most of the morning exploring, and didn’t even see a quarter of the city. We, the teachers, were very thankful to our guide, Happy, who kept the boys moving and on time. By the end of the morning our feet were so sore that most of us were wishing for a foot massage, but our itinerary had other plans, and it was less a case of Happy Feet, and more a case of grin and bear it.
Immediately after our visit to the Forbidden Palace and lunch, we were taken to the Hanban/Confucius Institute Headquarters in Beijing. Here the boys performed a haka as a way of thanking the Institute for all the work they had done for us.
Following a few quick speeches and obligatory photographs, we were then given free reign through the Institute’s museum and education space. This interactive and informative place was easily the best maintained and enjoyable museum experience encountered by the boys and staff. Interactive media allowed the boys to dress as women, play badly strung instruments, and hit a bell set with about as much musical talent as a fingerless pianist. The exhibits were also clean, easily viewable, and the interactive electronics actually worked! All had a fantastic time and just as everyone began to run out of steam, we were again ushered into the bus for a trip to the Hutong.
The Hutong are the old neighbourhoods in Beijing and their narrow streets and quant brickwork hark back to an older China. However, inside the buildings is a world that is anything but old. As a major tourist site, the Hutong bustles with modern cafes, trinket and souvenir stores, and just about anything else you could care to imagine. Set against a meandering river that joins two lakes, it was a beautiful spot and the boys launched into another round of exploring and adventuring. Meanwhile, the geriatric teacher posse immediately headed west and found, and I kid you not, a cat café.
The cat café is either a dream come true for feline fanatics, or a potential nightmare for anyone with hygiene issues. The coffee (which was served with pictures of cat’s paws and faces on the foam) was surprisingly nice, but was served on tables that cats leisurely strolled across and cleaned themselves on. The café was essentially a place where you could go to hide from annoying pet allergy people, or a place to take pet allergy people to see them succumb to anaphylactic shock.
Finally, after another long day, we sleepily made our way back to the hotel for a duck dinner that went down extremely well. Unfortunately, a little too well for one boy who gorged on the skin and who later discovered that rich foods are better eaten in moderation. Fortunately, he was able to sleep it off and join the team the following day as we braved the Great Wall and a long standing record.