If you went to Washington DC on the 4th of July to visit the Washington Monument and watch the fireworks, you would expect crowds and bad traffic. So when we heard that we would be visiting Beijing on their national day, we expected crowds and bad traffic. We wanted to see the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, the Great Wall and perhaps do a little shopping. Regrettably, the port of Xiangang, which our captain fondly refered to as "zin, gang, walla walla bing bang," was three hours drive from the central city and the Great Wall so we couldn't do it all. We chose the tour that visited the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square. What we didn't factor in was the huge population of this most populous of countries and the fact that their tradition is to celebrate the national day by visiting the same two spots we were about to visit.
It was raining hard for the first time on this cruise when we climbed on to the tour bus. Our driver immediately proceeded to get lost. Doing U turns on a busy street that is submerged under water is time consuming. Driving around the same block over and over lurching from side to side on the uneven pavement was also time consuming. Finally we got on the expressway and the driver put the pedal to the floor and we went 80mph much of the way. It appeared that expressways are fairly new in China and there are no conventions like slower vehicles stay to the right. We bobbed and wove. Occasionally, impatient drivers or those who felt they were about to be mowed over, used the shoulder as well. The countryside was not attractive. We past some farms and fish ponds, but mostly saw green emptiness. The potty stop at a rest area was a welcome, but unwelcome stop. The smell met us at the door. Old arthritic knees are not happy when using an eastern style toilet - we call them squat pots. Only the handicapped stalls feature the porcelain thrones we expect.
Once we reached the Beijing outskirts, the traffic continued to flow quite well. Our guide said that it is usually gridlocked with people going to work, but this was a holiday. Most of the buildings we passed were huge and modern looking. Our guide said the crane is the national bird - she was referring to the construction cranes which were in view from all sides.
We turned onto the street that goes to the Forbidden City. Our guide said it traverses all of Beijing and is 25 miles long. We began to see lots of people walking in the same direction. Then lots more people walking in the same direction. Then even more people walking in the same direction. They were proceeding at a much rapider pace than our bus. Our lunch stop was at the gates of the Forbidden City and was traditional. Ten of us sat ar a round table with a lazy susan in the middle and practiced with the chopsticks. Waiters brought dish after dish and we twirled them around to sample them all. Guessing what was in each dish provoked animated conversation.
Finally it was time to see the Forbidden City; we were thrilled. This huge complex was the residence of the Chinese emperors for thousands of years. Each one added to the complex which appeared to extend six blocks in each direction. Because it is so large, it was able to accommodate thousands and thousands of Chinese wandering around inside as well as our little tour group struggling to keep our guide in sight. The people did not appear to have an agenda. They wandered around aimlessly chatting and snacking. I learned very little on this tour. It was impossible to take photographs and listen at the same time and we moved quickly. After a beeline walk from the north gate to the south gate, we waited for the bus to take us to Tiananmen Square. The crowds grew even thicker. People appeared relaxed and friendly. Family groups, herds of young friends, couples holding hands, old people hobbling along with canes - EVERYBODY was here. As we neared the square, which was packed with black heads from one side to the other, our guide announced that there would be no time to get off and see the square. We were so frustrated. As the walkers flowed into the square, we rounded the corner and the street cleared and our driver zoomed away. We howled in protest, but it made no difference.
We cranked up our Ipods and settled in for the three hour ride back. Because most of our fellow passengers arrived today for this leg of the cruise, we all had to go through immigration and passport check. This is a chore the Chinese take very seriously. The long lines moved at a glacial pace. The captain also had trouble getting permission from the local authorities to sail away. A very frustrating day.