Hope Dinner 2013

Well, it seems that my blog has now, mysteriously, become inaccessible. I was sure I didn’t say anything too controversial about the Chinese but, who knows…I can’t actually access it to find out. I am reduced to writing in Word and transferring when I reach the freedom of the West…or if they let me back in.

Anyway, today we went to the Forbidden City. A truly extraordinary place. Imagine over 200 acres without a blade of grass and a stultifying adherence to symmetry, symbolism and minute ceremony, and you just about have it. I should add that the pollution blew away sometime during the night and we had bright sunshine all day.

We didn't, exactly, have the place to ourselves

We didn’t, exactly, have the place to ourselves

But, back to the Forbidden City…Okay, there’s a lot of beauty here but the overall impression is one of distaste for a culture that could enslave its population and house its emperor in such massive splendour. Mind you, for all that, I bet he was pretty lonely at times. Ignoring the time he spent with his thousands of concubines, of course.

There’s so much I could write about the Forbidden City that it would make this blog far too long and boring. Suffice it to say, it is pretty amazing and pretty crowded. Fortunately, it’s also massive so the crowds sort of dissipate somewhat.

My favourite bits of the Forbidden City concern the wonderfully extravagant Dowager Empress Ci Xi. Talk about taking the piss. She was brilliant. When she was 60 and living in the Hall of Preserved Elegance, she would take her meals in the Hall of Bodily Integrity. Clearly she was a bit fussy when it came to her meals. She had 400 kitchen staff. That was just for her! I mean, seriously? I’m assuming there was one person who held a pinch of salt and another for the pepper.

When her meals were served, dozens of individual dishes would be prepared. Each one would be passed beneath her nose and when she spotted one she fancied, she’d nod. Meanwhile four eunuchs would clasp their hands beside and behind her. The food she rejected would be distributed to the concubines and other palace staff.

On her 50th birthday, there were performances of her favourite plays going on continuously, round the clock for two weeks. See what you can achieve if you really, really want it?

Something weird about the City is that there are no chimneys. Which, of course, begs the question, how did they keep warm in the winter? They had under floor heating…of course.

I have been admiring the little figures on the eaves of the roofs on most ancient buildings in Beijing and the ones in the Forbidden City are no different. Though, apparently, in order to have a full set of 11, you had to be the emperor.

eaves creatures

Of course, there’s a system to these little figures. The chap at the front is an immortal and he’s sitting on a phoenix. Following behind is another phoenix, then a dragon, oxen, monkey, insect, lion, sea horse, turtle, and a winged horse…not necessarily in that order. They are very cute. We wanted to buy a couple for the office but the gift shop only sells tiny ones which would only look great on a Barbie house.

The city was started in 1407 and completed 14 years later in 1420. It covers 720,000 square metres of land. Apparently it took one million workers to build it all and it was pretty much like hard labour. In winter, it wasn’t so bad because they would pour water on the roads in order to form ice so they could move the big blocks of stone. It sounds horrid and hardly an existence. I bet there wasn’t a lot of happiness among the builders.

254_forbid city

It’s one of those places that makes you gasp with the enormity of it, the beauty and the ingenuity but it also gives you a feeling of great sadness for those that slaved over it only to be banned from actually ever visiting it. There’s a reason it’s called the Forbidden City. No-one from normal society was even allowed over the moat, let alone into the city itself. It’s quite wonderful that it’s now full of everyone and anyone. It’s a strange but glorious justice that the Chinese have no problem with spitting and they do it here with as much abandon as anywhere else in Beijing. Nice one.

Anyway, as tourist destinations go, I’m glad I’ve seen it. And, given we didn’t see everything, I might have to go back.

And to finish off our day perfectly, we had our annual Hope and Gratitude Dinner. We decided to have it upstairs in the hotel restaurant. There is something deliciously odd about a traditional Chinese green tea tiramisu.

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