Inside the Forbidden City

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As I enter the Forbidden City, I have just one thought: "All this for one guy?" This place is absolutely massive. I still don't know how the emperor kept track of it all. All the names of the buildings are wonderful, but so easily confused. Pity the poor eunuch who thought that the emperor told him to report to the Hall of Supreme Harmony when he really said the Supreme Harmony Gate.

The names of the buildings are actually my favorite part. The lack of subtlety here is lovely. There's the Palace of Heavenly Purity, the Hall of Great Harmony, the Hall of Middle Harmony (whatever that is), the Imperial Supremacy Hall, and the Mental Cultivation Hall, just to name a few. From the name, I half expect to see a group of stoners standing outside the Mental Cultivation Hall.

One building is called the Hall of Gathering Excellence. I briefly consider renaming my apartment that, but my friend Peace nixes the idea. Later, when I visit Tiantan Park, we will come across the Hall of Abstinence, and she will suggest that that's what I should name my apartment instead.

Her name incidentally is well represented, as Tiananmen itself translates to "heavenly peace," and we later run across the Imperial Peace Hall. Finally, near the end, when we are starting to wear out and have seen more buildings than our minds can process, we come across the aptly titled Palace of Endlessness.

It's particularly strange to peer in at the buildings. Inside, there are beautiful, jewel-covered thrones, but often these are surrounded with layers of dust. The maintenance is uneven at best. In one spot, you will look inside at a majestic building, but only a few feet away the paint will be peeling off a pillar.

There are other strange details as well. At one point, we are shocked to walk past a Buddhist monk filming the sights with a video camera. I guess he hasn't taken his vow of poverty quite yet.

We also walk past a bathroom that is closed. A helpful sign in English proclaims, "A construction site is trouble for you, Excuse."

And, even here, capitalism seems to be alive. On one sign, we read all about the Hall of Great Harmony and then learn that it is "Funded by the American Express Foundation." Great harmony, don't leave home without it.

It's simple to get lost here. I wonder what happens when they close. It seems as if it would be easy just to pop down a side path away from everyone and spend the night camping out in the realm of the emperor.

When we are just about ready to go, we see a beautiful tower in the distance, but not for a moment do we know how to get there. It's like an oasis, always sitting there just beyond the next wall. We walk after it for about fifteen minutes. Occasionally, we seem to be getting close, but then at the last moment, our path veers off in another direction or some Hall of Groovy Harmony pops up in the way. Our map is no help, and when we reach the outer gate (the modestly dubbed Divine Military Genius Gate), we give up and decide to plunge ourselves back into modern Beijing.

We take a cab back to the dormitory, and it's a terrifying experience. Peace is impressed with the taxi driver because he takes us through all sorts of tiny side streets and gets us there in record time. I'm impressed merely because I still seem to be alive after the ride.

If you're ever looking to develop an action-packed video game, you could do much worse than Beijing Cabbie. Cyclists, pedestrians, taxis, buses, and even the occasional donkey all jockey for position on the road, and nobody ever yields. Least of all, a taxi driver. Driving in Beijing is like one giant game of chicken, and I'm just glad I'm not the one behind the wheel. It makes Boston driving seem positively serene.

At first, I expect to die, but soon I'm starting to enjoy our near collisions. It must be the jet lag. Somehow, I start to assume that I will survive. Peace, meanwhile, is completely immune to all the thrills. "You just get used to it after a while," she explains nonchalantly.

Later, Brian joins us for dinner, and I eat Beijing duck for the first time ever. A serving of Beijing duck can be quite a spectacle. Often, a restaurant will bring an entire duck to the table and carve it right there in front of you. Others will carve the duck out in back, but at least bring out the duck's head on a plate, as if to say, "See, we really did have a duck back there." The head of the duck is considered a delicacy here, but for some reason I just don't think duck brains are really going to hit the spot.

Our restaurant is decidedly low key. Our waitress simply brings over a plate of duck meat and puts it in front of us. I'm both happy and sad at this development -- sad because I'm missing out on the spectacle but happy because at least I don't have a poor little ducky head staring up at me as I digest its body.

Beijing duck is, in a word, greasy. Friends at home had warned me of this. Now, Brian informs me that the Chinese consider Americanized Beijing duck to be far too dry. It's served with scallions and rolled in pancake bread that soaks up some of the grease. I actually enjoy it at first, but after a short time I tire of all the grease.

Brian and I are the only ones to tackle the duck, as Peace happily eats a vegetarian dish. "I don't eat duck! No way!" she announces vehemently. If the duck head were at the table, I'm sure it would nod in appreciation.

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