Day 5: Tiananmen Square, Imperial Palace, Temple of Heaven

Written by Godwin Leung

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Navigating through a sea of people was no easy task, but we managed.

Even though it was my fifth day on the 2013 Mon Sheong Discover China trip, Beijing still held me firmly with wonder (and sheer bewilderment). If there was one adjective I could use to describe the capital of China, I would use the word “big”. Everything was “big”. Gargantuan eight-lane highways serve as arteries for the giant metropolis.  Towering skyscrapers seem to spring up from nowhere overnight, dotting the landscape like concrete, steel, and glass beehives. Millions of people from all walks of life, each with a story to tell, negotiate the organized chaos (and horrendous traffic) on a daily basis. However, near the end of my fifth day, I found that the adjective “big” would not suffice. “Big” became an understatement, after I visited one of the world’s largest public gathering places: Tiananmen Square.

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The majesty of Tiananmen Square and Tiananmen Gate took us by surprise.

For the uninitiated, Tiananmen Square is the world’s fourth largest public square. Measuring 880 meters by 500 meters (440000m2 or 109 acres), the square can accommodate over 600,000 people. To put the size of the square in perspective, one could fit 1,011 NBA regulation basketball courts or 62 FIFA regulation soccer pitches inside its area. Tiananmen Square was built in 1651, during the Ming dynasty; the square was also enlarged several times throughout the 1950s. A unique aspect about Tiananmen Square is that the square itself is flanked by all directions with prominent buildings. North of the square lies Tiananmen Gate (“Gate of Heavenly Peace”), the first of many entryways that lead to the inner sanctum of the Forbidden Palace (the gate lends its name to the square). The National Museum of China, a sprawling complex that houses over one million precious Chinese artifacts sits on the east side of the square. In the west, the Great Hall of the People (equivalent to Canada’s Parliament building in Ottawa) is used by the Chinese government for ceremonial and legislative activities. Mao Zedong’s Mausoleum lies to the south of the square, the illustrious leader’s final resting place after his death in 1976 (complete with his embalmed remains on a viewing platform to satisfy his throngs of devout worshippers).  Also to the south, in front of Mao’s Mausoleum, stands the Monument to the People’s Heroes, a 10 story obelisk that commemorates the martyrdom of Chinese heroes. Oh, and did I mention that all these buildings are colossal in size?  This is what makes Tiananmen Square special; one feels dwarfed and almost insignificant when standing amidst these magnificent structures.

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The Chinese flag flies high in the square.

Our exuberant Discover participants began the day with a hearty breakfast. Afterwards, we headed towards Tiananmen Square riding on our tour bus. As we approached the square, it was obviously clear from the traffic that we were expecting a big crowd; it was a Saturday and many families were visiting the square. As we stepped off our tour bus, we were hit with a cacophony of noise. Tour guides spoke loudly through their microphones, meticulously explaining to their clients the directions to the square. Hawkers bellowed the prices of their goods: funky umbrella hats, Chinese flags, cold refreshing snacks, and commemorative souvenirs. Animated families spoke with enthusiasm as they approached the massive square. We closely followed Cherry, our national tour guide, towards the square as well. Trying to navigate a literal sea of people is a difficult task, but our exhilaration overcame any hint of claustrophobia. We were heading towards the heart of the capital, and we couldn’t wait take in the sights.

Upon entering the square, we were held breathless. Movies and photos do not do any justice; the square itself was larger than I had imagined. On top of that, thousands of people milled about the square, taking pictures and appreciating the utter vastness of the open space. We separated for a while to take a gander of our own, before heading towards Tiananmen Gate. While we did not spend a lot of time in the square nor did we visit the insides of the famous buildings, we were still struck by the enormity of the experience.

With the Forbidden City looming in the distance, Cherry steered our group into an underground passage that allowed us to bypass Chang’ An Boulevard (the main street that passes across the gate). When we stepped out into daylight, we saw Tiananmen Gate in its full glory. The imposing building hosts two stone lions in the front (lions protected humans from evil spirits in Chinese culture).  Two stone columns (“Cloud Pillars”) with intricate dragon designs flank the entrance of the gate. The tower itself, with its double-eaved roof, sat on top of a 10 meter high brick platform with five arched gateways. We navigated through the crowds of tourists and entered the Forbidden City through one of the main gates.

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The gents strike a pose in a courtyard of the Forbidden City

Once again, our knowledge of the Imperial Palace only comes from photos and historical Chinese movies. In comparison, the actual palace was much grander. We walked past multiple gates and stepped into many different courtyards while appreciating the grandiose designs that the Ming and Qing dynasty had to offer.  Cherry expertly explained to us the significance of the buildings; we also saw the emperor’s sleeping quarters and his offices as well. By the time we were finished, the whole lot of us were exhausted from trekking through the city. We had a quick lunch before taking a well-deserved detour at the famous Wangfujing Shopping Street. A group of us tried our hand at some Chinese snacks, such as deep fried scorpions and grilled squid. Others perused the myriad of Chinese retail outlets, fashion stores, and specialty shops. I took to the time venture into Beijing’s first department store where shops offered valuable import brands that catered to the rising middle and upper class in China.

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Beijing’s First Department Store

Our last destination of the day was the Temple of Heaven. Located in the south-eastern part of Beijing, the temple was visited by emperors from the Ming and Qing dynasties, who performed religious rites and ceremonies (e.g. a rite for a good harvest). We toured the temple, admiring the Hall of Prayer and Good Harvest as well as the Circular Mound Altar. Many of us even jostled for a chance to take a photo of ourselves standing on top of the altar; we learned how pushy some people can be in this country. Nearing the end of the day, we ate dinner and retreated to the relative comfort of our hotel.

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The Hall of Good Harvest at the Temple of Heaven complex

Seeing Tiananmen Square, the Imperial Palace, and the Temple of heaven up close and personal is a once in a lifetime experience, and I am glad that I got to live through this day. I am also thankful that Mon Sheong helped many of us intrepid youth undergo this life-changing experience by subsidizing this amazing trip. With many more days to go, I am ecstatic to be part of this 2013 Discover China experience. I can’t wait to visit Xian, Shandong Province, and Shanghai. Thank you Mon Sheong foundation and happy trails!

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