Trying to make the most of our last days before work started, we opted to do some mid-week sight-seeing. The Forbidden City had been on the list for a while and doing it when there weren’t going to be as many people seemed a smart move. I read up on it before hand this time, not getting caught out by a lack of English signage and was a pretty good tour guide if I do say so myself. Listing off years that things happened, highlighting interesting architectural points and even throwing in some Mongolian trivia almost made up for the fact that we barely saw any of it.
Yeah, you read that right. We spent a good three hours walking around the Forbidden City and still managed to miss out on the calligraphy, the ceramics, and the Palace Museum. It’s a big complex okay? A big complex with a one-way exit policy. We left through the North Gate, not really realising that it is the official exit, and once we had left we weren’t allowed to return. The boys will probably visit again as their student ticket was only 30RMB, but foolish ol’ me left her ID in the UK and is a little too tight to dish out 60RMB twice just to see the bits I missed. Maybe next time I’m in Beijing.
It was at this point that we got a message from Sami asking where we were. He was helping out Ayodele get some footage for her vlog and had arrived maybe two hours later than the rest of us.
We sent him a message to let him know that there was absolutely no chance of finding us, as we had accidentally gone through the North gate and we weren’t allowed back in. To which dear Sami asked “What, are there exits?”
We were in creases. Of course there were exits. What he actually meant was something along the lines of ‘oh, we don’t leave through the same place where we came in?’ but it was at this point that Sami became immortalised for the phrase “I don’t know… it’s China, man!”
Once we’d established we were never going to see Sami at this rate, we headed up Prospect Hill (Jingshan Park) to get a good look at the city complex. It’s quite a peaceful place, quiet, and there’s quite a few old people just doing their own thing.
That was Thursday. I returned on Saturday with Ayodele, as she was determined to do some tourist attractions in her last weekend. She’d offered to front my ticket (or half of it), which made the idea of returning to see the bits I had missed a lot easier on the wallet. Only, things didn’t quite go as planned.
We arrived on a lovely day and joined the crowds out of the tube, but our journey began with an English-speaking Chinese man luring us into a side room to sell his calligraphy. It was alright, as far as calligraphy goes, but he was probably the least interesting artist in the room. We had no intention of buying and only went with him so as not to be impolite. On reflection, looking at his artwork and then turning him down is probably a lot ruder than ignoring a stranger on the street. Oh well.
We went back to the entrance, over the bridge and under the picture of Mao, we went through the different entrance courtyards, but the ticket office didn’t seem to be open. Maybe I’d missed it. We milled around a while but couldn’t find anywhere to buy tickets, although the place was heaving. We figured it must be free, and if it wasn’t someone would point us in the right direction, so we did as everyone else was doing and moved to enter between the guards. They stopped us.
“Where is your ticket?”
-We don’t have one.
“You need to buy a ticket.”
-Where can we get one?
“You can’t get one. You must leave.”
We watched as the guards ignored everyone else ducking between them to get to the entrance, regardless of whether they had a ticket or not. Maybe it was a Chinese-only day? We scoured the crowd for other foreigners, seeing if they had a prized ticket clutched in their hands or were just as miffed as we were. Defeated, we headed back the way we came.
“No, you can’t go this way, you must go ahead.”
Erm… what? Again, we watch as a string of Chinese people make their way past the guard yelling at us. It’s okay, turns out there’s an exit on the left in the second courtyard. That we also couldn’t get out of. We asked again, ‘where do we leave?’ and they pointed us to the main gate that’s already rejected us. Well, damn. Maybe Sami’s comment wasn’t so stupid after all. We spent a good twenty minutes trying to get out and it felt like going two steps forward and one step back each time. We resorted to waiting for the guards to be distracted, moving past as quickly as possible, only to be stopped by the next one. I really hope those other foreigners we saw had tickets, otherwise they’ll be trapped there forever.
We then proceeded to queue for another 30-40 minutes to get into the National Museum of China. This is something that could do with better direction, let me tell you. There were three queues: the first one took you up the stairs to the little plaza out front, which then has its own two queues facing opposite directions. Surmising that one must be the ticket queue and the other was not, we were further confused to see everyone had a ticket of some kind. We got on line whilst we figured it out and an overheard (but not understood) conversation in Chinese had someone pointing at tickets and moving to the other line. Okay. So it is the ticket line. Just to be sure we phoned our friend who had already passed the trials to find out there’s another door for foreigners. We found it, and actually, I’m glad as there wasn’t a queue for that one. We joined the line heading into the museum, went through security and… had to turn back. “You must get out now,” as the security lady’s ominously translated phone message told us. A camera tripod counts as a selfie stick and has to be stored in the cloakroom. With no idea where the cloakroom was and with no intention of queueing again, we played dumb until a security guard escorted us back down past all three queues to a hidden office beneath some stairs.
The museum was the first time I became aware of actual propaganda. The censorship is a little more noticeable, but proactive propaganda has only really manifested itself as a sense of civic duty. Walking around the museum, however, there was some beautiful wording, which would have made me feel like scum if it weren’t so ridiculously over the top for a government organisation:
We left around half four, with not enough time to see the Ancient China exhibitions, but with enough time to get in some last-minute gift-shopping at the pearl market. The first time we were there Ayodele was young and naïve, paying 300RMB for two dressing gowns, but this time, she was on her game. Pyjamas for her brother? 80RMB. A jacket for her father? Something like 100RMB. Two Michael Kors knock-offs and a Herschel back pack? 90RMB each. She had really upped her game in such a short amount of time – I think the indignity of the dressing gowns fuelled a rage that could only be sated by true bargaining.
I, on the other hand, needed to buy a new purse and fell victim to a nice store attendant and the glittering hope that I wouldn’t have to check every purse on every stall. It had the same layout as my purse, a similar pattern (Cath Kidston) but as soon as I over-paid for it, I regretted it instantly. I hate it. It doesn’t feel right, it’s ugly, they didn’t even bother putting a lining in it. I’m using it – my old purse is too damaged to fix – but I’m not happy about it. But oh god, is it ugly.