My plan was simple. Get to the Zǐjinchéng (The Forbidden City) right before opening. Beat the crowds and walk the empty grounds as would Puyi (the last emperor) on a morning stroll.
Of course, Puyi never took the Beijing subway. I descended the black stone steps and hit the ticket machine, with its little “English” button in the left-hand corner. Pick your destination, pop in 4 yuan (60 cents!) and a ticket drops below. Every subway stop has a bag x-ray and several dispassionate guards in one-size-fits all uniforms checking their cell phones and occassionally looking up to make sure the system is safe.
When I arrived at the Tiananmen West station, I immediately knew my plan for imperial domination had failed. I and about 30,000 other people had arrived for the first ticket of the day. The line to go through Tinanmen security went for a hundred meters.
What would Puyi do? Of course, he’d hop a eunuch uber – the mighty sedan chair, shouldered by sexless males over marble dragons to the inner court at the north of the city. I was on foot and my guidebook map told me a small park ran alongside the madding crowds. I craned my neck around the door. Yes, empty. I paid the 10 yuan and began my adventure.
Zhongzhan Park is named after revolutionary leader Sun Yat-Sen, who led the overthrow of the Ching dynasty in 1911. He became the first president of the Republic of China (still the name Tawain uses in its claim as the legitimate government of all China.) While young Puyi was allowed to remain in the Forbidden City, the outer court and the parks outside the walls were stripped of their imperial mantles. When Sun Yat-Sen died, as a refresher to the nation that Ching had ended, his body was ceremoniously put on public display in the park’s Hall of Prayer.
Are those fish? A row of 30 aquariums carved deep into the outside wall of a long colonnade read as living TV screens. Puyi does Suess. One fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish… The corridor opened to a formation of volcanic rock and cedars, deliberate, organic and beguiling all at once. I passed the gold-leafed Hall of Earth and Grain and located the path to the Forbidden City.
At the time of the revolution blood from the Boxer Rebellion had not quite dried. The anti-Christian, pro-dynasty movement a decade prior must have given the revolutionaries pause. Wary of dynastic support, the revoutionaries allowed Puyi to remain in the Forbidden City. For over a decade Puyi maintained the inner court with its private opera house, maze-like rock gardens and oversized jade statuary. Then he was kicked out.
Well, nobody was getting kicked out today. The mobs came in swells like wilderbeast on the plain. Viewed from the side, this great migration stayed in a straight swath twenty deep. Up from the south entrance to the north exit they went, without diverting to see the famous porcelain dragons or hall of clocks.
After a few hours I needed water. “Where you from?” A woman at the cafe/gift shop smiled at me. She must want me to buy stuff. “New York.” “You’d better come now, she advised, before the tourist crowds arrive so you can look at some typical Chinese watercolors. Very affordable.” Before they arrive?! Oh no!
I escaped and found my way to a quiet arrangement of buildings. The GPS-driven audio guide kicked in. “The Well of the Concubine. Empress Dowager Cixi had the Emporer’s concubine drowned in this well as enemy forces approached Beijing. Later the body was retrieved and given a proper burial…” I peered into the well and looked to my right to see an old woman dressed in purple embroidered silk. She was looking at me and when I Nihaoed her she smiled demurely and bowed her head, but only slightly. She slowly drifted away and stopped at a rose bush. She turned in my direction again, met my eyes and then looked to the ground. A few moments later she had vanished.
I walked out to the main square. The stream of tourists kept flowing. Workers carried long steel poles and dropped them hard on the hot flagstones. The clang echoed off the tile roofs above. A little boy with an ice cream and Mickey Mouse hat stood open mouthed, taking in my non-Chinese face. I remembered my grandmother: “Close your mouth, you’ll catch flies.” I smiled at the boy. He did a 180, madly looking for a parent.
Little Emperor, I thought.
I found my way to the audio guide return. I merged into the surge of exiting tourists and was swept out of through the Gate of Obedience and Purity – into a sea of selfies. A few people wanted a picture with me (Ah, fame!) Then I found a little hole in the wall restaurant in the hutong. Some teenagers were eating dinner and playfully poked fun at my few words of Mandarin. Then I went back to the hotel and hit the hay, happy to have wandered in Puyi’s house.
But tomorrow, I thought, the crew arrives and the trip will change course. Very exciting.