10 February 2007


Due to my excitement I spent most of Wednesday tracking Robin’s flights online. All was well and she just barely beat the inclement weather back east. I found myself wandering aimlessly around the hotel counting down the minutes to her arrival. At the airport a good hour and a half early, I passed the time by reading more Peter Hessler’s (mis)representation of modern China. I’m hoping the book gets better. After a “delicious” midnight visit to McDonalds (again, I don’t know why but whenever I’m traveling I just sort-of end up there, trying to eat the menu item that is least likely to leave me cringing three hours later) we ended up in our beds promising to stop talking back and forth until 3am. Oops!

Even on a half-nights sleep we were up bright and early ready to attack the day, or get attacked by it. Our first objective was to eat as much as possible at the breakfast which was supposed to be included with our stay. “30 kuai,” the waitress told us. I explained it was part of our booking, which led to a mini conference at the front desk which led to a verification of multiple pieces of paperwork (most of which I had never seen) which led to a discussion on who “that woman” (Robin) was as she had not given her passport to the front desk upon arrival which led to a phone call to my travel agent which led to a growing crowd of restaurant, housekeeping and front desk staff all insistent upon being in the know. Ten minutes later (it is now 9:22am and breakfast ends at 9:30am) we have been given the all clear by someone who looks a lot like Hu Jintao. Breakfast Forbidden!

A big breakfast energizing us, we hit the ATM so Robin could get some cash. Robin falls over the curb. Since she was with me her luck was completely sucked out of her, which meant the card didn’t work. Money Forbidden!

Five minutes down the road and Robin’s shoes are making her foot go numb. She’s having hot flashes as well. We decided it’s best to go back to the hotel and change shoes, as our day includes quite a bit of walking She trips on some stairs. Foot Comfort Forbidden!

It’s now past 10am and we’re finally on our way to Tian’anmen Square and the Forbidden City. Exit subway, cue “art students.” Granted, I live in Shanghai where every art student is actually a scam artist trying to steal your money, which leads me to tell all of them to leave us alone in a less-than-friendly manner. Sadly, I think I was the one at fault, because they really were art students doing a special exhibit for the New Year…Benefit of the Doubt Forbidden!

We cross the five bridges and walk through Tian’anmen Gate, passing underneath the 20-foot by 15-foot portrait of Mao (Giant Mole on Chin Forbidden!) and enter the outer-outer portion of the Forbidden City. This leads us to the ticket booth and audio-guide pick-up. The audio guide is, of course, far too complicated to understand than it should be. “The unit is a light-up map of the Forbidden City. Each light indicates a different point of interest. Red Light solid means you have not been there. Red light blinking means it is your current location. No lights means you have been there. This button is…just don’t touch it. This button is volume up. This button is volume down. This is where earphones go in. This is the strap for your neck. It only say everything once. No repeat. Ok? Ok! Enjoy your time with us. NEXT!” Simplicity Forbidden!

This is when things got creepy. I am obviously asking myself, how in the world is this contraption going to know where I am and when is this automated woman in the headphones going to shut up so I can look around? Sure enough, each time we walked into the next “zone” the devil machine (something this creepy just must be the work of the devil) began to talk about that specific area. In fact, a small GPS navigation beacon is located in each and every map-equipped, light-blinking audio tour guide that relays your coordinates to a satellite that then sends the correct command back to your unit. The lights change from solid to blinking to completely gone as the speech continues. For some reason the lights on my map look like they’re doing the wave. The signs say I’m in the Temple of Heavenly Things but the broad on the earphone is talking about The Temple of Serenity. It’s total madness!

I look at Robin. Hers is also not functioning properly. She trips over a giant gold elephant. To top it all off, the audio guide woman is rather demanding and borderline rude. “Turn around and look the other way,” she tells me. “I’m done talking right now. Go explore on your own,” she demands. “How come you never bring me flowers? Do you really love me or are you just faking it,” she pleads. Privacy Forbidden!

We spend the next four hours exploring almost every nook and cranny of this behemoth of a facility. No words or pictures can adequately describe what we’re seeing. It is the most impressive showing of power and wealth I have ever seen; over two miles deep and one mile wide and completely enclosed by a twenty-foot wall. In its peak it housed over 10,000 people, including thousands of male eunuch servants. Genitalia Forbidden!

Beverly (I named my audio tour guide) starts to lighten up and even tells a joke: “Oh yes, the Emperor had a really great life never doing what he wanted and being confined to this enormous box.” I didn’t get it either, but apparently it’s funny. Beverly was cracking up. All my red boxes are going out. It’s time to leave, but not without a stop to the Starbucks Coffee INSIDE the Forbidden City. Both the Ming and Qing Dynasty Emperors are rolling in their graves. Luckily (I mean that in a preservation sense) there is no outside signage indicating its presence. It’s just there and everybody knows, which I can’t decide makes it better or worse. Talk about incredible location. I mean, it’s atually INSIDE the Forbidden City! Lattes (Not) Forbidden!

We return our government tracking devices (codenamed angry woman audio tour) and continue back out into Tian’anmen Square, reading in our guidebook about the history of the numerous surrounding buildings. Photo-op at the People’s Monument To The Hero’s Of The People’s Republic (say that five times fast) and in front of the Socialist-Realist Art-Deco statue of the everyday man and woman looking strong, happy and proud to be poor. “Hurray” they say, “I just love eating nothing but rice. Long live Chairman Mao,” whose embalmed body encased in crystal is only available for viewing from 8:30am to 11:30am. It’s now 1pm. Creepy mummified body Forbidden!

We pass the National Parliament Building (This is an oxymoron. I mean honestly, the Parliament Building? What control or influence could they possibly exert? Representative Democracy Forbidden!) and make a pit-stop at the new and improved public toilets that are all ready for the Olympic Games. They’re free and totally spotless. Still no western toilets. Comfy Bathroom Time Forbidden!

The rest of the day was spent wandering through a hutong enjoying the enormous “everything” markets of Dazhalen and Liulichang, where I “bargained” thermal baby pajamas down to 60 kuai for Robin, citing my “final offer.” The woman pulls out her calculator, types in “45” and says “no lower.” I decide to be the gentleman and accept her price without acknowledging that I would have paid much much more. Bargaining Forbidden!

A post-dusk photo shoot of Tian’anmen and it’s surrounding area after sundown is impeded by a major Beijing summit on North Korea that is being held in the Parliament building. Ironic? I think yes. Awesome Gray Sweat Suits and Aviator Sunglasses (Not) Forbidden! I am still able to grab a great shot of Mr. Mao and I. He’s got great bone structure, yeah?

We grab a cab and head to Hard Rock Café for dinner and souvenirs. Upon arrival we learn that the entire restaurant is closed “tonight and tomorrow night for a major party.” We are forced to hail another cab and ask to be taken to Outback Steakhouse (Yes, we went to the Outback Steakhouse. Eating native foods Forbidden (for Robin!). Honestly, what restaurant anywhere else in the world closes completely for private parties? Hard Rockin’ Burger Forbidden!

And now here Robin and I are laying in bed recovering from our many blisters, aches and pains. After all, tomorrow’s agenda includes a hike along the Great Wall. Sitting Around On This Trip FORBIDDEN.

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