Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, and Food!

After 11 hours of sleeping like an absolute rock, I was ready for China Day 2! First up on the list was to head downstairs and check out the hotel’s morning buffet. The selection turned out to be extremely diverse with everything from Western eggs and sausages to Chinese steamed buns, dumplings, porridge, and potstickers, to cheese and crackers, pastries, and fruit. Seeing breakfast as the most important meal of the day, I piled my plate high with a bit of everything. Needless to say, I made multiple trips back to the buffet. And the best things were…. the potstickers! How I wish I could have potstickers for every meal of every day…

One trip to the buffet: A dumpling, potsticker, sausage, rice roll, rice porridge, and fried chip

After the satisfying indulgence, it was time to meet up with the rest of the group. Most of the other members were on the older side of the age spectrum as I was the youngest by at least 20 years :O . Age aside, we were all looking to have a great trip and discover the beauties and mysteries of China. We departed the hotel by bus for our first stop of the day, Tiananmen Square.

On the road to Tiananmen Square

After a quick security check, we were herded into the famous city square. Though there were many of people, it didn’t feel very crowded since the area was extremely wide and spacious. In the middle of the square, a huge bouquet was on display to commemorate October 1st, the national holiday for Mao’s proclamation for the founding of the People’s Republic of China.

Decoration for the October 1st National Holiday

In addition to the bouquet, in and around the square, there was the Monument to the People’s Heroes, The Great Hall of the People, the National Museum of China, a large portrait of Mao, and the Gate of Heavenly Peace that separated the square from the Forbidden City.

We were able to walk around the square on our own for a while, but there wasn’t really much to do. Our tour leader did request that we refrain from asking questions about the square’s infamous history while in the area to avoid any awkwardness and trouble with the patrolling security.

Street by Tiananmen Square

After our introduction to the square, we stopped for a lunch break and had our first group meal, a family-style assortment of different Chinese dishes. It was interesting to see people react to foods they had never seen or tasted before- the full deep-fried fish for example made a few people squeamish.

Not only was the food palette new for many, I quickly realized that there were a few courtesies and tricks I had learned growing up about eating family style that some of our fellow group members did not know.

For example:

  1. I was taught to not use your personal chopsticks to serve food from the communal plates- instead, you should use a serving utensil or even the back of your chopsticks.
  2. When serving yourself a new dish, it is considerate to take only a small portion the first time around so everyone can try a bit of the food. I saw that many of our group members tended to load up their plates such that only small morsels were left for those at the end of the line.
  3. Lastly, many people struggled with the lazy Susan in the middle of the table. They usually spun it with so much gusto that dishes would pass their intended target, or food and utensils would spill off the sides.
Hall of Supreme Harmony

Observations aside, I was happy to get some food in my belly and ready to visit our next stop, the Forbidden City once finished. We entered the city through a narrow entrance in the Gate of Heavenly Peace and, once through, saw that the area opened up to another spacious square. Multiple buildings surrounded every side and the sky gave a hazy gray backdrop to it all. The Forbidden City was described to us as a “jar city”, surrounded by two sets of gates so it would be harder to infiltrate and easier to defend. The first palaces that we saw had been restored to show their original beauty, but further in, the buildings were unmaintained to exhibit their oldness. These older buildings paled in comparison to the snazzy brightness of the kempt buildings whose facades glowed with colorful greens, blues, and gold.

Buildings in the Forbidden City

During the tour, we learned many stories about the City:

  • There were no trees in sight because the superstitious emperors feared that assassins would be able to hide in them and kill their targets more easily.
  • Water was always kept in large vats in case of a fire since all of the buildings were made of wood.
  • There were no windows built facing north because evil spirits were thought to come from the North. (Game of Thrones anyone??)
  • Finally, there are told to be 9,999 rooms inside of the city so that the Emperor could sleep in a different chamber every night. Inside of each room, there were two beds, one for the emperor and the other for a stuffed dummy- all of this to prevent assassination.
Lion statue guarding the Hall of Supreme Harmony

The city seemed to go on forever and ever. There were a total of four different sections each separated by a gate followed by another spacious square surrounded by more buildings.  Finally, we reached the northern part of the city and exited into the Imperial Garden filled with old trees, rocks that looked like coral, a neat inlaid stone path, and sculptures.

I was pretty beat by the time we exited the garden and looked forward to a quick nap at the hotel. That night, we celebrated our first full day in Beijing at a Peking duck restaurant. Peking duck is considered a specialty in the area but is usually only eaten in restaurants since most homes are too small to accommodate the oven needed to cook the dish. I was excited for the meal since Peking duck is one of my favorites at home but was a little disappointed at how it ended up tasting. The meat was dry, and instead of fluffy buns to wrap around the duck and toppings, we had a thin tortilla skin that was a bit messier and harder to eat. When the meal finished, it was time to head back to the hotel to rest up for another packed day.

Random tidbits!

  • Our guide described how much variety there is in the Chinese diet with the following saying: “Chinese people eat everything in the air that flies except airplanes, everything in the ocean that swims except submarines, and everything with four legs except tables.”
  • Yup, fortune cookies are not traditional. However, during Chinese New Year, it is customary to make 100 dumplings and fill 5 with honey dates. If you are lucky to eat one of the date dumplings, you will have a good year.

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