Going to Beijing and not seeing The Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square would be like going to the Emerald Coast of Florida and not going to the beach. So naturally our "23 Big Noses" visited many sites in Beijing but most certainly these two.
Everyone has seen photos of The Forbidden City (see the film, “The LastEmperor of China” if possible), but how many know why there is such a barren space in front of the major edifice? I do not think anyone in our group had heard before, but the reason was very simple for an emperor/total dictator: Being surrounded by trees would afford coverage for would-be assassins or others intent on harm.
Additionally, trees would lend themselves to fires. As the royal buildings were of wood, all precautions were taken to protect this hallowed compound. There were many huge cauldrons that were used to hold water; underneath these were places for fire. So the cauldrons served two purposes, to put out fires should they occur and to provide warm water for the emperor, his family, closest security, and his numerous concubines.
As one would imagine, the Forbidden City compound was enormous, consisting of many, many buildings.
We saw all that we could then went to the infamous Tiananmen Square. It is guarded by Tiananmen Gate — ironically, the name meaning Gate of Heavenly Peace.
That is hardly appropriate when one considers what began there the night of June 4, 1989, when hundreds, then thousands, of Chinese — mostly youths — began to protest various Chinese government stances. I have a special interest as my older daughter who was going around the world with a friend was in the square the night it all began.
Today the Chinese government calls the atrocities that commenced that night the “June Fourth Incident,” noting it was a “counterrevolutionary riot,” but historians estimate “hundreds to thousands” were killed. Needless to say, my daughter and friend fled the area and fled Beijing the next morning. She had seen small protests in the U.S. but what she witnessed in Tiananmen Square has left a not-to-be forgotten scar.
From Beijing, we flew to Luoyang, a city made famous by the hundreds of grottos filled with statues of Buddha, dating to 1,500 years ago — different Buddhas … even female Buddhas. I have been doing a bit of study of Buddhism but my knowledge is so shallow, I had no idea there was more than one Buddha, much less female ones.
The grottos were carved into high rock cliffs. Throughout the centuries, peasants have lived in them, and many caves are missing their statues. Often, if the statues still remain, the heads are gone as they have brought prices that would sustain families who had nothing else. Now it is well preserved but climbing to see them proved most challenging — even to a former athlete.
Climbing up was a bit easier than climbing down. At one point, where one could ascend to the highest grotto, I thought I would just rest my knees which had begun to scream. But when I saw my 82-year-old sister halfway up the steep stairs, I felt compelled to meet the challenge. As one might imagine, the climb was rewarded with up close views of Buddha after Buddha, a sight not to be missed when in China.
While in Luoyang, we had one of our more delightful experiences.
We visited a middle school in a rural area; we were treated to several classrooms of 13- and 14-year-old students who are studying English. Each of us could pick any student at random and speak English with her/him. I chose a shy, somewhat skinny 13-year-old girl, LiLi. United States public school students would be amazed — no shocked — to learn that LiLi had arrived at school at 7 a.m. and would be there until 6 p.m. Her English, though halting, was understandable and, with effort, she could follow what I was saying.
She also noted that after school, her favorite time was spent playing table tennis, or ping pong. Seeing the tenacity of these students in their school, it was easy to understand that they most likely would behave accordingly at their sports. Thus they usually are the ping pong champions in the world arena.
The next day, we entered the city of Xi’an, home of the unbelievable terra cotta warriors. This site is exceedingly difficult to describe for how can one explain seeing 7,000 life-sized terra cotta figures, with an unknown number yet to be uncovered. Excavating continues as tourists observe from a high platform surrounding what has been exposed thus far.
Most of us had been told the warriors were carved exactly like the persons they represented in real life but our local guide corrected this, explaining that the numerous artists carved images of one another. There are also carved horses, war chariots, and other war paraphernalia an emperor’s army would have. After all, they were there to protect the Qin Emperor when he was buried 2,000 years ago.
After two days in Xi’an, each of us took our “high altitude” pills to prepare for our morning entry into Tibet.
More to follow.
Carrie Nelle Moye is a Santa Rosa Beach resident and former foreign correspondent in the Middle East. She recently visited China and Tibet to continue her quest to see as much of the world as she can, "as that is the best learning experience ever."