Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Saturday 12th October - The Forbidden City and fond farewells

Having arrived back from the Wall by 2.30pm we had just enough time to do a quick tour of the main palaces of the forbidden city. The place was teeming with tourists, very different from this morning's quiet solitude on the Wall. But we dutifully queued up for our quite reasonably priced tickets and elbowed our way through the throngs to look at one beautiful c16th palace after another. Most seem to have been built or rebuild in the 1560s, whilst the last Henry was on our throne and Shakespeare was being born.

It was interesting to see the huge portrait of Chairman Mao at Tian'anmen square hanging on the first of the gatehouses that lead to the Forbidden City. The man is still revered by a large portion of the population, and the official line is very much that he was a great leader, architect of The Great Leap Forward. However, there's an undeniable weight of evidence, much of it newly emerged, that the totalitarian implementation of the plan, the brutal violence enforced by indoctrinated locals at a local level, and the culture of fear and secrecy by which it was allowed to continue long after failing its people, caused the death of 35-45 million people between '58 and '62, mostly through starvation, but many through forced labour, brutality and torture. This may not have had the same character as the hateful malevolent whirlwinds of the Khmer Rouge or the Rwandan genocides, but nevertheless the regime either turned a blind eye to this unprecedented man-made disaster, pushing pitilessly forward despite widespread and extreme drought; or unflinchingly regarded it as an unfortunate but necessary price to pay for catching up with the west. Looking at the census, the population of China in 1960 was 682m, a year later it was 658m. [For more info read Mao's Great Famine: The History of China's Most Devastating Catastrophe, by F Dikotter].

To be honest it was a little bit hectic in The Forbidden City, and we were in too much of a hurry to take in the full meaning of this vast citadel, the seat of power in imperial China for four centuries. And besides, we had some fond farewells to make.

After two wonderful weeks across Russia, Mongolia and China, it was now time to say goodbye to brother Will & wife Sophie. Anna & I have hijacked their seven month honeymoon for quite long enough and we're parting company as they head to Bangkok and onwards while I see a little more of China and Anna returns to the UK.

Hugs and group photos and words of advice and then its goodbye. And then half an hour later, another goodbye in the imperial gardens on the north side. And then an hour later, having walked back to the hostel, and while we await a taxi, Will & Phie also arrive back, so a third and final farewell. That's quite enough now please.

For the next two nights Anna & I are living the high life at the Kerry (shangri-la) Hotel out east in the business district, surrounded by modern skyscrapers. 

The chef at the Kerry has spent the last thirty years perfecting his Peking Duck, and so it is. Not just the peking duck, but the sea whelks, the chile beef, the peanut chicken, and duck soup and the honey pears. We eat like Khublai Khan and leave bloated but happy for our room on the nineteenth floor, comfortably high above this sprawling city of 20 million.

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