Beijing is an iconic world city, even before it hosted one of the most spectacular and expensive Olympic Games in history. It is the political centre of the fastest growing economy in the world, and the centre of this huge city of 19 million people and 6 ring roads, is the famous Tiananmen square.
The largest public square in the world at 440,000 square meters, it can hold over a million people, and it is surrounded by buildings simply oozing in the communist style favoured by the Soviets. Within the square is another mausoleum containing another preserved communist leader (what is it with communists and feeling the need to ignore peoples wishes and putting them in display?) but we decide that the early start and long queues are not worth it for a second time on this trip.
Government buildings surrounding the square are limited in terms of height, to prevent them from dwarfing the perceived importance of the main structure that is accessed from the square, The Forbidden City.
A large walled palace, 900 by 800 metres surrounded by a 52 metre wide moat, was the home to last 26 Chinese Emperors who each added to and imposed some of their own style to the place. Paranoia must have been something they suffered from as it’s reported that the cobbled floor inside the walls is made from some 15 layers of bricks laid on top of each other to prevent anyone tunneling in.
Walking round you see ceremonial halls, once used for important meetings with foreign dignitaries but now housing museum displayed of the famous china vases across all the dynasties. We also notice that we ourselves are a bit of a tourist attraction, and you see people staring, doing double-takes and covertly taking photographs of us. Pale westerners are clearly an interesting sight.
At the back of the city you can walk up a hill to a viewpoint to get a real sense of the whole area, which feels more ceremonial and less like a traditional city due to layout and centre based upon the square and old palace. Sadly you also get to see of one of one of the more infamous aspects of this Beijing, the smog.
In most places in the world today would be a beautifully clear day, with the yellow sun shining brightly in a clear blue sky, but Beijing has a pollution problem. Particulate levels reach levels that are 8x the limits set by the World Health Organisation, and the consequence is that what we see instead is a hazy blurry smudge in the sky where the sun should be.
It explains the numbers of people that we have seen walking round with masks in an attempt to protect themselves, whilst the government try to take measures to combat it. This includes restricting car purchases (both new and second hand) by means of a quota that is distributed by means of a lottery, meaning that people have the money but may not be able to buys car for a few years until they are selected. Despite this Beijing has a far higher percentage of cars than any other Asian city we have seen so far and it is hard to see it changing in the near future.