Sometimes wanting something is better than getting it. Steph once told me that there are times when she enjoys anticipating something as much or more than actually doing it. At the time, I fundamentally didn’t understand how that could be possible—I’ve always been the type of person who lives for the moment, I am the grasshopper to her ant.
After we visited the Forbidden City, I understood.
In some sense anticipation can be a cruel trick we play on ourselves. It’s rare that anything is as good as we expect, and sometimes not only are our expectations not met, but they can completely thwart any enjoyment of what we were so desperate to get. The problem is that, as soon as we decide to do something, we begin to anticipate it, and the longer we anticipate it the wider the field our imagination has to run free in. Herein lies one of the difficulties of travel that Beijing introduced me to: what to do when your expectations are not only wrong, but you’re left with something you expected to like, but don’t.
As a traveller it’s sometimes easy to fall into the trap of believing that the time and effort it takes to see the things we do should automatically make those things enjoyable, or at the very least worthwhile. There is always this sense floating around that if you don’t like what you’ve come so far to see, somehow you’re missing something.
Sometimes that just isn’t true.
I didn’t like the Forbidden City, and I really thought I would. Everything I read — all the pictures I saw, the people I talked to — everything made me believe that I would buckle under the weight of its glory. It was supposed to be the sparkle in the jewel in the crown of China. I had traveled halfway around the world, but as I stood at the gates of this massive complex I felt only a slow, stifling disappointment.
The entrance to the city certainly appears grand. The walls rise high into the sky, with battlements and ancient roofs hanging over the edges, all very impressive from a distance. As you can see in this post, the place is wonderfully photogenic, but mostly this is because photos never quite manage to capture all the details that come together to make the place so unappealing in person, especially as you get closer.
As we wandered through courtyard after courtyard, up stairs and down stairs, across bridges and under sloping roofs, everything began to blend together. The details were mostly the same: poorly done “restoration” work, sloppy painting, cheap materials — all obscuring the original craftsmanship and falling into disrepair almost as soon as the work crews abandoned them. Like a bad picture that is slightly out of focus, nothing looked quite right, as though we were walking through a cheap amusement park.
Every now and then we would find something ancient and beautiful, and seeing it in context was a shocking display of just how much has been lost to negligence and neglect. What remained felt derelict and was clearly a shadow of its former glory. The few remaining truly beautiful works were either very well protected or sufficiently out of the way to be overlooked by the restoration crews, or worse, the locust-like throngs of Chinese tourists.
Chinese tourists. Perhaps the only force that is more destructive than the clumsy restoration teams is the Chinese people themselves. Everywhere we looked we saw people tugging at pieces of the buildings, trying to pry open urns, and scratching the finish off of artifacts. At one point I watched a small Chinese boy run over to a section of the marble stair-railing, take up a small stone and begin to scratch, leaving awful gray marks on a white marble finial. He turned his head toward me and as we made eye contact, I slowly shook my head no, as scornfully as I could. He hid his face and scampered off, seemingly aware that he shouldn’t be doing what he was doing, or at least frightened enough of the giant white man to stop being destructive. All this in full, disinterested, view of his parents.
We made our way to the garden at the rear of the complex hoping for a breath of fresh air. There were no fewer people, but to our relief this area managed to be fairly nicely done, if haggard. Near the entrance of the garden there is a building that sits atop a jumble of very interesting stone that takes the appearance of spidery roots. The woven stone façade is fascinating, and apparently its allure was too much for many of the Chinese tourists. We watched, horrified, as one after another they climbed up onto little niches in the stone, atop an urn, really anywhere they could get purchase, including over and around the many signs begging them not to climb on their precious history. A lone security guard attempted to keep the legions of little old women off the rocks, but all he was rewarded with was backtalk. As I watched, all I could think of was a sea of people crashing like waves on the coastline of the Forbidden City, slowly turning everything into sand.
We had seen enough. After little more than an hour in the Forbidden City we made for the back door and quietly left, utterly depressed and dismayed by the shit-show we had just witnessed. Maybe we were there on a bad day (certainly it was a bad choice to visit on the weekend!). Maybe the tour buses from the random part of China that thinks preserving its own history is for suckers all came at once and the respectful people stayed home, I don’t know. Whatever the case may be, the disregard for what China lauds as its most famous cultural landmark was rampant and paired with the disgraceful upkeep of the place, that flamboyant disrespect was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
I really wanted to like the Forbidden City. In fact, I was desperate to like it. Beijing had been such a cultural shock to my system that I needed somethingto help ease me into our time in China, even just a little. The unfortunate thing is that I still think I could have gained more appreciation for the Forbidden City had it not been for the people that day. Adding the thoughtless way in which the tourists destroyed and flagrantly disrespected their own history to the casual way in which the custodial efforts spread decay and ruin was just more than I could bear.
This is not to say that I am casting aspersion on all the people of China, or even most of them. I am sure that there were respectful tourists there that day as well, but I think of it like a car crash: everyone watching the crash will remember the crash itself, but they are unlikely to remember the cars the passed by before or after the wreck. I am sure there were horrified Chinese people there that day watching, like me, the careless tourists slowly grind their heritage into powder, but we all only saw the wreckage, not each other. I think that there are good people everywhere, and to some extent people are people everywhere you go, but in a country of over one billion people sometimes it gets really hard to avoid the bad ones, and this is only heightened by strong cultural differences.
It’s safe to say I didn’t find what I was looking for that day at the Forbidden City. I sometimes wonder if what I was looking for was ever there, and resign myself to the fact that I will never know. What I do know is that if things keep on the way they were the day I was there, then soon enough there won’t be much of anything left, good or bad, and all the expectations in the world won’t mean a thing. I honestly hope this doesn’t happen, but I can’t say I ever want to come back to find out either way.