The Foreboding City

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.

One of many lions
One of many lions

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.

The view from the entrance
The view from the entrance

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.

The people
The people

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.

Some detail work
Some detail work. All of the paint work looks just like this everywhere on the grounds. It’s clearly mass-produced and of low quality.

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.

Weedy roofs
Weedy roofs. From what I understand, nothing goes more than 10 years without restoration. This is a pretty disturbing amount of decay in less than 10 years.

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 something to 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.

Getting the picture
Getting the picture

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15 comments Leave a comment

  1. Wow! That would sadden me too. You know, for all my interest in seeing most of the world, mainland China is towards the bottom of my list. I hope your time there got better! And I’m very curious to see what you make of India, which I’m simultaneously terrified of and entranced by. 😉

    Jan. 2 2013 @ 1:22 pm
    1. Eva author

      Mainland China was… interesting. You’ll see as we write more just what I mean by that, but suffice to say it got better and worse, not that that makes any sense. We are also of two minds about India, still very much on the fence there.

      Jan. 3 2013 @ 10:07 am
  2. Tony, you are right in saying that often what we are going to see will not meet our expectations, it happens a lot to me too.
    The best will be not having any expectations not to be disappointed afterwards, but I guess wanting to see something so badly is what makes you go there in the first place.
    As a traveler like you, I’m learning that there is nothing bad in not liking something, it will always give you something to talk about even if not in an appreciative way,

    Jan. 3 2013 @ 1:46 am
    1. Franca author

      Yeah, sometimes the bad experiences make for the best stories, as we both know 🙂 Just because I don’t like something doesn’t mean I don’t grow from the experience, and a bad time somewhere will never dampen my enthusiasm for travel!

      Jan. 3 2013 @ 10:09 am
  3. Wow, I’m really shocked to hear about the behaviour of those tourists. Have you noticed similar behaviour at other attractions in China? It particularly annoys me to see parents letting their children get away with stuff like this; recently I was walking around the 7/7 memorial in London and was appalled to see kids playing in and on the memorial – in full view of their parents. I know they’re only kids and maybe it’s just me, but I found this really disrespectful – had I been their parents I would have told them to stop. As always, great insightful post.

    Jan. 3 2013 @ 4:21 am
    1. Amy author

      Thanks so much! Yes we have certainly noticed this behavior other places, and other countries. As we move through SE Asia we notice more and more tourists behaving similarly to what we saw in mainland China and we usually exchange some knowing glances while we cringe at appalling behavior.

      Jan. 3 2013 @ 10:12 am
  4. Your photos look as though you actually went on a quiet day. When I went it was so busy that it was actually hard to move. I didn’t really get close enough to anything to be able to see the sad destruction you describe.

    Jan. 4 2013 @ 2:56 am
    1. Jackie (Farm Lane Books) author

      Yeah, we’re pretty sure it was quiet. I doubt we would have lasted more than a few minutes had it been busier!

      Jan. 9 2013 @ 4:02 am
  5. I couldn’t agree more with your experiences in Beijing and the Forbidden City, it is overrun by people and seems pretty soul-less. Both Beijing and Xian were our least favorite places in the country, try to get out to Pingyao, Datong and Yunnan, these are way more fun, interesting, and chill.

    Jan. 6 2013 @ 6:47 am
    1. Matt @ author

      Glad to hear you felt the same way about Beijing. We actually really liked Xian a lot, hated Pingyao and felt that the caves in Datong were easily worthy of enduring Datong itself. Obviously, all this and more will appear soon enough! Thanks for reading!

      Jan. 9 2013 @ 4:07 am
  6. That’s such an accurate description of how Chinese tourists behave. They are honestly the worst beings on earth. I’ve despised them for their behavior everywhere I’ve seen them. I feel really strongly about this 🙂

    We’ve visited the Panda Sanctuary in Chengdu. There were since there everywhere, in Chinese as well as English, telling you, quite seriously, not to shout or do anything that could harm the panda’s. Yet, the damn Chinese would shout at them, throw stuff at them, everything they could think of to get them to move. I think I stepped on the toes of several Chinese ‘by accident’ that day. Panda’s are cool though 🙂

    Feb. 28 2013 @ 7:35 am
    1. Nick Rutten

      I’ve made a typo, in my second paragraph ‘since’ should be ‘signs’. I was starting to get aggravated by China again 🙂

      Feb. 28 2013 @ 7:36 am
  7. Barney

    Greetings, it’s good to read your point of view? I might be tempted to agree with you if I’d been along for the ride however, China is messed-up.

    How much of their history do you know? The place that you saw, that it exists in any form at all? This is a minor miracle.

    However the modern Chinese person may actually have antipathy (anger) at the past that included what the “Forbidden City” represents. That the kind of places that “The Forbidden City”, much as the Pyramids of Egypt of Mach-Pichu, ARE, cannot be articulated well in any medium other than that of the mind of someone that knows how the place came to exist and has the imagination to perceive it during the time it was populated.

    That being the case, in my mind, I think you looked at the trees and not the forest here buddy.

    I think the U.S. is messed up too (just say ‘ the world’); however China has, at least in my lifetime, 1958 till now, not been much shy about their penchant to ignore the inequities that exist in their Country

    Sep. 21 2013 @ 10:16 pm

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