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August 19th, 2003

Beijing, China

In the morning I caught the tube to just outside of Tiananmen Square. With the crowds, the traffic, the regal buildings, it was like being on the Champs Elysee. Tiananmen Square is the biggest public square in the world, but it doesn't feel that way because of the central presence of the Memorial Hall -- better known as the "Mao-soleum". I was amazed at the size of the line to enter the tomb in which Mao Zedong's preserved body, like Lenin's, is on display. There were virtually no foreign tourists in the line -- just Chinese hoping for a glimpse of the former chairman.

Tiananmen Square fronts the most important of Beijing's tourist sights, the Forbidden City. For five hundred years the only people allowed access were members of the imperial family, and those who had business with them. I was expecting a jawdropping experience, where the culmination of thousands of years of Chinese architecture would be on display. Perhaps my expectations were too high. The temples were immense and well preserved, but nowhere near as varied or creative as the Buddhist temple complex in Ulaan Bataar, to which I (perhaps unfairly) compared it.

The crowds were thick, though not oppressively so, and composed almost entirely of Chinese tourists. A teenage girl shyly came up to ask me to take her picture -- that was my initial impression, but what she really wanted was for me to be in a picture with her. When I nodded my assent, her even more shy group of friends rushed up to join the shot. This situation repeated itself throughout the day, as various Chinese families, perhaps eyeballing a Westerner for the first time, asked me to join their photos. For once I had an idea of what the targets of my camera might have felt like.

The heat and humidity discouraged me from any further sightseeing. Instead, I spent the afternoon visiting a few crafts shops to get a feel for the prices of souvenirs. The big market wouldn't happen until the weekend, but I wanted to be prepared.

In the evening I headed back to Tiananmen Square to meet up with the remnants of our Trans-Siberian group. The square proved to be a poor choice for a meeting spot, as I couldn't find anyone. Just as I was about to give up, I spotted Claudia and Thembi heading my way. The three of us and Ryan took a taxi to the Dong'anmen Night Market, where such delicacies as fried silkworm, boiled stomach, and goat testicles were on offer. Although Ryan's abstention could be attributed to his vegetarianism, the rest of us had no excuse other than a dormant sense of adventure. Instead I filled up on some stir fry noodles and dumplings.

Crowds in front of the Mao-soleum
Qianmen Gate
Kites on Tiananmen Square
Tiananmen Gate
Inside the Forbidden City
Building detail
Turtle statue
Roof detail
Imperial throne
Another courtyard
Wall detail
Me and an adoring fan
Another strange beast
Another imperial throne
More of the Forbidden City
Spike-haired creature
Garden pavilion
Pavilion ceiling
Dragonclaw tree
Temple atop a rock formation
Group in Tiananmen Square
Night market

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