I arrived in Beijing early afternoon and it was pushing 3PM by the time I made it to the hotel. This was more than likely my last visit and there was one more thing I wanted to do. A tower stands on the far northeastern corner of the Forbidden City, overlooking the moat and I’d seen pictures of that spot which always struck me as pure China – mist on the water, a long stand of willows, the carmine paint and intricate roof of the imperial building. I’ve been to that spot many times before but always under a blazing afternoon sun. And while the pictures I’d seen were almost certainly taken at dawn, I figured the early winter dusk would do just fine. So I grabbed the subway and headed to Tiananmen Square.
It was Sunday and so the area around the imperial palace was heavy with tourists. And this of course meant the sharks that prey on them were out in numbers too. I wasn’t ten feet out of the station when the first one hit – “Hello, where are you from? I am an art student; would you like to accompany me to our show?” I told her in Chinese that I was from Sichuan. She huffed and turned away. I had two choices to get to the spot where I wanted to take the picture – pay 100 kuai and walk through the Forbidden City (again) or head out and walk around it. I chose the latter because first there was no point in going through again and second because I’d not been down that long street. I took a right and made my way along the south wall.
As I turned left two young men fell into my stride and struck up a conversation. “Hello, where are you from?” I knew this was yet another case of starving art students so I fell into my typical routine in Chinese. “I’m from the northeast, I’m not an American, I’m Chinese, and I’m visiting from Sichuan.” This guy took the bait for a change and carried on a conversation for a block or two. He knew I was kidding but he was having fun with it, probably a break from his normal routine of ripping off gullible tourists. Finally though he’d had enough of my subterfuge and looked at me and said “You are very difficult!” As we approached the gallery that was paying him to bring in customers he invited me in and I politely declined saying, “Zaijian.”
It turned out to be a longer walk than I expected, don’t they always? But I arrived there just as the sun was falling below the north wall. All the elements were there plus the unexpected benefit of a skim of ice on the moat, it being the end of November and all. I took many shots but the one thing that seemed to ruin each one was the pontoon boat parked in a boat shed on the west side of the water. A glaring touch of modernity in an otherwise timeless setting. I wonder now if those paid photographers before me simply edited out that annoying detail. Satisfied that I had tried my best I headed west to the opposite corner for another try. There were a lot of Chinese here with fancy cameras and lenses, apparently angling for the same thing. I took a few more pictures and decided that since I was here it might be nice to just head south and circumambulate the whole complex.
There is something special about early winter nights in Beijing. You feel like you might be walking through time. The wall here crowded the sidewalk and it was easy to get a feeling for how imposing and isolated the life of the emperor and his court must have been. To my left an unending stretch of red painted stone capped with green tile, broken once in a while by a fancy gate. To my right, the endless stretch of the hutong, home to the common people who served the needs of the court. All of that disappeared a hundred years ago only to be replaced by the bleak early years of Communism and then the Cultural Revolution. Today we have a vibrant city where it’s common to see a donkey cart tied up next to a Bentley. But on this chilly winter’s eve, the ghosts of the past held sway as I walked along.
It was dark by the time I hit Tiananmen Square and rather than taking the closest subway station I decided to walk back to the eastern side and so complete the big circle. The square was cordoned off and there were a lot of policemen milling around. I wanted to take some pictures of the lights on the government buildings but it would have meant a long roundabout walk as the shortcut diagonally across the square was blocked. I wondered why it was closed off, and later discovered that this weekend had been the beginning of the unrest in the Middle East. I’m not sure, but I’m guessing one led to the other. My plan stymied, I chose instead to stop one more time in front of the main gate and get a nighttime shot.
I spent my last night in China where I had spent so many before – sitting in the Renaissance lounge staring out the window at the bustle below. There was a lot for me to consider – my job in China was over and come early January my career would be over entirely. I thought about all the people at this hotel whom had made my time here so pleasant with cheerful greetings and personal service. I wondered if they would miss me as I had become such a figure during the course of this year. Doubtful I imagine, they see hundreds of people each month and I suppose that they’re doing nothing more than their jobs. But it was nice to feel known, especially in a country where as a westerner you often feel invisible. I thought about how intimate I’d become with Beijing over the course of my time here and how much I would miss it. It’s a wonderful thing to know a city well and to feel comfortable wandering its streets. But overall I sat there considering the end of this phase and the beginning of the next – whatever that might be. I don’t think I had any idea when I boarded that first flight to China back in 2006 that I would end up here feeling this way. Of course, I couldn’t have because I had no idea that such a life existed. I was glad to have tasted it and in many ways sorry to see it end. But not so sorry that I would trade what I was looking forward to. The next phase promised to be even better.