Horribly jetlagged, we woke at 3:30 am. We passed the dark early hours reading our Lonely Planet guides cover-to-cover, then emerged into the bright, mercifully smogless Beijing morning with a heavily Sharpie-annotated tourist map as our only guide.
Joining the crowds
Frigid air froze our freshly washed hair into icicles that clacked together as we walked. The walled hutong neighborhood was a bustling rush of the familiar — young people biking off to work and older people trundling off to the shops. And the unfamiliar — frozen lougies speckling the petite streets and mysterious boards carefully leaning against each parked car tire.
At Tiananmen Square officials were dutifully recording every Chinese citizen passing through the subway, but impatiently waved us past, glancing up just long enough to see our non-Chinese faces. A great expanse of cement, surrounded by complicated arrangements of fences, huge Mao portraits, and telephone poles with more cameras than a hipster’s living room.
After accidentally buying a ticket for a completely different attraction, we made our way through the impossibly imposing gates of the Forbidden City. Big. Cold. Teeming with Chinese people smart enough to bring giant puffy coats for the Arctic walk through the 178 acres of frozen history.
"You're so pretty!" the first group of tween girls cried as they descended, selfie sticks outstretched. It’s hard not to enjoy a first brush with celebrity, but the novelty wore off faster than you can say dynasty. Sitting on the ice block stone steps of the Forbidden City we soon turned into an attraction to rival the gardens and pavilions that surrounded us. A steady parade of parents arranged their children between us, extracting smile after smile from us until we were able to make a run for it.
We wandered through courts of concubines in and out of favor and admired trees with more support than the Trump administration.
Then there’s the Hill of Accumulated Elegance, a small mountain of priceless, elegantly sculptural Lake Tai rocks topped off with a flower-viewing pavilion. The effect of this excessive display of wealth is hard to appreciate as beautiful. It’s like a museum vault, piled high with priceless masterpieces. Easy to be in awe, but difficult to absorb.
Hill of Accumulated Elegance