May Day (May 1st) is International Labor Day in China. Because it’s one of the main long weekend holidays (a “golden weekend”), millions of Chinese travel domestically and internationally. Major tourist areas are packed, with the biggest draw being The Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square.
Tourists are generally told to avoid traveling in China during the week around May 1st because of the enormous crowds, and difficulty booking travel.
So when did we book our trip? Centered around May Day, of course. And to make it worse, we arrived in Beijing on Saturday, May 2nd – the height of the weekend. Our tour’s itinerary for the afternoon? Why of course, Tiananmen Square and The Forbidden City. And yes, it was incredibly packed.
Our driver dropped us off across the street from Tiananmen Square, and we had to join the crowd of people along the sidewalk waiting to cross the street at the crosswalk. There’s no cheating – there are fences along the sidewalk, with an open gate at the crosswalk, and police directing the pedestrians across the street when the light was green. Everyone had to go through the gate like a cattle chute.
It wasn’t too bad waiting to get up to the crosswalk. Yes, it was crowded, and people were packed pretty closely together, but that was nothing compared to once you got near the gate. As soon as the light changed, dozens and dozens of people surged forward through the gate, packing down into the narrow space, and then popping through on the other side, where they could spread out a little bit in the crosswalk. It was like childbirth! I think I could almost have lifted my feet and had the crowd carry me through. Oddly enough, even though I tend to be a little claustrophobic, it didn’t bother me, and was kind of amusing. It didn’t last long – only a 5 or 10 seconds before you were through the gate.
Here we are, just starting the surge to cross the street. The gate is located between the red flag sort of in the center of the photo, and a spot about 5 people to the right of that. My sister-in-law (lower left, in green) has a tight grasp on Larry’s backpack to keep close to him.
Once you were through the gate, though, the crowds weren’t bad, since there was a lot of area to spread out in. I managed to get this photo at Tiananmen Square without a crowd in view, since Larry was standing up against the rope cordoning off the area behind him.
After wandering about the square, we headed next door to The Forbidden City. Because of the holiday crowds and heightened security, many of the windows you would normally be able to look through to see inside the buildings had been shuttered, so there were only a few that we were able to look into to see the furnishings.
Some of the other things we did while in Beijing were to visit the Ming Tombs and Sacred Way. I didn’t find the tombs themselves to be all that interesting, but I could have spent all day wandering up and down the Sacred Way, admiring the statues. It was gorgeous.
We also visited the Temple of Heaven,
And the Summer Palace. The lake, which you can only see a small part of in the next photo, was entirely man-made and dug by hand. It’s huge, covering 540 acres. Our tour guide told us that it is only about 4 feet deep. (He said that according to legend, the emperor wanted to be able to wade out into it without worrying about drowning.) The earth that was removed from the lake bed was used to build the hill:
This was another place where I could happily have just wandered around enjoying the beautiful, serene gardens:
Of course, the highlight of Beijing was the Great Wall, but I’ll leave that for its own post.