When we decided to check out Beijing's Forbidden City with our daughters, we didn't expect to be checked out ourselves, but soon became the subject of many Instagram posts...
On the morning of our first full day in Beijing, we headed down a hutong (a narrow, traditional alley) opposite our hostel, heading towards the Forbidden City. As we walked, we kept an eye out for somewhere to have breakfast, but Western-style coffee shops were pretty thin on the ground. What we did notice was a guy frying bread dough in a wok full of oil, so we stopped to try some (mmmm, tasty), grabbing some dumplings with a strange green filling as well (ummm, a bit weird, but tasty).
Not long after, we reached the edge of the Forbidden City. We had a choice of turning left or right and as I was pretty sure we were closer to the north end, we turned right. Wrong choice. As so many tourists visit the Forbidden City, the authorities have instituted a one-way, south-to-north entrance policy, so we had to walk all the way around to the other end.
It was already pretty warm, so we picked up some ice creams on the way, stopping beside the moat that surrounds the city to eat them. A group of Chinese tourists walked past. Two of them – middle-aged women both – slowed and openly stared, nay gawked, at our daughters, Sarah and Zoe. We laughed a little nervously as they continued on, turning repeatedly to look back at the girls.
A few minutes later, I noticed another women stop nearby, take her phone from her handbag and then studiously attempt to set up a selfie. I was getting the feeling that she was trying to get the girls into the shot behind her and when she noticed me looking at her, she came over, handed her phone to my partner, Kate, and asked to have a photo taken with the girls. This was the first in a very long line of such incidents that continued throughout our travels in China. In the process of having their photos taken with the girls, people plonked babies beside them and in their arms, put their arms around them, stroked their hair and their arms, held their hands and told them repeatedly how beautiful they are.
When passersby noticed other passersby having their photos taken with the girls, they would stop, look and ask if they could have their photos taken with the girls, too (sometimes getting to the point of forming an orderly queue). You can spot them a mile off – they’re walking along, they clock one or both of the girls, they do a double-take, their progress slows as they reach into their bag/pocket for their phone, and then it all starts. At one point, as we were eating lunch, Kate noticed a man outside the restaurant, crouched down beside the window taking a photo of the girls – if it wasn’t so comical it might be a tad creepy...
We eventually reached the south entrance to the Forbidden City and were slightly overwhelmed by the hordes of people milling around. However, everything seemed extremely orderly and the various streams of people seemed to be moving quite quickly, so we joined a (mercifully shady) queue and sure enough were soon heading through the front gates and into the city itself (otherwise known as the Palace Museum). The sheer number of people inside the walls was pretty staggering, but everything was very efficient and the crowds moved quite fluidly past the very grand, ornate palace buildings.
We eventually made it back to the north entrance, where we sat for a while in the shade, the girls posing for yet more photos. We then headed back down to the south entrance, stopping for some lunch along the way (and more photos). We then headed for Tiananmen Square, but when we got within its general vicinity we found ourselves being herded into a very slowly moving queue to pass through some sort of security check. As we didn’t really want to see the square quite badly enough to stand around waiting in a queue, we turned around and went down into the nearby metro station and travelled out to the Silk Market. We were keen to buy some cheap clothes to replace and or/supplement those that we had brought on our journey and were told that this was the clothing market, but when we got there, we found that it was a big building filled with little shop/stalls selling mostly fairly fancy but generally fairly hideous clothing of various sorts, as well as electronic goods, toys and so on, so we made our way up to the food court on the top floor.
After stopping to gawp at the incredible Beijing skyline, we sat down in a hotpot restaurant – managing somehow to navigate the menu and order a pile of veges, noodles, fungi and meat, which we then cooked in the boiling wok of stock on the induction stove in our table. Then it was back on the metro and back towards our hostel.