The Forbidden City.

The Forbidden city in Beijing evokes thoughts of ancient Chinese dynasties and powerful rulers who reigned over vast swathes of East Asia. It conjures up images of an amry of servants and layer upon layer of restricted dwellings which were guarded like few other buildings in history.

Much of the original structure remains to this day and makes for a fascinating walking tour through various eras in China’s history.

The architectural beauty of the buildings is undeniable and is the first impression upon entering the gates. Every building is grand and ornate and the craftsmanship and sheer ambition of their creators is clearly evident. A closer examination and a study of the building methods reveals a mastery of construction which matches their beauty.

Upon closer inspection, the casual visitor can admire the intricacy of the design and decoration in hidden corners, rendered all the more impressive when considering that this intricacy is replicated throughout the enormous city.

Of course, The Forbidden City is more than an architectural masterpiece, it is a window into Chinese history. For this reason, a guided tour or a self-guided audio tour is essential, to save the visitor from simply wandering aimlessly through an endless assemblage of impressively-restored buildings.

The incongruous image of Chairman Mao looms large over the entrance to the city. Incongruous because the city was the masterpiece of ancient emperors and the ruling class of China, the very same people Mao and his communist party revolted in order to overthrow.

The Forbidden City is vast. Visitors are advised to set aside at least half a day to enjoy a complete appreciation of the site, and to allow for the inevitable crowds and the extreme weather which characterises Beijing – sultry, hot summers and freezing cold winters.

Allocating a few hours to the inspection of this historic and architectural wonder enables the visitors to snake their way through a deliberately constructed grid of servants and masters quarters all dedicated to the service, protection and exaltation of the ancient emperors.

Getting around in China.

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The streets of China are bursting with vehicles. Cities and towns of every dimension are clogged with an array of transportation.

The country’s population explosion has led to the emergence of small vehicles which serve as personal transport, taxi services and delivery vehicles.

In the cities surrounding Xiamen, in southern China, there too existed a proliferation of small vehicles, and most of them carried one prominent appendage; sun protection.

The vehicles hurtled down the streets furnished with some form of shade, be it permanently attached or loosely fixed. A number of passengers were clutching umbrellas, and one guy was just wearing a hat. Almost everyone seemed determined to avoid sun exposure.

Why?

I can only surmise that they wished to remain as fair as possible, because in China fair skin is a sign of high status, as its bearer is said to be of sufficient wealth to avoid toiling in the sun day after day.

They can’t have been concerned about skin cancer, because most of them were destined for lung cancer due to their chain smoking. Maybe lung cancer is a more glorious way to die.

In Harbin, northern China, I caught a ride in a very unique taxi. It was coal powered. Not coal powered in the sense that the earth’s minerals had at some point been extracted and converted, through a complex scientific process, into liquid form that was fed into the tiny taxi through the convenience of a petrol bowser. No, it was literally coal powered.

The driver negotiated the crowded streets of the icy city with one hand on the steering wheel and the other on a spade, which he regularly thrust into a bucket of coal beside him, and fed directly into the boiling furnace which kept the ramshackle piece of tin putting along the road.

A makeshift pipe extracted the fumes from the taxi and straight into the atmosphere. This driver was certainly doing his bit for global warming. Maybe he was just sick of the bitter cold winters in Harbin. I know I was, after only three days of traipsing around the sculptures during the famous snow and ice festival. They are spectacular, by the way. It’s just so damn cold. Too cold for me to remove my gloves and take a photo of the coal taxi. Sorry, but I wasn’t willing to risk frostbite to bring you a photo of the unique contraption.

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Speaking of fuel sources, myself and some friends caught a taxi in Qingdao, China, which was powered by gas. This in itself is not unusual. What was memorable on this occasion was being told by the driver to step out of the taxi while he filled up. For safety, he said. Thus, if we’d remained seated in the taxi, we were in mortal danger, but if we stood only one metre away while he filled up, we were perfectly safe – even as other motorists and nearby pedestrians puffed on cigarettes.

Back in Xiamen, meanwhile, vehicles were also being used for other purposes. It’s not only humans who need to get from A to B.