One of the questions I get asked most often is — what do you actually do in Beijing besides drinking tea? What I do is really quite boring (historical research on some obscure topic that nobody cares about), but where I do it is perhaps slightly more interesting.
Since my work involves a lot of flipping through dirty, dusty, poorly catalogued and a few hundred years old documents, guarded by staff that are only rarely friendly, the work is not always pleasant. The trip to the archives, however, can be somewhat pleasant, if the weather’s nice.
I get off the subway at Tiananmen West, which is, as the name implies, on the West side of the Tiananmen Square. On the one side, it’s the Tiananmen.
But in the opposite corner, there’s the very out of place Eggshell
Which is going to be the new National Opera House.
It might be an interesting caveat here to say that the Tiananmen is NOT the entrance to the Forbidden Palace… to get in, you have to walk through the Duanmen (seen from Tiananmen)
And then you’ll see the entrance — the Wumen (Meridian Gate), as viewed from the Duanmen.
It all looks rather small, but if you look here, you can see the buliding actually cuts an imposing figure.
But I don’t get to walk through these places to go in to the archives. Instead, I go through the side — walking down a rather pleasant street
After a few minutes, I get to see the gate that I do get to walk through, the Xihuamen
Which is across the moat for the Forbidden City — it’s not that obvious when you go through the front
In the first picture — those tall buildings right behind the wall are the archives, where I go look at my dusty documents.
Inside… you can still see the old buildings, but parts that one doesn’t get to see when you pay the entrance fee.
The building on the left is the archives, and the wall on the right circles some of the quarters that are for palace workers…. not even people who are related to the Emperor in any way. To give you an idea of the scale of the thing… the grey part of the wall is about 2 meters high. The distance is, of course, quite far.
They are doing some serious renovations for the palace these days, partly to get ready for the flood of inevitable visitors during the 2008 Olympics. There are lots of building materials stacked up, and in the back — the draped over roof of the Hall of Great Harmony, which is the biggest building in the complex.
So that’s what I do everyday, until recently anyway. Now I’m sitting in a hotel room in Shenyang, the old Manchu capital, with very unreliable internet, having just dealt with even less friendly archivists here. Oh well.