THE QUEUE is four wide and stretches endlessly into the distance. We shuffle along at an efficient, if not quick, pace.
I’m the only foreigner among the thousands of tourists around me – curious glances are sneaked, the odd stare.
We’re waiting to see the embalmed body of China’s most famous son, Mao Zedong, the man who brought communism to China.
His Memorial Hall stands in the middle of Beijing’s Tiananmen Square which, at 440,000 square metres, is claimed to be the world’s largest. Stretching out around me, packed as it is with mind-numbing numbers of sightseers, hawkers, kite-fliers and family groups, standing, walking, sitting or eating, it’s hard to imagine disputing that.
Well, if its history is anything to go by, this isn’t a place to dispute much.
As we near the Memorial Hall, we are checked for cameras (none allowed) and a tangible air or excitement starts to take hold of some of the visitors.
You get an idea of the vastness of China from the assembled crowds and the numbers in the queue.
Everyone is quiet and well-dressed, in much the same style as a similar middle-class crowd in Europe. (Well, how much of what you’re wearing is made in China?)
A flower shop comes within reach and people in the crowd dart out to buy floral tributes.
The queue now splits in two, so we can pass on either side of the tomb.
A large stand takes the flowers that people reverently place on it. Every few minutes, a lift hums quietly to lower the level. I wonder idly if the flowers make their way back to the shop to be resold. Hopefully: there are an awful lot of them.
Then, within moments, we shuffle past the marble coffin itself, Mao Zedong looking more like a waxwork than anything else, and are disgorged past the inevitable souvenir shops back into Tiananmen Square.
Close encounters with crowds mark any visit to Beijing’s attractions. Fortunately, they are built on a scale to take it, from Tiananmen itself to the Forbidden City, or the famed Great Wall.
Tiananmen means ‘Gate of Heavenly Peace’ and is actually the entrance to the Forbidden City. A gigantic image of Mao on the city’s wall is a final reminder to everyone not to be too impressed by what they see inside.
Well, the emperors have had their day but what a day it was. Dating back to 1420, this city-palace was home to a line of 24 emperors, their family, servants and staff.
The last emperor left in 1924, when the whole was renamed the Palace Museum and opened to the public.
The reality of imperial life still impresses, however, and one can’t imagine how over-awed those who had never seen pictures would have been by a first visit.
Tens of thousands of craftsmen and 1million workers helped build these 9,999 rooms and halls. The defending walls are 4m thick and 11m high and the complex covers 100 hectares.
Sensory overload, in fact, its greatest problem is its scale. With so many buildings, each more lavish than the last, and so many statues, each more ornate than the last, you are at risk of sensory overload.
I found myself paying more attention to the tiny details: a roof tile, a feather on a bronze bird, a swirl of ink on a piece of ancient calligraphy.
And why wasn’t I surprised to find a Starbucks right in the heart of this awesome place?
Refreshed (if a little guilty) by a cup of coffee, I was ready to battle through the crowds to find relative peace in one of the city’s many gardens.
The Imperial Garden (just a walk across the world’s largest square, stroll through the Forbidden City and pop out the back – can’t be more than 5km) was first planted during the Ming Dynasty and holds cypress and pine trees that are now hundreds of years old.
All the other elements of Chinese gardens are also perfectly laid out: stands of bamboo, ponds, temples and rocks. It is the perfect place to rest aching feet on a jade bench once used by an emperor.
Given that the Forbidden City alone is half the size of the whole of Monaco, one can be forgiven for being a bit tired.
HOW TO VISIT THE GREAT WALL
ONLY IF YOU have climbed the Great Wall will you become a real man,’ said Mao Zedong. Having your photo taken in front of a bronze sign at the wall bearing this quote is therefore practically obligatory, as is the visit itself for any Chinese person.
That means massive crowds: it’s impossible to convey the size of China’s internal market for everything, including tourism, unless you see it for yourself.
The Great Wall at Badaling is only a few hours from Beijing but it is essential that you get there early if you want to enjoy it in anything close to solitude.
You would think something this size would absorb any number of people. In the remote countryside, yes, but this close to China’s capital city, only those portions that have been rebuilt are considered safe enough for visitors.
It is an amazing sight – stretching over mountain tops into the distance – and obviously worth any effort. But some parts are remarkably tough going, though a cable-car can cut some of the effort out of reaching the steepest sections.
Be prepared for some heavy-duty climbs if you are going to try to walk away from the crowds.
Badaling opens at about 6.30am and closes at 6.30pm, though it is not unknown for tourists to attempt to spend the night on the wall, so they can get it to themselves for an early morning photo.
Less strenuous is to wait for lunch which, like any meal, is a very serious affair in China. The crowds thin significantly as the local eateries start to heave with customers.
• The first section of the Great Wall took ten years to build – a rate of more than a kilometre per day.
• The Ming Wall reportedly took 200 years to finish.
• It is thought that 1 million workers died building it.
• For every person building the wall, another six were needed to provide building materials and supplies.
• The wall’s height averages 3m to 10m and its width from 5m to 8m. It is more than 3,000km long.
• At its peak, it was guarded by more than a million men.