First week of 2014. First Forbidden City tour of 2014. Well…almost.
Today I was taking a group of about 30 students from a small, but prestigious, liberal college in the American Midwest through what we call the “Tiananmen Trifecta.”
This is a tour that starts at the Beijing Urban Planning Exhibition Hall, winds its way through Tiananmen Square and finishes with a tour of the Forbidden City and a trip to the top of Jingshan to see a 360-degree panorama of Beijing.
The whole tour generally takes about four hours. But today we got a late start, several of the students needed to use an ATM and it took us a little while to find one that would accommodate all the different bank cards.
By the time we got to Tiananmen Square it was already 2:30 and I knew we were pushing it a bit. The Forbidden City closes at 4:30 in the winter and they stop selling tickets at 3:30. Thinking I was playing it smart, I sent one of our student assistants ahead to buy tickets and wait for us by the gate. Even if we came in close to the 3:30 last call, surely they would let us in if we had already bought tickets.
How silly of me to think I could out-China China.
What I didn’t count on was that while they stopped selling tickets at 3:30, they stopped letting people enter through Tiananmen Gate at 3:00. We arrived at 3:05. Even though I had somebody waiting for me at the inside gate with tickets they weren’t going to let us in to get them.
Here’s where 2004 me would have pitched a fit. Older, wiser me just kept talking to the plainclothes security guard. I used my nicest voice to lie to him and tell him that this was a special delegation of American students who were leaving Beijing the next day and I had already bought tickets and could he please let us in because we still had 25 minutes until the 3:30 cutoff.
To my credit, I think I had him. I’m almost positive that if we were the only tourists standing in the cold, he would have conceded the point. He knew that 3:30 was the real cutoff. He knew that I knew. I knew that he knew that I knew.
Unfortunately, we were far from the only tourists there. Standing right behind me was a loud ayi with her henpecked husband, an androgynous elderly relative, and what appeared to be a semi-feral child of indeterminate age. When she saw that my new plainclothes security guard friend was caving for me, she spoke up in a loud voice…”Aiya! If he goes, we have to go. Why are you treating him special?!?” The cry was picked up at once by the assembled mob. At this point, the guard knew that any concessions would lead to a riot at his post and that was that.
I do blame myself for not timing this better. Last year I did 25+ tours of the Forbidden City (seriously). I should have this down by now. On the other hand, I’d never heard of this new 3:00 YOU SHALL NOT PASS TIANANMEN rule and it’s not part of any of the posted information that I know of, so I don’t feel like the fiasco was completely my fault.
The worst part is that my assistant bought the tickets and then couldn’t return them which means I’m out a not insignificant amount of coin.
FYI: Security around Tiananmen and Forbidden City was up today. Very thorough checkpoints including frisking of anyone who looked like a Chinese person with a grievance. I even had to rescue one of the Asian-American students from my group when the police apparently mistook him for a poor Chinese farmer or something.
Update: The Forbidden City has been closed Monday afternoons since last year, but starting this week (1/6/2014) the Forbidden City will be closed all day on Mondays for ‘repairs.’