Under Yellow Tile Roofs

Memories… is a random series of memories of my trips to Asia in the late 80s and early 90s.

It was the last day of a long summer of travelling through China. I had now been back in Beijing for a few days, buying souvenirs for the family, enjoying a couple more lazy bike rides through the hutongs and dinners with travel acquaintances at the hotel.

This was late in September of 1991 and the days were still hot, but the sun was setting earlier in the evening and the nights were already much cooler. The air was crisp and the smog over the city was less of a problem than in summer.

I’d spent the afternoon on Coal Hill to the north of the Forbidden City, sitting near the walls of the pavillion at the top of the hill, with a view of the graceful roofs of the palace below me.

I’d brought some moon cakes and a can of JianLiBao – my favorite local soft drink – and I enjoyed a late lunch surrounded by local and international tourists as they ascended and descended the hill in a constant stream.

Finally I packed up my snacks, walked around the pavillion one last time, looking out to the west over Beihai Park with its lake and paddle boats, the Drum Tower in the distance to the north, the shopping area to the east and then south again.

Beijing stretched to the horizon in all directions, a neverending sea of low-slung apartment blocks interspersed with old, dense hutongs with their courtyards and narrow alleyways and here and there high-rises foretelling the future of the capital of China.

I walked down through the low forest that had been growing on Coal Hill since ancient times, the winding path still busy with more tourists huffing and puffing on their way up.

I unlocked my bike from the lot in front of the entrance of Coal Hill Park and slowly cycled to the east along busy Jingshan Lu with its never-ending stream of city buses and construction trucks, turning south once I had passed the end of the palace moat.

The road south along the palace moat was covered by trees that gave soothing shade and the street scene was at a much more human scale. A wide stretch of grass and dirt under the trees along the road was busy with typical Chinese city life.

There were some older men with bird cages airing out their songbirds. Further down under the trees a hairdresser was doing good open-air business with a mobile chair and some scissors. A group of women had come together for a late session of Tai Chi. Some children were kicking a ball around. On the sidewalk were vendors with small carts, offering freshly made food. Bikes dominated the two-lane road and I simply followed the flow without much of any thought. This was biking in China at its best.

It was a long, slow ride along the alley, a gliding cruise at the same speed as all the other bikers around me, before I had passed the palace area and made it to Beijing’s main street – Chang’an Avenue. Here I got off my bike, since crossing the epically wide street made no sense – my destination was only a short walk to the west – one of the giant bike parking lots in front of the Forbidden City.

Since it was after three o’clock, there was no line at the ticket window and it felt very strange to just walk up to the window, get a ticket and stroll into the Forbidden City without the usual crowds.

I had already spent several days exploring the palace at previous visits, but it still came as a shock to walk into the wide expanse of the inner courtyards of the palace. I skipped the main throne rooms and central buildings and ducked through a smaller door into one of the long walkways that pass by the central area into the northern part of the Forbidden City.

Here were the many buildings that made up the life support system of the imperial household – living quarters for servants, kitchens, storage and supply buildings, all built in a very similar style with red painted walls and yellow glazed roofs, connected with walled-off walkways with doorways and yards in between. Walking around here was like navigating a large maze, and even on crowded days it was possible to be suddenly very alone in one of the many courtyards.

The few tourists I encountered in these more remote areas were all heading in the opposite direction, to the main exit in the south. Most of them looked tired after spending many hours hiking through the labyrinthine paths and across the wide expanses of sun-heated brick pavement.

The sun was low in the sky now and the eaves of the dormant buildings traced long shadows across the red walls. Roof tiles glittered against the angled light. Silence descended on the historic center of the Chinese universe.

I aimlessly meandered along the many walkways, finally emerging in a large courtyard just north of the building that housed the main throne room. I walked across that empty space to the eastern wall, its red paint glowing radiantly with the low, orange rays of the evening sun.

I sat down on an angled ramp leading up to a doorway in the wall, still barely in the sun, unpacking the last of my moon cakes, settling in to wait for the sunset over the western walls of the Forbidden City.

It had become quiet. The main entrance was now long closed and the few tourists and guards left in the palace were easily lost in the hundreds of buildings, courtyards and pathways all around me.

Swallows were swooping down from their nests under the yellow-glazed eaves, gliding low across a moat that cut across the courtyard, catching mosquitoes with sudden changes in their paths. Their piercing cries the only thing disturbing the silence.

All around me the stone tiles, bricks and mortar were radiating the heat of the day and only a very light wind promised a cooler night later.

The sun in front of me had become a red ball, filling the ever-present haze over the city with an orange glow fading into dark blue at the zenith. The upturned eaves of the ancient buildings of the Forbidden City were black outlines etched into the evening sky.

It was time to go home.

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