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Trespassing in Tiananmen Square

Updated: Feb 11

My friend and I had been traveling around China for 11 days, and it has been relatively stress free for me (ostensibly because she speaks Mandarin). However, she came down with a rotten cold a few days ago and really needed to recharge her batteries.

So I decided to let her sleep in and visit Tiananmen Square on my own (she'd lived in Beijing, so wasn't going to miss anything). It was only ten minutes taxi ride from our hotel, so it wasn't too great a challenge, particularly with Didi, the Chinese version of Uber. Before I left, I did a little research and found out something that put a damper on my plans.

It turns out foreigners wanting to go to Tiananmen Square must register their interest the day before attending. This was a slight problem, because I was planning to leave in thirty minutes. But it was too late to change my master plan now, so I continued the early morning solo trip, expecting only to peek into the Square from a distance.

Many of you will recall Tiananmen Square as venue for the 1989 pro-democracy protests, and are memorable in the West because of the iconic image of a lone guy defying a tank. Well, it was the same place, but the vibe was completely different. I was the only foreigner I saw when I was there, and 99.9999% of people in the Square were patriotic Chinese nationals.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

My driver dropped me at 7 am, into an area as close as taxis can get. Things didn't look promising: all I could see was a brick wall topped with razor-wire.

Initial views were not promising,

Yet, as I walked, the Forbidden City popped its head over the wall. Even from outside, it was impressive. Nevertheless, for about fifteen minutes, I thought that this tantalising glimpse was all I would see.

For a while, things looked grim

I walked in ever-decreasing circles, seeming to zero-in on Tiananmen Square, and could see more and more of the Zhengyangmen Gate popping its head over the fence the closer I got. I passed a number of smartly-dressed soldiers standing stock still (beefeater style, but with modern uniforms), as well as a number of check points manned by police.

Eventually, I decided to try my luck at a checkpoint. What's the worst that could happen? Surely, they could only tell me to go away! Amazingly, after giving my passport the briefest glance (and scanning it into a machine), the cop let me in.

So far, so good. I was closer to my goal.

I walked for a while and encountered a second check point. But after second check, I was again allowed to continue. By now, I thought I was home free: Two passport checks and no one had asked if I actually had permission to be there. After my incredulity passed, I had a chance to appreciate my surroundings.

Tiananmen Square is Herculean in scope, from the Forbidden City (no one calls it that in China) to Mao’s tomb, giant sculptures of the workers, the Great Hall of the People, the National Museum of China, large columns, marching soldiers, to the simply enormous open square itself.

Then there were the people.

Tiananmen Square was a sea of humanity, even though it was only 7:30am. Now, when it comes to estimating crowds, I'm about as reliable as Donald Trump, but there had to be quite a few thousand people. By this time I was feeling a little like Donald Trump too, because I'd gotten away with a crime... I was trespassing in the Mecca of the Chinese Communist Party, but that wasn't last for long.

It was near Mao’s tomb that the jig was up. I was challenged by a third cop, this time I was asked (in pretty good English) words to the effect of “Are you alone and, by the way, do you actually have a booking?”

Well yes, sir. I am alone and - er - no; I don't have a booking.

While I had done nothing wrong by Australian standards, I was slightly concerned by my predicament... I wasn't in Australia any more. The rules were clear: no foreigners without permission.

The cop was polite, but thorough. Unlike his lax mate, he examined my passport carefully, for five seconds maybe, which is a LONG time when you're a foreigner who thinks you've committed a crime

In the end, he handed my passport back, gave me benign, but firm warning and was allowed me to continue my stroll.

All-in-all, I thoroughly recommend this trip to anyone who has the opportunity.

Just remember to book in the day before.

Me, just after my run-in with the police officer. Tiananmen Gate in the background.

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