China’s imperial past displays an affinity for dragons, both mythological and human. Their present control by the totalitarian Communist Party is not a new phenomenon: China has been ruled by dictators throughout most of its long history. Some of these despots have worn the green uniforms of the current ruling party; some have worn the red dragons of symbolic heavenly approval. Both types of rule have written a narrative of misery on the backs of China’s suffering millions.

China’s present rulers show an unwavering appreciation for utilitarian architecture. Beijing is crammed with official buildings of a uniformly grey monolithic design, implying an impressive immensity that is probably meant to cow the ordinary Joe or Chang. Looks like a lot of same-old, same-old.

The emperors had a similar delight in filling vast acres of space with seemingly identical buildings distinguished only by size and the number of gargoyles permitted on the rooftops. The smaller buildings now contain the artifacts of former dynasties.

The one housing pottery was especially interesting, displaying vases of exquisite design, some of which were an astonishing 7,000 years old. As we were in Beijing during the May 1 holiday break, the site was packed with people, and to be honest, the Forbidden City was not particularly noteworthy. It was impossible to see into the larger buildings, and what we did see was threadbare and careworn, as were the grounds and the buildings themselves. The garden at the north end of the property was nice, but small, and far too crowded to be restful in any sense of the word.

Exiting through the north gate brought us back onto a road thick with holidaying people. Getting a cab was out of the question, so we walked down the east side of the wall until we found a little tea shop with a rooftop restaurant where we got very slow service and a rather pedestrian meal. However, the tea was lovely and refreshing and it did give us an opportunbity to plan out the rest of the day. Pam and Shelley decided to go shopping at a nearby mall, while Moochi and I opted to brave the crowds at the zoo to see the pandas.

The zoo suffered from the same neglect and wear as the Forbidden City. Clearly it had been well planned and nicely located at one time. But it was not up to the traffic of a population of 20 million people in Beijing. The grass had long since been trampled bare; cages were rusty, enclosures dirty. The pandas were lovely to see, but encased in a glass enclosure (for their protection?), and packed with crowds seven or eight rows deep, it made viewing seem rather more a chore than a pleasure.

As we had arranged with Pam and Shelley to meet at the Bell and Drum Towers, and the crowed outside the closed subway station packed densely from the sidewalk to the first lane of traffic for the entire block, we caught a waiting taxi and paid the 50 Yuan he insisted on to get us out of there. The ladies were not there and through a text message (thank you Maxis!) we found out they had gone back to the hotel. After walking fruitlessly to find someplace affordable to eat in the trendy hutong district, Moochi and I caught a subway and bus back to the hotel in time to join the others for a bite to eat and plan out the next day’s activities.

We decided that given the difficulty of getting around town by either cab or subway, we would hire a driver for the day. Pam and Shelley had been given a card by someone on the street who seemed nice. We called and she was happy to arrange a van for us for 400 Yuan to go out to the Summer Palace and “whatever else we wanted to do,” provided that it did not exceed 8 hours. I agreed to her terms, and set a pick up time for 8 o’clock.