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The Forbidden City (Beijing, China)
Chinese people are always very curious when they see foreigners; and some times they look at you as if you are from an other planet, and especially when you wear Hijab like me. I got a lot of glances, open and hidden, but I don’t mind. For the most part the people are friendly and smile a lot. Sometimes while walking in the streets some youth will come up to you, just to say “Hello” and then start laughing and walk away. They are shy and most of the time “Hello” is the only English word they know, yet still they like to make contact. But the English language is getting more common nowadays and especially in the hospitality business almost everybody speaks English. I once read: There are more people in China learning English, than there are people in England (or even in Canada)!
Something to think about.

As we had visited China before, we knew that we could encounter Muslims in the big cities. After all, there must be between 20 and 100 million Muslims in all of China.
There are no exact numbers available, but even if that seems a large number, on a total population of 1.3 billion that is just a meagre 1.5% to 7.5% of the total population. Muslims are a minority, even though Muslims have been in China for more then 1400 years. See story on Guangzhou (still in the making)
There are about 250.000 Muslims in Beijing, a city of 19 million, so every time we saw brothers and sisters on the streets; greeting them was almost like a ceremony.
First you saw each other from far away, you started to smile, walked closer, looked at each other curiously, then greeted each other very friendly (almost bowing), reverent but certainly enthusiastic, then you pass, still smiling, keeping eye contact, then you walk backwards for a while, turn around, still look again and then … they are lost in the crowd. It’s like encountering a foreign family member that you haven’t seen before, you are surprised, curious and happy but can’t exchange more then “Assalaam Aleykoum” over and over again, it certainly lifts the (Islamic) spirit.

The second day of our visit to Beijing we went to see ‘The Forbidden City’, the old Palace city of the Chinese emperors. It has been turned into a big museum and if you have ever seen the movie “The last Emperor of China”, you know how big it is. The place has a sad feeling to it though. It didn’t only keep people out, but it also kept people locked up.
Watch TowerThe last emperor was a very lonely man even though he had his mother, a wife and many concubines. The wife and concubines however were not his own choice, first the emperor’s mother chose his wife and later she and his wife chose the concubines. They were mostly girls from villages from all over China who were brought to the palace by their families, in hope for a better live. You might think that only the most beautiful were chosen, but think again, they were chosen by his wife and his mother! Especially the wife didn’t want competition. So maybe you can imagine the kind of girls that were chosen.
These young girls had no knowledge of the conniving, hostile palace life they ended up in. Where they had to fend for themselves on a daily basis to survive the conspiracy, gossip and plots that were weaved by the other concubines to become the emperor’s favourite. Some girls even spend their entire life without ever seeing the emperor.
One story that I heard that day moved me particularly; Sometimes when a concubine got homesick she was allowed (but only after the emperor and his mother gave their consent) to go to the outer wall of the City, to climb up into one of the watchtowers and gaze ‘in the direction’ of her village (on the picture above, the small brown tower)

The Forbidden City is always well visited, mostly by foreign tourists but also by Chinese from other provinces who visit their Capital.
We were with a friend and just while I was telling her that spotting a Muslim sister was mostly easy because of Hijab, I saw a white Hijab far away and told her: “It looks like a sister over there”. At the exact same moment this sister noticed me too, and suddenly she started running. At first I didn’t realize she was running towards me, but when she reached me, she grabbed my arm and then her friends, who came running after her, started taking pictures of us. It was a strange experience, I felt like a tourist attraction myself. Entrance
They were all quite young and wore hijab in a different way then I was accustomed to, and they wanted to know where we came from.
We tried to talk to them but their English was very limited but they did understand “Canada”, so after many “Salaam Aleykoums” we continued our tour.

After we concluded our visit we exited the City through the huge main gates. We kept to the right while on our left the new visitors entered. And there in the crowd on the left, coming towards us, we spotted more Hijabs, and they spotted me! While we were looking at each other from far away, we started waving. My husband encouraged me to go and greet them up close, so I walked towards them and they did the same. It was a family, with a baby.
Again photos were taken and 'Salaam Aleykoums' were exchanged, and that was that, they didn’t speak English at all, so we smiled and walked backwards waving goodbye, so lovely, so heart-warming and funny at the same time. We kept them in sight for about 200 meters, at that point they entered through the big gate into the Forbidden City and we were on the outside.

We visited Beijing in March 2011
Article written in May 2011

Covering 178 acres, the Forbidden City is surrounded by a 52-foot-wide, two-meter-deep moat and a 30-foot-high red wall. Its 800 buildings contain 720,000 square meters of floor space, with 150,000 square meters of building space, and is said to have 9,999 rooms (the number 9 represents longevity), but actually there are only 8,707. Its chambers and storehouses contain 1,052,653 rare and valuable objects that aren’t even displayed. The walls that surround the court are 2,428 meters long.