CHAPTER 7 –
I screamed as the rented wheelchair carried me out into the traffic. But my slim young helper was stronger than he looked, and he pulled me back immediately.
Neither his English nor my Mandarin was particularly good (in fact, my Mandarin is pretty much nonexistent) but I understood him to say I’d be perfectly safe crossing eight lanes of Beijing traffic to get to Tiananmen Square, then from there to the Forbidden City, former home of the emperors, their wives, concubines, and children.
“No,” I said, gesturing toward an opening in the sidewalk a half block away, through which my husband and the rest of our group had disappeared. Again, bilingual waving of hands and shaking of heads got the message through to me: No ramp, just stairs leading down to a tunnel underneath the road.
“I can walk down the stairs,” I insisted, but my pusher wasn’t about to let me out of the chair. I knew I could walk down the stairs, but he would have to carry the wheelchair. So we had reached an impasse. An impossible impasse. As our guide Arnold had promised, there had been wheelchairs for rent where our tour bus stopped, but Arnold's ‘big strong man to push it' had failed to materialize. Instead, I was left with this slim young man, while everyone else had abandoned me by the roadside.
Soon, however, a large group of Beijing citizens gathered on our side of the road, and indicated to me with gestures and words, both Mandarin and English, their ability to provide a great wall around my wheelchair to escort me safely across the street.
Thus, the impasse passed, the traffic stopped to let me by with my entourage and, in Tiananmen Square I met up with our guide, our group, and also my husband, who cavalierly dismissed my adventure through eight lanes of speeding traffic with “Oh well, at least you’re here.” Easy for him to say, after he had crossed beneath the street where there wasn’t a car to be seen.
So there I was, with my heartbeat gradually returning to normal, sitting in a wheelchair with a black umbrella to hold over my head so I wouldn’t break out in hives from exposure to the sun, contemplating a three-hour trip through China’s Forbidden City.
If you’re an unfittie such as I am, able to walk, but not very far and not very fast, by all means rent a wheelchair because there is much to see inside those walls. Along with the Great Wall, the Forbidden City is the iconic picture that calls to mind the country of China. It is the most famous attraction in the city of Beijing. But be sure you negotiate in advance with the person pushing the wheelchair. Start right now saying, “I can walk up and down stairs” in a firm tone of voice. Learn to say it firmly in Mandarin if you can.
Then have your traveling companions or, preferably, your guide, confirm this, to be sure the message gets across. Because, although there are ramps in the Forbidden City, they are not wheelchair ramps. Anyone who has seen the animated movie Mulan or its sequel will know that. They were built as ramps for the Emperor’s horsemen, with ridges to make the footing more stable, as it were, for the horses.
Those ramps are not made for unfitties to be pushed up, after a running start, in a tilted wheelchair, by a young man whose enthusiasm outweighs his strength. Trust me on this one. It is scary and it is painful. Being pulled down the ramp on the other side, with the wheelchair tilted backward again, is scarier still. And there are many, many buildings, with many, many horse ramps.
If you’re ever in Beijing in the summer, take another tip from me. Before you get to the wheelchair-renting spot, which will probably be where your tour bus stops, on the far side of the road from Tiananmen Square, be sure you are carrying a light-colored umbrella or a pastel parasol. Even people without photosensitivity problems can sustain some serious sunburn. But, although black might be fashionable for most occasions, it is not, I assure you, for this one.