A party for the party
Revelers flock to Beijing's Tiananmen Square as celebrations begin for the 50th anniversary of the People's Republic
Tiananmen Square at night
BEIJING (CNN) -- I've been wanting to get back to Tiananmen Square ever since I arrived in town this past weekend. Some people here had told me I wouldn't recognize it, but that's been true so far for most of Beijing.
It's apparently true for some Beijing residents as well. I was tired and heading back to my hotel room when I hailed a taxi.
The driver took what looked to me like a novel route back. He must know what he's doing, I thought. After literally an hour of driving around and trying to contain my temper (complete with such terse exchanges as, Me: "You said you knew how to get there." Him: "I forgot."), I told him to take me to the only landmark I still recognized outright -- Tiananmen.
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Getting there was easier said than done. It seemed as if everyone in Beijing was going downtown to celebrate and gather in the square. I'm from New York. The only thing I can compare it to is the crowd that gathers each year in Rockefeller Center when the gigantic Christmas tree is lit.
My hapless driver, who I'm sure was sick of me by this time, then became stuck in a traffic jam that stretched out of sight down Chang An (Eternal Peace) Avenue.
After several moments of breathing in everyone else's exhaust, I had had enough and got out. The poor man was so embarrassed by our earlier trip to nowhere that he refused to charge me.
After dashing to the safety of the sidewalk (which was no mean feat), I began to walk east toward the square, which I estimated was three miles farther. I was far from alone. Whole families, on bicycles and on foot, were heading in the same direction.
On and On and On: Chang An Avenue's new electric face
A happy migration
The main attractions were the light displays along the avenue. I don't know if modern China has ever witnessed a scene like this -- on this scale. On nearly every block leading to Tiananmen at least one building is decorated extensively with electric lights. The effect was like entering a miles-long Christmas display with 300,000 or so of your closest friends.
It was also one of the happiest mass migrations I've seen. People stopped to admire nearly every illuminated structure and to have their pictures taken. I'm sure part of the delight was seeing such renowned and official places as Zhongnanhai, the living compound of China's top leaders, brilliantly illuminated.
Just beyond Zhongnanhai is Tiananmen, and the place was buzzing. Crews with big yellow cranes were working directly outside the gate, next to huge bleachers being set up for the National Day Parade. Twin sets of klieg lights, apparently meant to illuminate the marchers, were being tested.
So everyone can see: Families use all modes of transportation to come downtown and take in the sights
Across the way the square was indeed quite different from when I last saw it 10 years ago. Large searchlights on either side moved back and forth in unison, creating patterns in the low cloud cover. The mass of humanity was attempting to stay off the new grass borders, but there were plenty of things to keep them from looking at their feet.
Tiananmen Square right now is a festival to the Communist Party. Above the stairs on the Museum of Chinese History is a digital clock counting the days, hours, minutes and seconds until December 20 -- the day Macau reverts from Portuguese to Chinese rule.
Multi-colored lights hang on trees outside the Great Hall of the People, the building where the Chinese government receives heads of state and other dignitaries.
In Sun's shadow: Modern China's founder Sun Yat-sen is commemorated in Tiananmen Square
Just in front of the Monument to the People's Heroes, the obelisk that marks Tiananmen Square's center, is a portrait of Sun Yat-sen. Sun, the nation's first president who is almost universally revered by the Chinese, gazes confidently across the square at Mao. Sun is flanked by huge red slogans that celebrate the 50th year of the People's Republic.
Changing of the portraits
I was examining the Sun portrait when I felt something behind me. I say "felt," because it was less a sound than a sense of something happening.
I turned around to discover that Mao was coming down from his place of honor. The yellow crane I had seen was gingerly lowering the portrait, exposing an older and darker coat of red where it once hung. I discerned no sense of alarm or exclamations, but the movement of this image -- embedded in the minds of so many when they think of Tiananmen -- had definitely caught everyone's attention.
The more things change...: A new portrait of Mao goes up on Tiananmen as the old one is prepared by a crane for removal
It took me a while to walk to the front of the square -- it is, after all, the world's largest man-made gathering place. By the time I had threaded my way through the crowds a new portrait of Mao was already rising toward the spot where the old one had been.
Don't ask me, please, if I saw any changes between the new and old portraits. I tried to compare them in my mind and I couldn't. But everyone else in attendance seemed to like the change.
"Yes, it's a new painting," said one man in response to my query. He had a huge smile on his face -- whether because he liked what he saw or because I had just said something amazingly ungrammatical in Mandarin, I don't know.
And then, within minutes, it was over. The new Mao was up, the old was being loaded onto a flatbed truck and driven into the Forbidden City. It was time for another taxi.
Bruce Kennedy was a Chinese history major at Bowdoin College in Maine. He worked for Visnews, the international television news agency, for five years before joining CNN in 1988. After a stint at CNN International, he began work at CNN Interactive. Kennedy has extensive experience in East Asian affairs, having studied and worked in the region.