The Forbidden City

Beijing, China

Had a very good sleep at the Hulu Hotel. Would certainly choose to stay here again. Brilliant central location, great comfort and a real charm. Despite being so very central, it was sooo quiet. No dogs, loud noises, motorbikes…. actually the bikes are treacherous in Beijing. They often have their own lanes and do not seem to obey any traffic signs or give way to ANYONE. So your really have to watch for them when you are crossing the road because they don’t stop at crossings at all. Even worse they are often electric and they run fast but silently so they come speeding up behind you in the little alleyways and you have little warning they are there. I was nearly roadkill several times!
Had a nice breakfast at the hotel and then Jessie came for us at 830 and we were off again. First stop Tianneman Square, the largest square in the world. It is surrounded by the government area, much like Whitehall, and these days you have to go through a security checkpoint before you enter the square. We had picked a particularly “interesting” day! There were sooo many people there. The square is sized to hold 1 million people and there wasn’t quite that but there were probably tens of thousands. One of the main buildings in the square is Mao’s Mausoleum where he lies in state in a crystal coffin. Every so often, they close the mausoleum to “tidy him up”, freshen the embalming and indeed this was the first morning it had been open in a couple of weeks. The line of Chinese tourists just snaked around the square. Incredible. Jessie explained that it used to be only foreigners and upper class Chinese who travelled but that in the last 10 years, a middle class is emerging in China and they are now travelling a lot. Clearly a lot of these tourists were just that. Without being rude about them, they looked like country people up in the big city for a visit and very overawed and impressed by all the wonders around them. As well they might be. It is an impressive place. Built to advertise greatness as are all such squares.
The other buildings in the square are the Great Hall of the Chinese People i.e., Parliament, and the National Museum of China. The Chinese do hold elections but most Chinese people do not vote because there is no point as it is all decided beforehand and there is only one party. They would like a multi party system but……
So, at one end of the great square lies the gate into the Forbidden City. A large arched gatehouse marks the entrance and it was from here that Mao pronounced the birth of the New China at the end of the Civil War. There are always three arched entrances in each gate. The middle is the largest and that one was only for the Emperor. The last emperor was deposed in 1911 but he was allowed to stay in the Palace until 1926 when he had to leave. Eventually he became a gardener after the Cultural Revolution.
We passed through the gate and into the first huge courtyard. More interesting developments! About 2/3 of the courtyard was fenced off with a line of security men and soldiers standing along it. We had already seen loads of them out in the square. It turned out that the President of Germany was visiting with a party of dignitaries and so a large part of the Forbdden City was cordoned off for their party to progress through. In one way it was annoying because it made our part even more crowded than it might have been and it also meant that we could not look into 2 of the palaces because they were inside the cordoned off area. On the other hand, it meant that we could see a large part of the courtyards and palaces totally empty and spacious. A sight probably not often seen. We saw the dignataries very close up.
The Forbidden City was built over 20 years in the mid 1400s and it is largely built of wood in a series of large courtywards with Palaces spaced in each for different purposes and the edges of the courtyards lined with rooms for high officials of the court. We could not go into any of them but you could look in and see some of the furnishings. A lot of the contents were stolen in the years of the civil wars, by the Japanese and more destroyed during the Cultural Revolution . There are quite a lot in the museums but little is left in the Forbidden City itself really. The roofs and painted fascias of the buildings are beautiful and you can get a sense of the splendour and the oddness of the environment as it must have been. We saw the Empress’ Palace and the Palace where the concubines lived in their various quarters. I have recently read a book, a fictionalised true history, called Empress Orchid, about a girl who became an Imperial Concubine and her life in the court. Well worth looking for. Of course there is also the film The Last Emperor, which is the only film ever made within the Forbidden City. Must watch that again now.
The crowds were not as bad as the square but it was crowded and there were large groups moving through, quite a bit of pushing and shoving. I would love to go again in a quieter time and be there at gate opening to have a chance to experience it more peacefully. If that is ever possible.
Finally we came out into the Imperial Garden which was just amazing. Not a flower garden in the English sense but a collection of sculpted trees and rocks that had been lifted from under a lake. The water had molded the rocks into weird shapes and they were arranged amongst the trees as sculptures. There were water pools and falls, pagodas, and a great mountain of assorted rocks some of which looked like dragon’s heads. Water had been piped to them so that on request the dragon’s heads would spout water. At the top was a pagoda. The Imperial family would sometimes climb this rock mountain to sit in the pagoda.
It took about 3 hours to visit the Forbidden City and we barely scratched its surface. Reason for another visit.
After that, we found our van again and went to the Temple of Heaven. This amazing temple is in the southern area of the city and it was built in the 1400s solely for the Emperor to pray and sacrifice in. He would go there at least twice a year to pray for good harvests and success for China. This involved animal sacrifice and there are surrounding halls for this purpose and kitchens too, and a beautiful park. The temple itself is a three storey round pagoda style building on a high series of marble terraces. It is built entirely of wood and painted beautifully. Interestingly, it was constructed without using a single nail or fixing. All of the pieces dovetail and slot together like an amazing jigsaw puzzle. Only the Emperor could ever enter it. The court and nobles had to pray in the ceremony outside on the terraces.
Well, by this time we were templed out and starving. We went to the nearby Pearl Market, (sadly no time for shopping on this trip) and had a fast dumpling and noodle lunch. The plates of dumplings were huge! I don’t know how we summoned the greed to eat them all….
Then it was sad farewells to Jessie who had been an amazing guide and back to the van for our trip to Tianjing and the ship. It took about 2 hours and we slept a lot of the way. The weather at the port is very much colder than that in Beijing. Amazingly so. It felt freezing and we were glad to get into the cabin.
Have enjoyed our hectic 2 days in China and would definitely love to return and explore so much more of this great, huge country. The odd thing about it – and maybe this just reflects the Beijing area – is that it didn’t feel as “foreign” as I expected it to. Beijing was much more European in feel than any of the Indian cities for example. Wide streets, modern shops, clean, not crowded. The roads look European. The offices and flats do. The grey skies! LOL I’m sure when you get into the south west, or the north west it must be very different but on this visit China felt less “foreign” than India by a country mile. And I didn’t expect that.

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