When I first arrived in China, I spent three days in Beijing as a sort of holiday before starting my teaching contract in Changzhou (a little known 3rd Tier City in Jiangsu Province) on 1st November 2014. Three days! I did three main things – walked around the Forbidden City on Day 1,
walked on the Great Wall on Day 2,
and walked across Tiananmen Square on Day 3.
I did lots of other incidental walking around Beijing’s wide and elegant tree and shop lined boulevards and atmospheric hutongs as well as sampling Beijing Duck, baozi dumplings, pancakes and Tsingtao beer, having a traditional Chinese foot massage and feeling totally overwhelmed by everything.
The decision to visit The Forbidden City on my first morning, a Sunday, was a lucky one, as it’s closed to the public on Mondays. I could see it from my hotel and it seemed the obvious choice, as well as being one of those bucket list things, so I wanted to tick it off early in my stay. Looking at the map, it’s a two-block walk from The Emperor Hotel. That translates into a greater distance than it looks because everything is so big in China, including city blocks. I took the wrong turn at first, but soon got on the right track, just by following the general pedestrian traffic.
It’s an interesting walk along the streets leading to The Forbidden City. There are lots of unique little alley ways (Hutongs), quaint architecture and daily sidewalk tableaux. As you approach, the traffic increases and you come to the imposing city wall surrounded by the Palace Moat.
The moat is massive and a popular place for afternoon local gatherings and angling. Not sure I would like to eat the fish caught here.
The beauty of the architecture set off by the clear autumn tones of trees and sky was quite breath-taking.
On, the gated entrance area, was absolutely swarming with tourists from everywhere, but mostly China. I have learnt quickly that Sunday is the busiest family day in China, with many people having a weekend and lots of out-of-towners making the trip into the city to visit relations and to just generally enjoy all this amazing country has to offer.
After lining up to purchase my entrance ticket, in the largest queue I have ever been in, I made my way towards the Gate of Supreme Harmony stopping briefly to get a headset and earphones for an audio tour. There are security checks and x-ray machines at all these public monuments, and you often have to go through them several times before entering the attraction. So it was at the Forbidden City. It’s also incredibly modern, and there’s an app…
Through the Gate of Supreme Harmony, the whole scene opens out into an immense paved courtyard surrounded by walls and buildings, all red, yellow and green. You can almost feel what it may have been like to have been here, a mere mortal, back in the day with the Emperor, his concubines, children and lowly palace attendants.
I dutifully tried to follow the audio tour….but the ear phones kept falling out of my ears, the sound was cutting out and I lost track of where I was so I gave up, instead wandering wherever I felt and sporadically consulting my trusty Lonely Planet Beijing Pocket Guide. You can read all about the Forbidden City and why it is now called the Palace Museum here.
Some of my favourite parts follow, in no particular order, just my lingering impressions of the day.
To finish, I want to add my favourite place in the Forbidden City. I came upon this little well in a secluded, quiet area off the more beaten path with only a few other lookers. It was part of a wing that has not yet been properly restored, housing a ceramic collection mostly donated by people who realised the value of their surviving household items after the Cultural Revolution.
I love the thick, peeling vermillion paint, the worn utilitarian cement and stone and the ornate roof, a mini replica of the grand roofs of the great halls. Simply beautiful.
After walking from one end to the other and meandering all over in between, it was definitely time to go home to my hotel for a rest. You could spend a whole day exploring this fascinating city within a city, but I was tired and ready for something else. One last look back up that imposing wall to the pagoda roofs above, then the walk home to The Emperor and later that evening, although I didn’t know it yet, to a traditional Peking Duck Dinner and all the theatre of eating duck in a Beijing Duck restaurant!