The Forbidden City
A bit more of our Chinese trip
Tuesday 8th September was our last day in Beijing and we intended to spend it in the forbidden city. First we checked out of our hotel and put our bags in their baggage store. I had found 161 Hotel on www.bookings.com and had been pleased with it. The three young girls on the front desk spoke very good English as had the lady on the tour desk. As I’ve said before it was 2 blocks down from the Dongsi metro station and was set in an area that had some nice places to eat. It was set among a hutong area which looked a bit grotty but once inside it was very comfortable. Our room was on the fifth floor without a lift but it was ok because they call the ground floor the first, small flight of stairs to second floor, no fourth floor (Chinese are superstitious of the number 4) so there was only 2½ flights of stairs to climb. Our view wasn’t brilliant, we looked out over the roofs of the adjoining buildings, but the room had only cost us the equivalent of £154 for 4 nights which we felt was good value and we had only been there in the evenings. The bed was a bit firm but the bathroom was clean. I would stay there again and would recommend it to others.
On the ground floor was a lovely little coffee shop which sold sandwiches, cakes and breakfast pastries as well as very good coffee. This photo shows the reception desk with the tour desk on the right and the coffee shop tucked away on the left with the first flight of stairs to the second floor beyond.
This was looking into the road from the main rood and the 161hotel is about 4 doors in on the left. Although the hotel is within walking distance of the Forbidden city we took the Metro to save time.
Tian’an Men Guangghang – the Square of the Gate of Heavenly Peace- is a vast open concrete expanse at the heart of modern Beijing. It’s bordered by 1950s Communist-style buildings. The square has traditionally served as a stage for popular demonstrations and is most indelibly associated with the student protest of 1989 and its gory outcome. We were still plagued with closures and crowd control from the weekend but were able to walk into Tian’an Men square where this Monument to the people was erected in 1958, that’s a good year!! The granite monument is decorated with bas-reliefs of episodes from China’s revolutionary history but this was as close as we were allowed to go.
Along one side of the square is this huge building which is the Great Hall of the People and is the seat of the Chinese legislature. The vast auditorium and banqueting halls are normally open but they had been used over the weekend and hadn’t reopened.
We didn’t spend very long in the square because the whole area was fenced in and to get into the Forbidden city you had to follow a route which, despite being fairly early, already had a fair amount of people snaking along its path so we left the square to join it. I was worried we wouldn’t get into the Forbidden city because everywhere was still very crowded. The road was closed giving me a chance to take this photo looking back into the square of the vast flower arrangement created to mark the 70th anniversary of VJ day. You can see how crowded it was. It’s just possible we were walking past that fateful spot from 1989. We continued for about 20 minutes until we came to the ticket office. Amazingly there wasn’t a queue because many people were on tours and already had their tickets so we just walked straight in.
The Forbidden city, officially known as the Palace museum, is China’s most magnificent architectural complex and was completed in 1420. It has seen s4 emperors rule during it’s 500 year history. It was the exclusive domain of the imperial court and dignitaries until the 1920s. In front of us was the Meridian gate, a U-shaped portal at the south end of the complex. In former times the emperor would review his armies and perform ceremonies from the balcony marking the start of the new calendar. He would also pass judgement of prisoners and oversaw the flogging of troublesome ministers! I took a panoramic shot of it because it’s difficult getting some of these buildings in one photo.
Once through the gate the courtyard opened out towards the Gate of Supreme Harmony. Originally used for receiving visitors and later for banquets during the Qing dynasty (1644 – 1912) I walked to the corner of the courtyard to get this photo.
This photo was taken from the steps on the eastern side and just shows the vastness of the area. This courtyard could hold an imperial audience of 100,000 people.
Before passing through the gate we veered off to the east and made our way to the Hall of Literary Glory to look at the ceramics gallery in one of the eastern buildings. Some of the exhibits were stunning. I love vases but these were amazing.
Once back in the main courtyard we made our way back to the entrance with the five marble bridges symbolising the five cardinal virtues of Confucianism. They cross the golden water which flows from west to east in a course designed to resemble the jade belt worn by officials. We crossed over them.
In front of us was the Gate of Supreme Harmony with a pair of Chinese lions guarding the entrance to the halls. The male is portrayed with a globe under his paw representing the emperor’s power over the world. The female has her paw on a baby lion representing the emperor’s fertility.
The Gate of Supreme Harmony, like many of the Palace buildings, sits on a raised marble platform which is encircled by dragon head sprouts. They were – and still are – part of the drainage system. It was very difficult to take photos but this photo of the side buildings of the Hall shows the beautiful restoration work and the same little rows of dragons as seen at the Summer palace. The more beasts, the more important the building.
In front of us now were the three great halls raised on a three-tier marble terrace; the glorious heart of the Forbidden city. The Hall of Supreme Harmony is the most important and largest structure in the Forbidden city. Built in the 15th century and restored in the 17th century, it was used for ceremonial occasions such as the Emperor’s birthday, the nomination of military leaders and coronations.
Inside the hall is a richly decorated Dragon Throne from which the emperor would preside over trembling officials. The entire court had to touch the floor nine times with their foreheads in the emperor’s presence. This became known as kowtowing.
I managed to elbow my way to the front of the visitors and get my photo. This is what I had to get passed, 100s of Chinese all trying to get the same photo. It was quite mad.
Behind the Hall of Supreme Harmony is the smaller Hall of Middle Harmony, seen here to the right of the photo behind the imperial sundial with the Hall of Preserving Harmony to the left. The Hall of Middle Harmony was used as the Emperor’s transit lounge. Here he would make last minute preparations, rehearse speeches and receive close ministers.
The third of the great halls was the Hall of Preserving Harmony used for banquets. Seen here from the rear with the 250 tonne marble imperial carriageway carved with dragons and clouds. The emperor used to be carried over this carriageway in his sedan chair as he ascended or descended the terrace.
From this narrow courtyard gates lead to the east and west. We took the east gate towards the Complete Palace of Peace and Longevity, a mini Forbidden city constructed along the eastern axis of the main complex. At the entrance stands the beautiful glazed nine dragon screen, one of only three left in China. The five clawed dragon represented the power of the Emperor and could only adorn his imperial buildings. The Chinese dragon is a beneficent beast offering protection and good luck, hence its depiction on screens and marble carriageways.
We turned northwards and made our way through a number of halls each a smaller version of the structure of the great halls of the central axis. The forbidden city is often compared to a set of Russian dolls. The renovation work of some of the buildings was superb. These buildings where the empress dowager and the imperial concubines lived during the Ming dynasty. It now contains a number of fine museums known collectively as the treasure gallery.
Among these buildings was the Pavilion of Cheerful Melodies, a wonderful 3 story wooden opera house which looked exactly like the Garden of Harmonious Pleasures from the Summer palace although the Pavilion hadn’t been restored as well as the rest of the palace. If you look carefully there are areas around the stage that are deteriorating quite badly. You could still imagine what a spectacle the performances would have been with events happening on all three stages. There were trapdoors in the ceiling and in the floor to allow actors to make dramatic stage entrances.
We worked our way to the far north of the inner palace and came out in the area in between the various palaces (Russian dolls again) there were walls within walls. Many of them with beautiful eaves tantalisingly over hanging the walls.
We walked along the north wall to the Imperial gardens to find the bronze kneeling elephant. The anatomically impossible position symbolises the power of the Emperor; even elephants kowtowed to him.
The garden was a classical Chinese garden with 7000 sq metres of fine landscaping including rockeries, walkways and ancient cypresses. On the west side was the Pavilion of a Thousand Autumns with its impressive circular roof. The ceiling inside was exquisite.
That brought us to the Western Palaces, a collection of courtyard homes where many of the emperors lived during their reign. Much of this area is closed to the public.
Finally we were back in front of the Gate of Heavenly Purity. I had given up taking photos by now because there were so many people there and all the palaces look very similar with the same lay out as the three great halls in the centre. The Gate of Heavenly Purity led to the Inner court with the last three palaces, again mirroring those of the Outer court but on a smaller scale. These were the sleeping quarters and it was here that the last Ming emperor wrote his final missive in red ink before getting drunk, killing his 15 year old daughter and his concubines and then hanging himself as peasant rebels swarmed through the capital.
We had spent the whole day wandering around the many palaces. We’d enjoyed a lovely lunch but were now ‘palaced out’ and we walked back to our hotel to collect our bags. The next part of our adventure was to catch the train from Beijing to Xi an. Using the Metro for the last time we arrived at the train station and picked up our pre-booked tickets with relative ease. They had been booked for us by www.china-diy-travel.com who are an excellent company. Train tickets in China are released 60 days before the date of travel. This company’s website lists the train timetables, you are able to select the train you wish to take and send them an order form. They will either reserve or diarise your booking for you and send a quotation for payment. They accept payments through paypal. Once they have booked the tickets they send an eticket which you take to the train station with your passport and swop for your tickets. They also sent detailed information about how and where to go with photos and all instructions in English and Chinese. I printed everything out so if all else failed I could just point to the writing.
Chinese railway stations are a bit like airports and you need to find out which waiting room to go to because you don’t go to the platform until the train is in. It’s all on their website.
There are 4 categories
soft sleeper – with 4 beds (2 sets of bunk beds) in a cabin with a door and air-conditioning,
hard sleeper – 3 beds to a set of bunks, no doors or air-conditioning,
soft seats – booked seats in air-conditioned carriage
hard seats/standing ticket – don’t, really don’t.
We had booked an upper and lower soft sleeper. The mattress was still hard, so goodness knows what the hard sleepers are like, and we shared our cabin with two young Chinese girls who giggled every time they attempted to speak English.
So it was goodbye Beijing; A wonderful city. 4 days was barely enough time to see all it has to offer. It was a shame that some of the sites were closed but it gives us the excuse to come back again. Next stop Xi An.