The Forbidden City
A few years ago I watched The Last Emperor, the epic Oscar-winning Bertolucci movie that told the story of China’s final ‘emperor’, and I was blown away by how gorgeous the emperor’s “Forbidden City” looked on screen. It was so romantic, with its Chinese buildings, courtyards, and medieval architecture. I never in a million years thought I would be able to stand where those events took place, but years later, it turns out I would! After arriving in Beijing, I knew that the Forbidden City was the first tourist site that I had to see. Honestly, nothing beats old-school pomp and circumstance, and I’m a sucker for over-the-top palaces of old (see Ferocia’s Versailles post from a few weeks ago)! They just don’t use slave labor like they used to!
It was a sunny Monday morning in Beijing, and both of our Beijing friends had to work that day, so my two American friends and I navigated ourselves all the way to Tiananmen Square by ourselves, armed with not much more than “Ni Hao” in our collective Mandarin vocabulary. After an intense subway ride (word to the wise, Beijing Subway line 1 is not for you if you have personal space issues!) during which our American faces attracted many curious stares, we climbed out of the subway station and into the center of Beijing, which basically feels like the heart of China itself. As you emerge above ground, you see Tiananmen Gate on your right, Tiananmen Square on your left, and an enormous amount of soldiers, tourists, and vendors. It’s a place that can’t be described, absolutely full of life, with a busy traffic-filled street separating 15th century imperial architecture on one side from 20th century Communist architecture on the other.
I looked at Tiananmen Square from its north side, marveling over the cold and imposingly enormous gray buildings and monuments that line the massive outdoor space. I mentally took note of their gloriously communist names (e.g. Monument to the People’s Heroes, the Great Hall of the People, and of course Mao’s Mausoleum). While most of Beijing is incredibly modernized, with new American-style shopping malls popping up by the hundreds seemingly everyday, this little piece of Beijing pretty much looks the same as it did in the late 1950′s, when Communism was fresh and new, and China was drastically changing. Just being there made me feel like I was in a time warp! The history dork in me wanted to check it out, but the compromising traveler in me knew it was best to not drag my friends there, and instead head north into the less Soviet-inspired and more beautiful, exotic, and uniquely Chinese Forbidden City.
To enter the Forbidden City, you must first walk through Tiananmen Gate, the enormous five-arched red wall that was originally put in place in 1415, was since rebuilt, and now houses the giant portrait of Chairman Mao looking upon his people. Trust me, you’ve seen it in pictures. While you’re there, guards may
eye you suspiciously, and you may get separated from your travel buddies when Chinese tourists aggressively dart in and out and all around you, but that’s all part of the charm! Upon walking through the gate, you are in the first courtyard-style entryway to the Forbidden City. The place is a bit chaotic, with popsicle-touting vendors shouting “YI KUAI YI KUAI YI KAUI” (or, ‘one dollar one dollar one dollar!’) in your face, unofficial “tour guides” with suspiciously good English approaching you to buy their overpriced service, and other general scam artists trying to get you to talk to them, as they assume Americans and Europeans have a ton of money to spare. Advice for travelers to China: if someone approaches you, and speaks great English, pretend they are invisible and keep on walking. There is a reason they speak English that well, and its not a good one.
Once we bought our tickets and walked through the first inner gate, the atmosphere changed. Yes, the main courtyards of the Forbidden City are still crowded with Chinese tourists, but the noise died down and the mood changed as everyone was simply in awe of the ancient palaces. Aside from Chinese tour guides with their megaphones and flags, you kind of forget that just beyond those 500-year-old ancient red walls lies a modern city of 20 million
people because you are surrounded by incredible temples, halls, and pavilions that are from an era gone by. Their roofs shimmer in dazzling yellow under the afternoon sun, and the walls dance in bright greens, blues, and reds. Even after all these years, the place doesn’t cease to amaze anyone lucky enough to visit.
The biggest surprise I had while walking through the Forbidden City was its sheer size. This wasn’t just a couple palaces, but in reality a whole “city” of buildings that the Emperor never even had to leave. My travel buddies and I walked pretty fast, and even still it took us well over an hour to get from one side to the other. Also, as with most old things from many cultures, the attention to detail in the place was extraordinary: impeccably carved bronze statues lined the courtyards, roof tiles were decorated with tiny detailed sculpted phoenixes and dragons, marble staircases showcased incredible dragon and heaven-related designs, gardens were landscaped with beautiful layouts. Basically everywhere you turned, you were looking at something designed, placed, and carved by hand, with incredible thought put behind its placement as well as its religious and philosophical
significance. And while you couldn’t go inside most of the old buildings, you could peek your head in the open doors if you were willing to battle it out with the Chinese tourists for space. The interiors with lined with ornate carpets, gilded thrones, crazy statues, and an incredibly ancient-smelling musk that smelled like history, or a murky basement, depending on how you thought of it. I cheerfully took a deep breath inside the “Hall of Supreme Harmony” and was immediately whisked away back to the Ming Dynasty, between my coughs and wheezes.
I definitely recommend the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square as a first tourist stop in China. The sense of nationalism,
history, and specifically Chinese atmosphere really make you stop and realize you’re not in Kansas anymore. As long as you’re mentally prepared for a long walk and a big old crowd, it’s a great way to welcome yourself to the country!