While lining up at the ticket counter, I think back fifteen years when I visited this place with my partner on our way to North Korea. It was a hot summer day; now, there is a breeze, not only making the temperature pleasant, but also blowing the smog away. Among the many big changes in the Chinese capital is the replacement of bicycles by cars. Despite the crowds, entrance to the Forbidden City is well organized, and after walking through the Meridian Gate, I find myself on the large courtyard through which the Golden Stream runs. Walking through the Gate of Glorious Harmony and a green expanse with trees, I reach three marble bridges and the Hall of Military Prowess, but decide to leave the painting collection for later. Back at the western side of the courtyard, I observe the big gates and pavilions with the ubiquitous yellow roof tiles, and the Golden Stream meandering through it, and under the five marble bridges, before I descend and join the crowd walking through the Gate of Supreme Harmony to reach the largest courtyard of the Forbidden City (officially called the Palace Museum nowadays). Once through the gate, the Hall of Supreme Harmony rises before me, the first of the Three Great Halls. Construction of the Forbidden City started in the early 15th century under the Ming dynasty, and the Hall of Supreme Harmony is the largest structure in the entire complex. It is one of the largest wooden structures in China, while all the almost 1000 buildings in the Forbidden City are the largest collection of wooden buildings in the world. The wood used in the construction of the Forbidden City was taken from southwestern China, while the marble was quarried in the vicinity of Beijing. Reading about the construction and the numbers (for instance: it took more than a million workers some 14 years on this over one million square metres completely walled complex) inevitably makes your jaws drop. The place is so big, that it takes a permanent maintenance squad ten years to repaint and maintain the many buildings and walls; once they have finished one cycle, they can directly start the next.
The good things about the sheer size of the Forbidden City is that the crowds disperse, and apart from some obvious places like the main halls, you can actually find empty areas and moments of peace here and there. The Three Great Halls are the main focus for most, and are closed off to the public. I have to wrestle my way to the front to be able to have a peek inside the Hall of Supreme Harmony at the Dragon Throne, on which the Emperor would once sit for ceremonial occasions; everyone else in the hall had to touch the floor with their foreheads nine times out of respect for their leader. Dragons abound in the Forbidden City; after all, it is the symbol of divine imperial power. Numbers have symbolic power, too, and often, things come in sets of 5 or 9 here as those numbers are related to imperial power as well. It is not just the throne that looks awe-inspiring, but so does the setting: ceiling and screen behind the throne, and the golden pillars. The contrast of the lushly and richly decorated interior for the highest powers of imperial China with the pushing and poking of the crowd of visitors trying to get a view of the inside could not be bigger. The halls all have marble carved carriageways which were transported here on ice and used to carry the emperor up and down the elevated halls in his sedan chair. The halls are constructed on a three-tiered marble terrace, with carved animal heads used as spouts to drain excess rainwater to avoid flooding. I find walking at the lowest level the best way to see the halls: it is almost empty, you get good views of the balustrades, and while the halls themselves seem impressive enough, you get to see the buildings at the lowest level, too.
One of the larger buildings is the Hall of Ancestral Worship, once used by the Ming and Qing emperors to worship their ancestors. It now houses the Gallery of Clocks and Watches, a curious collection of Western and Chinese works of art which tell the time. One of the most remarkable is a clepsydra, or water clock, in which controlled flow of water is used to tell the time. There are also lavishly decorated pieces with animals, or human figures. At 11am and 2pm, a demonstration of the passing hour in a few clocks is given: a magnificent display of ingenuity. From here, I walk to the Imperial Garden, where I find circular pavilions and artificial landscape sections; even a hill with a temple on top, and many old cypress trees. I walk through a long corridor between red walls, and enter the northeastern part of the Forbidden City, a separate section of the complex. I walk past the Nine-dragon screen, through several halls with small exhibitions; in the Hall of Well-nourished Harmony there are richly decorated Buddha statues. After walking through the Imperial Garden again, I explore the smaller courtyards of the northwestern side. By now, it is about closing time, and I realize that, despite spending the entire day at the Forbidden City, there is still much more to see. I love the small streets here, the gates and red doors, the lanterns, the wooden doors which need a fresh paint. Now, it becomes clear how such an immense area can be closed: security guards close off section by section, and walk behind the people who leave. It gives a good opportunity to see the Forbidden City almost empty: I walk right in front of the guards while the sun is finally casting warm light on the imperial wooden buildings. Too bad it closes a few hours before sunset! When the last visitors and I are finally out of the Meridian Gate, the iron fence is closed behind us. Even though I have spent all day at the Forbidden City, I have a strong feeling that it was only an introduction to this vast imperial complex, and that I will be back again for a third time, to get a better grasp, see more, understand more.
Around the World in 80 Clicks
Personal travel impressions both in words and images from Forbidden City (China). Clicking on the pictures enlarges them and enables you to send the picture as a free e-card or download it for personal use, for instance, on your weblog. Or click on the map above to visit more places close to Forbidden City. Read more about this site.