One thing I forgot to mention about Tiananmen Square, in the previous entry, was the intense security, both overt and covert. A local man we got into discussion with before arriving at Tiananmen Square, accidentally let us know that plain clothes security personnel would be in the square, that they spoke English and eavesdropped on tourists. Shortly after arriving in the square, Ray felt that we were being trailed in exactly that way, as he observed a man following us for quite a few minutes - didn’t get his picture, though! Perhaps our friendly local was a security operative himself, warning us off…
Access to the square is also heavily managed with barriers and police controls everywhere, although once on the square we could move around pretty much everywhere. As noted in the last entry, it is a very impressive space and the backdrop of the entrance to the Forbidden City really highlights the differences and similarities of the ancient and modern governance of China.
So, on to the Forbidden City. To access the City, we had to pass under a major road; cross the ancient, 52 metre wide moat; and pass through the inevitable laneways of barriers. However, once we entered through the Meridian Gate, we were transported back to Imperial China as most of the sights and sounds of modern Beijing disappeared behind the Forbidden City’s imposing, eight metre high walls. These walls, designed to keep all but the most privileged away from the Emperor, served their purpose for an amazing 500 years. Today, it houses the Palace Museum, a vast collection of art and treasures primarily from the Ming and Qing dynasties, but also encompassing many other artefacts exemplifying Chinese history and culture.
The Forbidden City is enormous, covering more than 70 hectares and comprising alomost 1,000 buildings within its walls. There was no way we could experience more than just a taste of what the City/Museum has to offer in the couple of hours we spent there, but we were mightily impressed by the intricate detail of the buildings, in both their construction and decoration. The only disappointment was that we could not enter any of the Imperial buildings, to see the detail of Imperial life. In that respect, we were confined to peering in through windows or open, but fenced off, doors; and having to wrestle with the crowds to gain the best view. This, by the way, was the same situation we faced in the morning at the Summer Palace. Still, with only a couple of hours available, it was probably all we could manage anyway!
The Southern part of the Forbidden City, which we entered directly from the Meridian Gate, is known as the Outer Courts and comprises a series of three massive courtyards along the central axis, which incorporates the Imperial Way and a number of important Imperial administrative buildings. Along the central axis are three Imperial Halls of Harmony, used by the Emperors during ceremonial events. Beyond those, is the Inner Court, which was where the Emperors and their families lived almost exclusively. While in the vicinity of the Inner Court, we visited a couple of exhibition halls of the museum, to see a - VERY! - tiny part of its incredible collection of over a million works of art and artefacts. Around the palaces of the Inner Court are numerous sculptures of beings important to ancient Chinese culture, such as cranes, deer and dragons.
Our couple of hours passed all too quickly and we spent the last 30 minutes or so wandering around the Imperial Gardens, which are within the Inner Court. This is a very beautiful garden and it would be easy to spend a few relaxing hours here - if not for the crowds of people! No wonder the Emperors kept the riff-raff out! No words needed here; we’ll let our pictures do the talking.
We left the Forbidden City by the Northern gate - the Gate of Divine Might - thoroughly impressed with our afternoon’s excursion. As we walked alongside the moat, back to our bus, we reflected on how much time we would need to do justice to the Forbidden City - a couple of months might scratch the surface. We don’t have that time, so our couple of hours will have to do.
We returned to the Sichahai Hutong, which we had visited yesterday, but this was free time to relax and explore on our own, before dinner. While it seemed a bit like a filler, we didn’t mind as it gave us the opportunity to stroll around the lakes and watch the locals relaxing and enjoying the pleasant, early Autumn evening.
Soon enough, we were back on the bus and whisked off for our evening meal. The second part of our evening excursion was a “Night Tour” of Beijing, which we had I magined would be a windscreen drive. However, it actually turned out to be a walking tour - mostly self-guided - of Wangfujing Street, a major shopping street, and its adjacent Wangfujing Snack Street, one of several highly popular food streets in Beijing. Of the three optional tours we bought on to, this was the least value for money, but that did not really detract from the novelty of the food street. Fortunately, we had eaten dinner so we were not desperate for the snacks on offer, which included skewered scorpions and cockroaches - still wriggling! - as well as squid legs and whole baby chicks. For the more squeamish, fruit cups and ice cream were on offer!
A 40 minute drive back to the hotel rounded out a very long and varied - but ultimately satisfying - day. Tomorrow will see our last full day of the tour and the second of the two main highlights we had been looking forward to - the Great Wall.