Monday, August 22, 2011

[DONGCHENG] The Forbidden City of Tourists

The first thing you’ll see before you enter the gate is a portrait of Mao. Similar to gates found in palaces in South Korea, this one is rather big and you can climb it if you want, for an extra fee. Entrance to the area is gratis but be ready to get pushed and shoved. What would be a great day to visit Tian’anmen Square and the Forbidden City? I wouldn’t know. I went on a weekday hoping that the crowd would at least be thin. Well, it was probably thinner than it would have been if it was a weekend, but there was still a big crowd in there. Whatever the board of tourism is doing, it’s obviously working. People are mostly obsessed with structures that have witnessed the intriguing events of the past, and the Forbidden City has a lot of interesting figures in history to back it up, from the 24 emperors who lived in it all the way to the infamous Empress Dowager Ci Xi.

The area is just across Tian’anmen Square and also shaped as such. If you have a metro map of Beijing, you’ll easily spot the Forbidden City area by locating the big square in the middle that no metro line would dare cross. That’s approximately the whole area. Since it is a national heritage, it is bound to stay that way. The suggested stop would be Tian’anmen East if you want to start your tour with a peek of Tian’anmen Square before going to the Forbidden City. Why is it called “Forbidden” anyway? I’ll leave that to the history books. And Google. And Wikipedia. Knowledge is not unattainable nowadays for those who seek it. It’s called the Internet, my friend.

Once you enter Tian’anmen (the gate with the Mao portrait) you will find yourself in a big square facing another big gate called Duanmen. This one has three dummies on the veranda posing as royals to greet you. Enter that gate and you will find yourself in a much bigger square, this time with stalls selling all kinds of souvenirs which include those crawling toy soldiers with a Chinese flag pinned on their ass. Far north is the biggest gate in the area called Wumen. That is the main entrance to the Forbidden City, the entrance ticket for which, at the ticket booth, is tagged as a “National Palace Museum” ticket. Withdraw 60 yuan from your wallet.

If you want an audio guide, they come in various languages but are a bit pricy and require some deposit which would include your passport. If you are a History buff, this is a must. If you are not a History buff, this would still be a plus because three hours and a hundred photos after, you’ll realize that the palaces inside (and wow, are they not plenty) all look the same to you. At least those high tech guides can tell you what significant event happened in this palace, who got assassinated in that one, who got conceived in the other one, so on and so forth. You get to distinguish one among the many others. I was not able to do that. Trying to recall everything now, all I can remember are the bright hues of red and gold, and how regal they all seemed to me.

The setup is pretty much the same. I guess East Asian Palaces are really built that way. There is a very big elaborately designed gate. There is a square surrounded by palaces to the north (usually the main palace) and on both sides (hall for ministers or temple for the arts, etc). Most of the time, there is a stream flowing under a bridge at the main square, which is almost always at the entrance. The succeeding ones have no body of water. Instead, they have footpaths at the center usually lined up with specially designed stones. If the main palace is elevated, there would be steps that bear a unique design that further adds to the character of the place.

What you see next are more red and gold. Aside from palaces, the Forbidden City also has many pagodas and pavilions, as well as some unique sculptures based on Chinese myth, or technical innovations during the early periods of Chinese History such as a sun dial. Other than that you will also find some large metal pots. And stuff. And then there are the tourists, but they are not part of the attraction. Or come to think of it, maybe they actually are!

It would be nice to roam around these palaces all by yourself, maximizing all opportunities for a photo op without having to wait for the crowd to disappear. But I think that would also be a bit creepy. I’d rather have people rather than Chinese History ghosts as companions while gallivanting. Give up your print modeling ambitions and just enjoy the view. Watch the people. Watch people watching other people. Be an observer.

If you are looking for exhibits, they have a few inside. For example, there is the Hall of Clocks which is housed in one of the palaces. You’d be seeing clocks inside, obviously. Lots of them, with different designs coming from different nations and acquired by China through trade. If you love clocks you will have a great time in there. Otherwise, you’ll just nitpick on how ridiculous some of them are. Design had been prioritized over ease of use. Some of the clocks would be hard to locate because of all the artwork. In our house our clocks are mostly just ovals and squares, but they serve their purpose even if they are not aesthetically pleasing to look at. Then again, our house is not a museum for clocks.

What followed? More walking, more color red everywhere you look. And some dragons. There is this wall with colorful dragon designs, nine of them I think, which reminded me of Kowloon. If I remember correctly, that means “Nine Dragons” in Cantonese. It must be a significant figure for them. I think emperors usually use it as a symbol for their power. That explains why they are everywhere. If you lived in the palace grounds back then, seeing all those dragons everywhere must have been an intimidating and constant reminder that you have an emperor who is supposedly a deity.

Like I said, the palaces all look similar to the untrained eye, although some features are distinguishable like the design of the doors, the balcony, and the roofing detail. They seem to follow only one theme. Of course, the more detailed the design, the more important the building is, or the person who resides in it. But since I had no guide, I had no clue. Poor me.

There is another exhibit on jewelry. There you will have an idea how they used to dress up during those days. I think you already have an idea from pop culture and historical dramas, but the pieces in this exhibit are said to be legit. I am only disappointed that there seems to be just a few in there to be seen, and the popular ones, such as that elaborate headdress of an empress, were very hard to capture on film because of the throng of people surrounding it. In ancient China they dressed to impress. In the modern world, you dress like that and snatchers will rob you at gunpoint in stark daylight.

I am sorry if I could not give pointers as to where to go or what you should see. First, it is so easy to get disoriented with all those people around you, so what I did was I just followed them wherever they went. And second, I did not have a map, which would have been handy. Otherwise, just follow the flow of the crowd, unless they lead you to another mini museum with a separate entrance fee. As for me, I was led to the theater.

Opera was popular during the imperial days. It had its highs and lows but we could say that it had its taste of fame. I was amused with the theater because of the design and the mechanism they used to hang actors from the ceilings, pretending they were divine. I suddenly remembered Moulin Rouge! Just opposite the theater is a mini exhibit and it is free! You see some scripts inside, wigs, the spot where some royals would watch the plays, and a mini version of the theater outside in a glass case showing you how they made it work.

According to my photo stream I was next led to another museum, this time for the Buddhist arts. It was not as alluring as the one housed at UB’s Winter Palace, but the collection here is also impressive and further advanced my desire to get to know the religion, which I always say but never really had the time to do. Maybe when I finish wandering around Asia I would put this on top of my priority list.

And then came the gardens with the redundantly red pavilions and mini bridges over Koi ponds. One particular garden that might be of interest would be that with the concubine’s well in it. You have to read this, it is very Sadako. So the empress dowager felt that a certain concubine was influencing her son. She ordered for her to be killed by tossing her into a well. Obviously, she drowned. That’s, like, so Sadako, right! Luckily, there haven’t been any reports on long haired women in white crawling out from the palace wells. Well, the actual well that is there now seems to be just some sort of replica. Hello, that seems so small even for a kid to drown in. Anyway, this made me want to get to know Xi Ci more. She seems like your typical Pinoy soap opera villainess if you base it on accounts regarding her life. And I love them typical Pinoy soap opera villainesses.

And then I remember pausing for a while and grabbing a drink. Or was that an ice lolly? Anyway, I sat inside a souvenir shop cum snack bar with a perfect view of a pagoda overlooking a Koi pond. Peace! And then I entered some of the Pagodas and checked the interiors. Some of them had cool ceilings and the doors are still attractively bright red but just blend so well with the design.

I was just walking there with my tongue hanging out of my mouth again out of thirst when I found out that I was already in a familiar spot near the entrance. How many hours have passed? You might want to start your tour of the Forbidden City early in the morning. Gates are said to open by 8:30 AM, and if you are lucky, you might just get that perfect photo op. Just wear your running shoes and outdo the other tourists in their own game.

Wait! Your trip is not yet over. There’s still the Tian’anmen Square, which is just a square but built to impress the world. If you are still in need of some history tour, the National Museum would be the building to your left, if you are facing the square. There is an identical building on the other side but I am not sure what it is and if it is open to the public. There is a people’s monument, Mao’s Memorial Hall, two more big gates to the south, a railway museum. Lots to see!

I’d say you should allocate the whole morning to the Forbidden City, the afternoon to Tian’anmen Square, and the evening to Wangfujing Street for some serious shopping. Wangfujing Street is Beijing’s version of the typical pedestrian shopping street meant to get you bankrupt. I’ll cut it here. This article is long enough as it already is. Just see the Facebook album for more pictures. I think there are 90 of them. The video is boring but if you want to see what’s waiting for you inside, I suggest you watch it.

2 creature(s) gave a damn:

melvin said...

forbidden city was worth 4 hours of my time in beijing.I enjoyed it but i had to endure the jostling since i went there on a saturday(my mistake).good thing i went there in spring(late march)so it made the long walks a lot easier.

ihcahieh said...

@melvin - I think it was summer when I went there, really humid! And then the crowd was thick so it was a bit exhausting. Still, marvelous structures they have there although everything gets monotonous after a while, must be all the red and gold. Hehe.

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