I find myself frequently fighting a nonchalance that creeps into my travels – like a spider building a web, the thoughts spiral: “Is this worth my time? Could I be eating food right now? I mean really, how is this different than the 25 other palaces I’ve seen in the past two and a half years?”
Then I feel the guilt. I’m in CHINA. Of course I need to see the Forbidden City. The thing is, I have to cop to knowing very little about it prior to my visit, and this lack of information only contributed to these wayward musings.
Alas though, there was actually no question about it – I was going on a full day of sightseeing around Beijing with my friends visiting from the US. I donned layer after layer after layer of cold-weather gear to face the cold, whipping March winds that surge through the wide open courtyards in Beijing’s Forbidden City.
We had a bit of a miss for the first hour – we got lost, which is par for the course here on A Little Adrift – and had some hilarious back and forth discussions when we all admitted that the Forbidden City was smaller and altogether less than we had anticipated.
Turns out we were in the workers section. The actual Forbidden City was just next door. Which we realized when we saw a pretty glittering temple just over the wall that completely outshone the handful of woefully unadorned buildings we had just photographed for an hour.
With a quick exit from the workers section, we made our way inside the actual Forbidden City along with the hordes of other tourists, shuffling along through the doorways, queuing for tickets, and we soon found ourselves thrust the huge square crowned by The Hall of Supreme Harmony.
Here in front of me was the iconic Forbidden City I had curiously studied as I perused the pages of my National Geographic magazines growing up.
We began a slow and methodical study of the buildings and architecture throughout the City. The deeper we dove into the city, the more intrigued I was by the tiny details on every building. The Palaces themselves, as structures, are quite similar. But those little details, colors, and designs are precisely what make the Forbidden City worth a wander – and that’s what I remember most about all of these amazing sites. The colorful flakes of marble detailed into the Taj Mahal and the nearly snubbed out faces of dancing figures at Angkor Wat–that’s what I find intriguing.
I’ve found that embracing my own interests, and not just caving to the prescribed traditional tourist experiences, continually defines my travels. So as we looked, I took notice of the fine cracks in the carvings near the Palace of Tranquil Longevity. I may have been at one of the top tourist attractions in Beijing, but I could spend my time looking at and learning about whatever jives over here in Shannonland.
These large decorative bronze vats flank the major palace buildings and were used for extinguishing palace fires in bygone days. The Chinese actually feared fire in previous centuries, and rightly so! According to UNESCO, the Forbidden City houses the world’s largest collection of wooden structures – so these vats stored water and throughout the freezing winters the Chinese maintained a fire under the vats to keep the water liquid, in case of fires that would have ravaged the city in minutes.
After endless minutes studying the water cisterns and the detailed artwork on the buildings, we hit the palace gardens – a little wonderland and a fun surprise to happen upon after several hours of museums and endless architecture. We instead moved into an aesthetic wonderland of flowers, trees, rock gardens and small pagodas.
The cherry blossoms were about two weeks from full bloom but we managed to glimpse and experience a small slice of China’s colorful beauty once spring fully arrives.
This is the point in the post where I just have to give a shout-out to some other buildings and spots within the Forbidden City because the Chinese may, in fact, possess the most gorgeous and lyrical naming system in the world. The buildings in the Forbidden City include:
- The Palace of Heavenly Purity
- The Hall of Mental Cultivation
- The Gate of Divine Might
- The Hall of Literary Glory
I was really torn about which ones to leave off of our itinerary (because the Forbidden City is enormous and even the most ardent and enthusiastic palace lovers will, eventually, hit Palace fatigue).
With very little energy left, we spied a tall hilltop viewpoint at the park crowning the Forbidden City and that’s when it was time for a quick bite of chewy steamed corn from a street food vendor (not the tastiest foodie choice in Beijing, for the record). The corn worked to fortify us for the easy hike up the nearby hill in Jingshan Park for panoramic views over Beijing and a gorgeous aerial view of the tourist madness down below.
Exhausted and hungry (questionably-tasty corn can really only go so far in satiating hunger) we hunted down some delicious, steaming dumplings and made our way to the Temple of Heaven –an easy side-trip addition to a half-day of exploring China’s Forbidden City.
Through it all, even with the iconic shots of the Temple of Heaven, and the Palace of Supreme Harmony, I’m glad I took five extra minutes to revel in my geek-tasticness and enjoy the little details on the water cisterns – for some strange reason I found them supremely interesting :)
Quick Tips: Visiting the Forbidden City, Beijing
Where: Enter via the front entrance – you can enter from the back, but you want to start at the front gate, the Meridian Gate, so you can exit through the Gate of Divine Might and walk across the street to Jingshan Park for panoramic views.
When: Check the hours, but generally the Forbidden City opens around 8:30am – go early and you can avoid some of the tour buses that drop off the hordes all day long. Or late afternoon (last entrance around 4:00p I think), but for the sake of your photos, and your sanity, go early, or go late.
How: The Forbidden City is right off of the Red Line 1 on Beijing’s highly effective metro system. Use the Tiananmen East or West stop on the metro line and you can’t miss the entrance. The entrance fee is currently ¥40 in the winter and ¥60 in the summer.