Gugong – the Forbidden City – was at the top of our list of must-sees in Beijing. Unfortunately, it seemed (though I must admit, with justification) to top everybody else’s list as well. We arrived at Wu men, the Meridian Gate of the Forbidden City, at about 10 in the morning, to find long queues snaking their way across the courtyard from the ticket windows. Working our way to the front, battling beggars, guides, and sellers of pamphlets, ice lollies and mineral water, we finally bought our tickets (a steep 60 RMB per person) and followed the crowds through the main gate.
The Forbidden City was once taboo for outsiders; the imperial household led luxurious and often unbelievably ostentatious lives within the secluded halls of this vast palace complex. Built in the centre of Beijing during the early years of the 15th century (specifically, from 1406 to 1420), the Forbidden City was occupied over a period of 500 years by 24 emperors. It sprawls in a series of gardens, splendidly decorated halls and pavilions, and vast courtyards, across 720,000 square metres. The Forbidden City, according to a plaque we saw, originally consisted of 9,999 and a half (?!) rooms. Today, it’s down to about 8,000 rooms, but they’re all quite breathtaking. Curving eaves are covered with glazed tile, almost throughout in imperial yellow. Stone, wherever used, is carved in auspicious shapes – dragons, phoenixes, and clouds – and colourful floral patterns are painted onto wood just about everywhere, including the ceilings. Interestingly, all across the Forbidden City, you’ll see huge metal cauldrons or vats. There are 308 of these, made of either copper or iron. Water was stored in the vats for fire fighting (remember that most halls are wooden), and the vats were wrapped in quilts during the winter to keep the water from freezing. When it got too cold, fires used to be lit under the vats – which may, I felt, have been a fire hazard itself. Anyway, an interesting bit of trivia is that you can tell which vat was made by which dynasty simply by looking at the handles on the sides. Ming vats have plain ring-shaped handles, while Qing vats had ornate handles shaped like animal heads.
We walked through the first gate, the wide stone staircase beyond milling with tourists, as was the courtyard below. Having crossed one of the five-stone bridges that span the Golden River (a broadish stream, really), we turned to the buildings on our left, and continued along that way.
A brief word of orientation before I proceed. The Forbidden City is built on a north-south axis, with courtyards all down the centre, punctuated by huge halls that stand at right angles to the central north-south axis. On either side of the central courtyards, to left and right, are more halls, smaller courtyards, gardens, and more. Many of these are still out of bounds for visitors. Since we ended up spending over five hours within the Forbidden City and still couldn’t see it all, I guess this didn’t really make much of a difference to us. We’d not have had time to see them in any case.
Beyond the Inner Golden River Bridges stands the Taihe men (The Gate of Supreme Harmony); on the left of this huge hall and the courtyard beyond are a series of pavilions with exhibitions related to imperial China. The first we saw was Weapons and Armors of the Qing Dynasty, a collection of helmets, uniforms, swords, guns, powder horns, cannon and the like, mostly pretty dusty and poorly labelled. The next exhibition – Qing Dynasty Imperial Music – was housed in the Hongyi gye (Pavilion of Spreading Righteousness), and consisted of outsize musical instruments used in religious and imperial ceremonies. The display here was as dusty, dull, and uninspiring as in the previous pavilion, but beyond this, things started to look up a bit.
Beyond the Taihe men, we crossed a vast courtyard, which is supposed to hold 100,000 peopl