Wednesday, May 9, 2007

The Forbidden City

I probably shouldn’t admit this, but I really didn’t know very much about the Forbidden City when we arrived at the gates. I didn’t even know why it was called 'The Forbidden City'. Sally knew much more as a result of the books she had read, and the movies she had seen. As a result of my ignorance, I wanted to buy a guide book. But it’s tough buying anything as a foreign tourist in Beijing. For one thing, you don’t know if what you buy is real. For another, you don’t know what a fair price is. Eventually I bought a guide book that included more Russian than English, but the price was right! A few minutes later, once we were inside, I discovered that you could rent electronic guides that were programmed to activate themselves at key locations around the site. So we got two of them, only to discover that our machines were not fully synchronized, and so we often had to resort to our English/Russian guidebook.

The Forbidden City, for those of you who haven’t been here, occupies the central part of Beijing, across from Ti’ananmen Square. It was the imperial palace of the Ming and Qing dynasties. Construction began in 1406, so it has a history of over 600 years. 24 emperors ruled the whole country from here, and they had some very opulent digs, while the rest of the people lived in hovels outside their walls.

The grounds are large, occupying 178 acres. The overall complex is extremely impressive, although many of the buildings start to resemble one another after a while. There are some wonderful courtyards, and gardens that include 300+ year old cypress trees. Many of the buildings were used for conducting government business; others provided accommodation for the emperor, the queen, the concubines, the princes, and various relatives and staff. Today, the buildings are considered the most magnificent ancient architectural complex in the country. In 1987, the Forbidden City was included on the UNESCO list of World Heritages. As a result, although there is a Starbucks in the Forbidden City, it cannot have a sign outside. Sally hates to admit it, but when she discovered it, it was like an oasis after her barbq’d pork breakfast snack. (She has promised never to criticize Starbucks ever again!)

After the Forbidden City, we did what every Beijing tourist does, and took a ride through the Hutongs, or back alleys in a rickshaw. As we rode around, we saw a lot of great investment opportunities, and we are sure it is only a matter of time before most are bought up, renovated and sold off as Beijing Mews townhouses.

A warning about rickshaw drivers. They are always quite charming, trying hard in their broken English to tell you about their city. But we have been taught that you have to negotiate the price before you head off, and we always do. But regardless of how clear the terms are, the driver always tries to pretend that the fare agreed upon at the beginning is for each person, not both. And you always end up feeling like a real cad if you don’t give him the extra few dollars. It happens every time!

Some final thoughts about the Forbidden City. I really have not done justice to this place. It is a museum, full of wonderful artworks and artifacts collected over hundreds of years. For example, there’s an exhibition hall devoted solely to clocks and watches collected from around the world; there are halls and gathering places as ornate as any at Versailles; there are fabulous stone sculptures and so on. One could spend days or years studying the palace. But when it’s really hot outside, and you are one of 120,000 people going through, and you didn’t have a very good breakfast, it’s really hard to appreciate it all!


Anonymous said...

I missed it during my tour and thought it was an urban myth. Thank you for confirming - there is a Starbucks at the Forbidden City. I am enjoying your travel log immensely. Sandi (mom of Sarah - Norway delegation)

Anonymous said...
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