The Forbidden City, a World heritage site since 1987, was the site of the Chinese Imperial Palace from the 15th century Ming Dynasty to early 20th century Qing dynasty. The Forbidden City houses the Palace museum, one of the most visited museums in the world. As the Forbidden City contains around 1000 buildings, one would need to visit the place over a few days to visit them all. My friends and I simply walked along the central axis from the south gate to the north gate taking in the structures along the way.
Walking into the outer city through the Meridian Gate, one has a a lovely view of the Gate of Supreme Harmony. During the Ming Dynasty, the Emperor held morning court sessions with his Ministers here while in the later Qing dynasty, it was used for ceremonial functions only.
I saw the movie ‘The Last Emperor’ after my visit but I would recommend your seeing it before your visit to the Forbidden City, if you haven’t seen it yet. The movie, filmed mostly at the Forbidden City, provides an interesting glimpse into the life of the last Emperor of China, who abdicated in 1912.
Crossing the little bridge, we entered the Gate of Supreme Harmony to come across the center of the complex, three halls on a marble terrace. The largest, the Hall of the Supreme Harmony was the venue of important official ceremonies.
Behind the Hall of Supreme Harmony is the smaller Hall of Central Harmony, where the Emperor used to rest before or between ceremonies. The third of the halls in this square is the Hall of Preserving Harmony, which was used for rehearsing ceremonies.
Beyond the Hall for Preserving Harmony is the inner city, the home of the Emperor and his family. The center of the inner city had another set of three halls – the Palace of Heavenly Purity which was the official residence of the Emperor, the Palace of Earthly Tranquility, the official residence of the Empress and between the two halls was the Hall of Union.
Walking beyond the inner city halls, we came across the Imperial Garden. A key hall within this garden is the Hall of Imperial Peace.
I found that I liked the Imperial Garden best because it not only seemed tranquil, but also had the atmosphere that people had been happier here than they had been in the ceremonial halls in the outer and inner courts.
My friends, Michelle and Emma, were happy to reach the end of our walk through the Forbidden City and eager to find some place to eat as they had skipped lunch and were very hungry.
Exiting the Forbidden City at the north end, we came across a major bus stop as there were many numbers marked on the road and different buses would stop at the number corresponding to its bus number. Intrigued, we decided to take a bus to ‘Wangfujing’, as I recollected it was a shopping area nearby and bound to have restaurants. After talking to other commuters, we found that the bus to Wangfujing was 103 so we waited at the stop, which had the number marked on the road. However, when a bus which was not 103 came by, some of the people we had asked earlier indicated that we should get in. To make sure that that bus went to Wangfujing, I asked the driver, “Wangfujing?” and he nodded but didn’t take the money I gave for our three tickets. He pointed to the back so we went in. There was a person shouting at the back, which was presumably the conductor of the bus. It was not really different from the crowded Sri Lankan public buses, where the ticket conductor would keep shouting for people to move so that more people could be fit in yet remember with ease if each passenger had paid for their tickets and not. So, the experience was not a culture shock to me as it was for my two friends.
We were not sure which stop we had to get down and we knew it was not so far away from the Forbidden City stop so we kept asking if it was the stop for Wangfujing at intervals. When we came past an area, where we saw a sign on one of the stores that said in English ‘Wangfujing road’, we immediately got out of the bus at the next stop and and walked along the main road till we came across a restaurant. We walked into it and found that the staff were undergoing a briefing and prep talk by their manager before the restaurant opened for the evening but they were courteous and asked us to come and sit inside and gave us the menu. Fortunately, there were English names printed under the Chinese names and we were able to order our dinner without problems.
After dinner, when we emerged from the restaurant, we saw the pedestrian street across the restaurant was lined with lighted stalls and crowded with people. We decided to walk across the street, which I later learnt was the Wangfujing snack street located in Dongcheng district. A place where commercial activity has taken place since Ming dynasty. Though we did not feel like eating, as we had just had a full dinner, we decided to try out one of the candied fruits.
I would recommend eating at Wangfujing snack street so you will need to time your visit there as it seems to come alive only after 6pm.
We decided to take the cab back to our hutong. This was the first time that we were taking a cab without a Chinese speaking friend in the cab with us but we felt ok as we did have the hotel card, written in Chinese, with us. We did find it difficult to get a cab to stop for us though and several of the cabs quoted an inflated price of 100 yuan for the ride back to our Hutong. After refusing a few cabs, we finally managed to negotiate the price down to 60 yuan. We were quite proud that we had managed to negotiate with a cab driver, who didn’t know English, using some basic Chinese words mainly numbers and short phrases that we had learnt during our stay.
This little half-day trip during our stay in Beijing was a memorable one.
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