Forbidden city

“Welcome to Beijing and the smog” greeted a cheeky driver at the airport. It was cold and I figured it was the cold air that created the ‘cloudy’ atmosphere. At 4.30 in the morning, I was unable to understand the magnitude of the driver’s claim. We arrived at our hotel in the Dongcheng district around 6.00 am. Fortunately, they checked us in without any charges or delays. That was great.

This area is close to not only a subway station but also the popular Wangfujing Street and walking distance to the iconic Forbidden City. We had not slept since departing Auckland (14 hour flight and transit) and the 17 hour transit in Kuala Lumpur. However, we were ready to explore the ancient, but rapidly urbanising and modernising, city of Beijing.

Beijing or formerly known as Peking, had existed since 1045BC during the Western Zhou period and was named Jin City. It was in 1644, during the Qing Dynasty, it became known as Beijing, Northern Capital. It is the last of the four ancient capitals of China. The People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949 by Mao Zedong.

Construction began in 1406 under the auspice of Emperor Yongle, when he moved his capital to Beijing. The Imperial Palace was the centre of power for 24 emperors during the Ming and Qing dynasties. It had survived for nearly 600 years.

The thick smog was evident as the day broke. The sun was completely blocked by the thick smog. The reading today was 220 (it was 400 the day before!). It was really bad. I had anticipated that in winter, air pollution would escalate due to burning of coal for heating. Part of the population had masks on. The weather was mildly cold, although at minus 6 degrees C.

As we approached one of China’s iconic structures, the Forbidden City, it began to snow. Temperature plummeted. I was inadequately dressed and felt cold, just manageable. Long lines of people queued along the road to be inspected and bags x-ray. Finally we arrived at the south entrance, the Tienanmen Tower (Gate of Heavenly Peace). All visitation to this ancient building began in the South and ended in the North (although quieter side entrances allowed for entrance and exits). The entrance is guarded by two stone lions and on the gate, with a large portrait of Mao Zedong above an archway. The plus side of travelling in winter is, less crowded. There was a heavy presence of uniformed and informal police. Across the busy boulevard, is the vast open concrete floored Tienanmen Square. In the hazy weather, Soviet styled building blocks scattered around the square was like a mirage.

We crossed over one of the several intricately carved white marble bridges to enter through Tienanmen Gate under the watchful eye of Mao.  Today with 40 yuan, anyone enter this ancient city. In its hay days, any outsider caught entering without permission will be executed, hence, the Forbidden City. We walked along the main axis towards Meridian Gate. This was a very imposing structure, maroon wall with pagoda-like roofs with glazed yellow tiles. Very impressive indeed. On the left is a park, Zhongsan Park.  We purchased our ticket and moved on through the Meridian Gate (Wumen).

The continuous light snowfall accumulated on the ground added some contrast against the black tiles on this huge square. A meandering river (partially frozen), the Inner Golden Water River cut through the square. Five marble bridges permitted movements across the river. Beyond that is the Gate of Supreme Harmony (Tàihémén). Two bronze lions guard the entrance. Although a dull day, the multitude of colours emanated from roof tiles, red columns and patchwork of colours of ceilings, beams and fascia were fascinating.  The intricate joinery and designs were intriguing. All made from timber. I can imagine the sights on a sunny and clear blue sky day. It would indeed be a spectacle.

Beyond that, through a large open space is the Hall of Supreme Harmony (Taihedian).  This is the ceremonial centre of imperial power. The wooden structure with two-tiered yellow roof tile is elevated above the ground set onto a marble foundation. The centre marble steps with dragon motif engraving leading to the hall is reserved for Emperor. The golden throne, on raised platform, is adorned with a variety of furnishing. Engraved dragons, painted in gold, coiled around six columns.  The ceilings are wonderfully and richly painted with intricate designs. Everything here shouts authority, status and glamour. An impressive sight indeed, such opulence. This hall is also the largest wooden structure in China.

Workers continually maintained the grounds. Away from the main thoroughfare, it remained quiet and allowed for quiet contemplation. I was barely managing the cold. Walking through this city will certainly require a good part of the day. This would enable one to see many of the buildings that lie on both side of the main axis.  Varying doorways; sculptures; windows and doors; ceilings and wall; rooftops; all ornately carved and intricately designed. Then , there are the pavilions and courtyards to explore and reminiscent of the opulence days of the  Sons of Heaven. An interesting feature must be the gargoyles, designed to drain water away from the buildings. The engravings on stone and marble including the balustrades, all contributed to the grandeur of this city. There are numerous pathways, alleyways and buildings to negotiate.

Some of the side entry paths were closed. However, there are numerous buildings to discover and admire, especially the architecture and history. How can names like these not be intriguing – Arrow Pavilion, Imperial Medicine Room, Screen Wall of Nine Dragons, Hall of Imperial Supremacy, The Palace of Benevolent Tranquility, Hall of Pious Earnings, Palace of Earthly Tranquility, Hall of Abstinence and so on.

Now, we were really rubbing shoulders with the Ming and Qing. Back home, I am currently watching some ancient Chinese movies on early dynasties and life in early China. Roaming amongst these wonderful buildings, I can almost see the Emperor, the son of Haven, in his fine robes, army officers fully kitted with swords and amour and the red robed scholars with their fancy hats. All living within the confines of this outer city. The inner city, is reserved for the Emperor and his ‘family’ including the wives, concubines, eunuchs and helpers. The ladies, in fine silk and costumes, walking around the imperial gardens, in the south, gossiping and plotting their next moves. We exited the city through Gate of Divine Prowess (Shénwǔmén), the northern gate. The moat was frozen and the corner turret look cold and alone. Beyond this gate, is an artificially created hill, Jingshan Park.  Great views of the Forbidden City, weather and smog permitting!

The inner and outer city, forming the grand Forbidden City is a city within a greater walled Imperial City which is within a greater outer wall. Built according the numerology, astrology and Feng Sui, an impressive sight indeed. More importantly, a museum of significant historical and cultural heritage to not only China but mankind. An era gone by.

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