A high-speed visit to The Forbidden City

One of the top highlights of any visit to Beijing is a visit to the infamous Forbidden City, one of imperial China’s most exquisite displays of traditional Chinese palatial architecture and grandeur.  Built in 1406 to 1420 and used as the imperial palace during the Ming dynasty to the end of the Qing Dynasty, the Forbidden City is one of the best preserved complexes of ancient cities in the world, containing over 980 buildings and 9,999 1/2 rooms in the heart of Beijing.

What makes the Forbidden City so fascinating and mystifying is that it was forbidden to the general public for over 500 years.  Only the emperors (there were 24 in total from the Ming and Qing dynasties who lived there), their families, and their crew of eunuchs and servants were able to live there, from its onset until 1911, when the Qing dynasty was ousted and the Imperial era ended.  The Forbidden City was not opened to the general public until 1925, over 500 years since its construction.  (For more historical information and facts on the Forbidden City, click here.)

Our hotel was in a prime location – at the heart of Beijing – within blocks of Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. We couldn’t have selected a better location as our base.  We knew that the Forbidden City was huge thus agreed to devote at least a half a day for exploring the world’s largest surviving palace complex (The Forbidden City was built in the center of the ancient, walled imperial city of Beijing and covers over 178 acres in a rectangular shape.  From north to south it measures 961 metres (3,153 ft)  and 753 metres (2,470 ft) from east to west).

As we ate our lovely American breakfast, we could see the packs of provincial Chinese tourists march by our window, all wearing identical hats in order to identify them with their respective tour group.  Guides wearing headsets, microphones and sporting a similar matching hat, lead the way.  We were glad we weren’t part of the mob.

My dad and I, of course, had a different plan in mind for touring the Forbidden City.  We would simply walk to Tiananmen Square, look “American” and wait for our sales pitch.  We would go with the best, most informative Chinese (yet English-speaking) tour guide at the most competitive price for a two-hour tour.  We knew we could spend an entire day there and that most guides were happy to spend the whole day with you.  But we knew what we wanted:  A brief, yet comprehensive basic tour of the Forbidden City, all crammed into two hours time.

We headed around the gigantic 52-metre wide moat that surrounds the impressive Forbidden City walls towards Tiananmen Square, one of the main entrances to the Forbidden City.  We were lucky that it was still relatively early, only 8:30 am, thus the massive crowds we saw yesterday afternoon were presumably still riding into central Beijing on the tour bus.

We didn’t think it would be hard to find a guide.  Just the day before we got accosted by plenty of tour guides looking for potential clients while we strolled through Tiananmen Square.  Yet this morning they all seemed to be in bed, sleeping.  We waited patiently, glancing around and trying our best to look like we needed help.  Within five minutes, we met “Jack” (not related to our previous tour guide Jackie who brought us to the Great Wall.  Must be a popular “western” name!).

Jack was tall, lean and intense.  He dove right into his sales pitch with wanting eyes and seemed slightly offended as we tried to negotiate down the price and make a time limit on our tour.  He informed us that he was one of the best Chinese tour guides for the Forbidden City.  We knew within seconds after meeting him that he was the one.

Jack proved to be an excellent guide albeit an extremely high-strung, driven individual.  My father had realized that he had met his match.  Jack possessed even more of these qualities than my sometimes impatient, yet highly energetic father!  Me, on the otherhand, was rather excited to have such a high-strung, chatty guide.  I took plenty of notes!

Here are the photos from our intense, high-speed visit to the Forbidden City.  Hope you enjoy them as much as I do!  Warning: I had an awful hard time cutting them down.  So I decided to include almost all of them!

The entire Forbidden City, which overs 178 acres, is surrounded by a 52-foot-wide, two-meter-deep moat and a 30-foot-high red wall. I loved this picture of the backs of the buildings reflecting in the grimy waters of the moat. 

Looking the other direction.

This picture is definitely one of my favorite “third-eye” moments! The locals catching their dinner!

As we approached the Forbidden City, once again I had hoped for better weather than your typical smoggy Beijing day.  It finally dawned on me that this was a “normal” day in Beijing and I’d have to get used to it.  Too bad….as I would have loved to see the Forbidden City behind the smog.  

When I first saw the Forbidden City, my first thought was how intimidating it looked.  It went as far as the eye could see and was all done in imperial red, the color of China.  

There are four entrances (gates) to the Forbidden CIty.  We entered through the gate outside of Tiananmen Square, right next to the ticket/admission office.  This is the main gate that leads you through the Forbidden City’s main sights.  The above picture illustrates the crumbling, 30-foot high red wall that surrounds the Forbidden City.  

There is also this high grayish-colored wall that is on the far outside of the Forbidden City.  You could see plants creeping their way through the cracks. 

Here is the main ticket counter.  We were lucky to not have a big line.  It was still early (only 9 am) and the Forbidden City had just opened.   

Above is a picture of the main entrance to the Forbidden City.  This is where we met Jack, our tour guide for the morning.  The lines and groups of tourists were already forming as we entered into the Forbidden CIty.  Our timing was perfect! 

Jack was an eager teacher and couldn’t wait to tell us all about the amazing history of the Forbidden City.  All in all, there are 9,999 1/2 rooms.  Why the 1/2 room?  Because there are 10,000 rooms in Heaven thus there is a half-less room in the Forbidden City.

The line above is called the “Dragon Line” or “Middle Line” and was reserved and only used by the emperor.  The only other person able to walk on this line was the emperor’s wife, on their wedding day.  The line leads to the emperor’s office and house.  

The inside of the Forbidden City was enormous and kept going on and on through different archways and gates.  It is a beautiful place and I found this picture to be among my favorites. 

The first building we came to is the most important and largest palace in the entire Forbidden City, the emperor’s office.  The Dragon’s Line leads straight towards it.  

All of the 980 buildings in the Forbidden City are the same exact color scheme and architectural design.  The color red is the most prominent color on all the buildings followed by the yellow roofs. 

Each building is flanked by a male and female lion.  The male lion is on the east (closest to the rising sun) and the female lion is on the west.  The lion is symbolic of power and protection of the emperor.

Above is a picture of me in front of a female lion.  You can tell due to her location (west side of building) and also underneath her right foot is a baby lion.

The intricate painting on the woodwork of each building is unbelievable.  I could not stop taking pictures of the colorful design that remain bright hundreds of years later.

A group of provincial Chinese tourists in the “white cap” tour group. 

We walked past building after building trying to take it all in. 

This giant vat is one of several that is used for burning incense. 

A building’s importance is measured by the number of animals on top of the roof.  This is the top of the emperor’s office, the most important building in the Forbidden City.  It has the highest number of animals, ten.  The emperor’s home (his wife had her own as she had to share him at night with his concubines) had nine animals on top, which is considered a lucky number in China.

The crane symbolizes long life in China.  We found it ironic that it is the national bird.  There are so many (building) cranes up in China due to the intense construction boom, that we laughed at this irony.

The turtle is also an important animal in China.  It symbolizes long, happy life and good luck. 

An up close shot of the beautiful, yellow-tiled rooftops seen throughout the Forbidden City.

This is how fires were put out in the Forbidden City.  There are over 308 giant copper and iron vats that used to be filled with water in case of a fire. 

The vibrant red and gold colors can be seen throughout the Forbidden City. 

A picture of my dad and I in front of one of the many buildings (now weeks later, I can’t seem to remember exactly what building this is.  I guess that is one of the problems when there are over 900 and they all look identical, except in size!)

I love the shapes of the yellow tiled rooftops. 

There are plenty of impressive stone carvings and statues as well.  

Yet another building.  

Unfortunately the smog started to really set in, decreasing visibility greatly.  Yet I still really love this photo of the rows and rows of buildings.  Many are not even open to the public.  Just the main buildings are as it would take weeks to see them all and some have not been restored.  

Above is the “Large Stone Carving” made out of one piece of stone.  (Below is a sign that gives the details). 

Last but not least is a picture of the last emperor (only 6-years-olds when he became emperor.  His name was Puyi) who was finally booted off the grounds in 1924 (he lived here from 1911 after the failed revolution that ended the dynasties until 1924 when he was escorted off the grounds by the army).

After he left in 1925, the Forbidden CIty was finally opened to the public, over 500 years later.  Now it is the “unforbidden” city!

Stay tuned…more posts on China coming up soon!  I will be discussing “The Art of the Chinese massage”, “Asian toilets”, Beijing’s Hutongs, and more.