Wednesday – the Forbidden City

Up early for our first joint outing. We were off to the Forbidden City. It was still raining when we left and my heart sank at the thought of putting my mac on over bare arms in the steamy atmosphere. In the event the storm had cooled things down and the humidity was a lot less.

We arrived at Tiananmen Square in drizzle and heavy greyness. Mao Tse Tung’s picture still looks out over the Square from the Gate of Heavenly Peace (!?) the outer building of the Forbidden City. Today the Square is edged with flowers and full of Chinese families keen to be photographed on such an iconic spot with only the military presence indicating any evidence of the location’s sinister history. It was a bit surreal in the murky light.

In the ‘heyday’ of the Forbidden City there was a walled passageway that stretched out into what is now the Square.

Apparently Mao considered knocking the Forbidden City down but was persuaded not to. Maybe someone had the foresight to realise what a money spinner it would turn out to be in the future! So much for idealism!

The palace complex that is the Forbidden City is said to be the largest in the world. Everything is giant sized. My particular memory from my previous visit was the size of the gold studded doors and time has not made them any smaller. They are huge!

As we passed through the Gate of Heavenly Peace, we entered what is a comparatively small courtyard before passing through the Gate of Supreme Harmony which leads into a much larger area complete with streams and marble bridges. All around the place are the big copper and brass vats which in past times formed the palace’s fire defences. Full of water they were covered with blankets during the winter and when it was very cold a fire was lit underneath them to prevent them freezing over.

As an aside, walking around in the heat it is very difficult to visualise the fact that Beijing gets extremely cold in winter. The lake area where we were staying apparently ices over to the extent that people ice skate over them and the moat around the Forbidden City (which is huge) freezes.

With our Chinese guide to explain the buildings, the palace protocols and answer questions we toured the site. The names of the big gates, palaces and halls fascinate me – the various Halls of Harmony (Supreme, Middle and Preserving), the Complete Palace of Peace and Longevity, the Gate of a Heavenly Purity and the Thousand Year Pavilion. It is all so exotic,

I am currently reading the life story of the Empress a Dowager Cixi and it was really interesting to visit the Forbidden City against the background of her life. Cixi started life as a concubine and quite a long way down the pecking order, but then produced the only son of her particular Emporer which lead to her being effectively the power behind the Chinese throne for more or less the rest of her life. An amazing woman who never came out of the two royal buildings – the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace – she could neither read nor write well but she is accredited with putting in place the basis for modern China. She certainly had a lot of ups and downs and looked to be something of a Queen Victoria figure – who reigned at a similar time.

We saw the Emperor’s royal suites and Cixi’s rooms, various offices, the gardens and the harem where all the concubines lived. Apparently the concubines all had a number and the Emperor turned the tablet over with the number of the concubine he wanted that night and the young lady concerned was delivered naked ( for fear of assassination!), foot bound and gift wrapped In a gold cloth. Lovely!

A very interesting three hours later we emerged through the north exit gate and took the bendy bus back to the hotel. What a contrast!

We lunched at a very tiny cafe across the road from the hotel. I had dumplings and Keith had soup. We both had more than we could eat and with water it cost for us both the equivalent of £3.50! Dinner proved equally cost effective with a veritable banquet of dishes (including Peking duck and drinks) for £8.40.

Tomorrow we set off on the truck….

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