AN IMPRESSIVE PALACE OR PRISON – FORBIDDEN CITY

After 24 hours on the train from Hong Kong, we were finally in Beijing, China. We came to Beijing to see two bucket list items both UNESCO World Heritage listed: The Forbidden City and the Great Wall of China.

We had six days in this city to wander, explore and discover. According to the Lonely Planet Guide, the top ten things to do in Beijing are:

1.0 Great Wall of China;
2.0 Forbidden City;
3.0 Tiananmen square;
4.0 Walking around the old Hutong neighbourhoods;
5.0 Temple of Heaven;
6.0 Summer Palace;
7.0 Eating Peking Duck;
8.0 Lama Temple;
9.0 Chinese Performing Arts, and
10.0 Drum and Bell Towers

We did eight out of the top 10, plus a few extra activities in six days. We could have spent ten days in the city. There is so much to do and see. We walked everywhere to see as much as possible of the inner city.

First bucket list item was the Forbidden Place, mainly as it was close to our hotel Novotel Beijing Xin Qiao, 4-star hotel, two blocks from Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City.

WHAT IS THE FORBIDDEN CITY?

The Forbidden City is a palace complex in central Beijing, China north of Tiananmen Square. It houses the Palace Museum, and was the former Chinese imperial palace and state residence of the Emperor of China from the Ming dynasty, since the Yongle Emperor in 1420 to the end of the Qing dynasty, 1924. The Forbidden City served as the home of Chinese emperors and their households and was the ceremonial and political centre of the Chinese government for almost 500 years. It is the largest ancient palatial structure in the world and was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1987. It is one of five important palaces due to its impressive Chinese architecture.

WHY IS THE PALACE CALLED THE FORBIDDEN CITY?

In total, 24 Emperors occupied the Forbidden City of the Ming and Qing dynasties between 1420 to 1924. The palace complex is so huge, 14 Emperors of the Ming dynasty and 10 of the Qing dynasty lived here. It is named “Forbidden City” because the palace could only be accessed by the Emperor, his immediate family, his concubines and thousands of eunuchs (castrated male servants). Even male family members could not stay in the city, so the Empress could not be impregnated, only by the Emperor. Ordinary people of Beijing would never enter the palace in their lifetime.

Map of the Forbidden City and Palace Museum, Beijing, China

INTERESTING FACTS OF THE FORBIDDEN CITY AND PALACE MUSEUM

The size of the complex is impressive:

  • It is the largest Palace complex in the world;
  • It is the largest example of Imperial Chinese architecture in China;
  • It has 980 buildings;
  • It has 8,700 rooms;
  • It occupies an area of 780,000 sq. metres, of which 167,000 sq. metres are buildings;
  • It is over 3 km in length, and
  • The moat is 52 metres wide and 6 metres deep;
  • The walls are 7.9 metres high and has a circumference of 3,430 meters.

In other words, it is huge in size. I don’t think we have ever been to a palace so large in our lives. We are both really taken by the Imperial Palace.

TIANANMEN SQUARE

After a visit to the Tiananmen Square, which of course is known for the students’ protests of June 1989, we went under the pedestrian crossing to get to the Meridian Gate to enter the palace.

Tiananmen Square is in actual fact the largest public square in the world, designed by a Russian Architect based on the Red Square in Moscow in 1950. It houses several large Chinese museums; however, we did not have time to see them.

We took a moment to reflect on where we were standing, especially as one has to go thru security to enter the square. I could just imagine, what it would have been like in 1989.

We did have an incident in the square with one of the security guards carrying a rather large gun and my husband was taking photos of Mausoleum of Mao. It was a scary moment, to say the least. The one observation we made is the amount of CCTV cameras everywhere in town. Ones every move is monitored in Beijing.

FIRST SIGHTS OF THE PALACE

Traditionally, the Forbidden City is divided into two parts.

The Outer Court included the southern sections and was used for ceremonial purposes.

The Inner Court includes the northern sections, and was the residence of the Emperor and his family, and was used for day-to-day affairs. The Forbidden City used to be the centre of Beijing of the Inner City. To the north were the Bell Towers and Drums Towers. To the south was the Temple of Heaven.

It was believed, that the Emperor was the Son of Heaven, and therefore Heaven’s supreme power was bestowed upon him. The road from the Palace goes straight south to the Temple of Heaven. Besides, the Forbidden City was the highest point in ancient Beijing.  So, the Emperor would be closer to Heaven. The city had the tallest point in old Beijing, so he was at all times at a higher level than anyone else in the city.

There are four gates in each direction of the Forbidden City: The Meridian Gate on the south, the Gate of Divine Might on the north, East Glorious Gate on the east and West Glorious Gate on the west.

Most visitors enter the Forbidden City through Tiananmen, “Gate of Heavenly Peace”. Through the gate, across an expansive brick-paved square, you will reach the main entrance to the palace, the Meridian Gate. The main exit gate at the north side of the Forbidden City is the Gate of Divine Might.

Marble pillar with the square at the Hall of Supreme Harmony and Meridian Gate in the background

The Meridian Gate has five gateways. The central gateway is part of the Imperial Way, a stone flagged path that forms the central axis of the Forbidden City and the ancient city of Beijing itself and leads all the way from the Gate of China in the south to Jiangshan in the north.

Only the Emperor would walk or ride on the Imperial Way, except for the Empress on the occasion of her wedding, and successful students after the Imperial Examination.  The Empress would only enter the Forbidden Palace once in her life to marry the Emperor, she was never allowed to leave again. It was the same with the hundreds of Concubines, who were selected by the Emperor personally. The ladies were there to provide children to the Emperor. I will talk more about these ladies and their lives in another blog, as it is a very interesting part of history. 

Once you through the first gate called the Meridian Gate you come into a square, just take some time to reflect on where you are standing. It is an unbelievable experience to be standing in a museum, that was used for over 500 years by the Chinese Imperial family, especially as you can now walk through the central gateway that in history only reserved for the Emperor. In this square you will find toilets, a museum shop where you can buy bottle of water and souvenirs.

View of the Hall of Supreme Harmony, when one enters the Gate of Supreme Harmony

Next you goes through another set of gates called the Gate of Supreme Harmony. One comes into another large square with five marble bridges and the first hall of Supreme Harmony in full view. This hall is the most important and largest structure in the Forbidden City. The Emperors’ Dragon Throne resides in this hall.

Five Marble Bridges in the square at Hall of Supreme Harmony. The creek runs through the complex

The path up to the Hall is one of the most beautiful in the Forbidden Palace. At the centre of the ramps leading up to the terraces are ceremonial ramps, part of the Imperial Way, featuring elaborate and symbolic bas-relief carvings. The southern ramp, in front of the Hall of Supreme Harmony, is about 20 metres only, 3 metres wide, but is made from two stone slabs joined.

The Hall of Supreme Harmony was the ceremonial centre of imperial power and the largest surviving wooden structure in China. It is nine bays wide and five bays deep, the numbers 9 and 5 being symbolically connected to the majesty of the Emperor. Set into the ceiling at the centre of the hall is an intricate caisson decorated with a coiled dragon. Even the doors have dragons on them.

In the Ming dynasty, the Emperor held court here to discuss affairs of state. During the Qing dynasty, as Emperors held court far more frequently, and the Hall of Supreme Harmony was only used for ceremonial purposes, such as coronations and imperial weddings.

Hall of Supreme Harmony

Even the doors have all symbolism on them, at the Gate of Supreme Harmony and the Hall of Supreme Harmony.  In ancient times, the number of doornails symbolized status. Nine is the largest singular number, symbolizing supremacy. Therefore, the arrangement of the doornails on the gates of the Forbidden City is nine rows by nine rows.

Mark in front of the Doors of the Hall of Supreme Harmony

There are another two smaller halls in the centre of the Forbidden City, but not as impressive as the first one Hall of Supreme Harmony.

The Hall of Central Harmony is a smaller, square hall, used by the Emperor to prepare and rest before and during ceremonies. Behind it, the Hall of Preserving Harmony was used for rehearsing ceremonies and was also the site of the final stage of the Imperial examination.

When one goes thru the doorway on the right, one comes into the Inner Court. There are another set of three halls:

  • Palace of Heavenly Purity;
  • Hall of Union, and
  • Palace of Earthly Tranquillity

Smaller than the Outer Court halls, the three halls of the Inner Court were the official residences of the Emperor and the Empress. The Emperor, representing Yang and the Heavens, would occupy the Palace of Heavenly Purity. The Empress, representing Yin and the Earth, would occupy the Palace of Earthly Tranquillity. In between, them was the Hall of Union, where Emperor and Empress would meet.

After the last hall, one comes into the Imperial Gardens within the Walls. It is here, that I found this beautiful Golden Elephant.

Elephant in the Imperial Gardens, Inner Court, Forbidden City, Beijing

ARCHITECTURE

One also need to understand the significance of colour to really appreciate the Imperial Palace.

The colours of Emperor were Yellow, Red, Blue and Green. Yellow was the colour of the Emperor, so all roof tiles are yellow glazed tiles. Red was the colour of the Imperial family. Blue represents the sky and green represents the earth.

North facing doors, Hall of Union, Forbidden City, Beijing

The main halls of the Outer and Inner courts are all arranged in groups of three representing Heaven. The residences of the Inner Court on the other hand are arranged in groups of six representing the Earth.

Every time one enters another courtyard look at the mosaics. This alone was worthwhile the visit. To think the tiles and decorations were made over 700 years ago, truly unbelievable.

The sloping ridges of building roofs are decorated with a line of statuettes led by a man riding a phoenix and followed by an imperial dragon. The number of statuettes represents the status of the building – a minor building might have 3 or 5. The Hall of Supreme Harmony has 10, the only building in the country to be permitted this in Imperial times.

We exited through the Gate of Divine Might. We watched the sunset over the moat.

HOW LONG DOES IT TAKE TO WANDER AROUND

If you want to visit Forbidden City with only limited time, you can choose to go to the Southern Gate via east or west instead of walking through Tiananmen Square.

We started on day one with Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. It took us five to six hours to walk through these two areas. One day does not do this magnificent palace justice. It is such an impressive complex.

Imperial Throne at Hall of Supreme Harmony, Forbidden City, Beijing

WHEN TO GO

We went to Beijing end of October and it was getting cold during the day. In the morning it was in single figures, but by midday around 18 to 19 degrees. Within the week, the night temperatures dropped to freezing. So, bring good walking shoes and a thick coat for the evening and early morning plus a jersey and sweater for walking during the day. It gets cold in the shade.  When it gets cold in Beijing, there are problems with pollution and fog. We were lucky not to experience these winter conditions in Beijing.

Copper water pot for fresh water. There was no plumbing in ancient times

WHAT TO BRING

The security is very high around Tiananmen Square. You need to go thru security screening to enter the square. All Chinese Nationals have ID cards on them, so take your passport as your ID card. I have lamented a copy of the front page of our passports, so I just showed them instead. They were accepted by the security guards.

The ceiling at the centre of the Hall of Supreme Harmony is an intricate caisson decorated with a coiled dragon

TICKETS

One does not need to go on a tour to the Forbidden City, we went by ourselves. All you need is your passport to show to the ticket office. They generate the ticket electronically, just walk back to the second set of security checks, show your passport and you are in.

Only 80,000 tickets are issued each day, so get there no later than midday. Otherwise one will not have enough time to see everything.

CASH OR CREDIT CARD

Forbidden City accepts Mastercard, Visa, and Pay Union cards for ticket purchase. 

HOW TO GET CHINESE RENMINBI OUTSIDE OF CHINA

One might ask, why to put this comment in a blog. Well, it is not easy to get Chinese currency outside of China. I had tried major banks in Auckland, New Zealand with no luck to get Chinese Renminbi, CNY. I managed to get some CNY thru a currency exchange trader, but only CNY 2600, which is NZD$600 or EUR300. I did not get any funds out of an ATM in China. Next to the Novotel is the Bank of China. We exchanged our left over CNY in Beijing, as I was informed it is illegal to take CNY out of China.

COST

Summer pricing CNY 60 each, about NZD$12 per person or EUR 6.00;

Winter pricing CNY 40 each, about NZD$9 per person or EUR 4.50.

OPENING HOURS

 HOURSTICKET HOURSSEASON
APRIL TO OCTOBER08.30-17.3008.30-16.30Summer
NOVEMBER TO MARCH08.30-16.3008.30-15.30Winter

On Monday, the Forbidden Palace is closed

Sunset over the Moat, Forbidden Palace, Beijing, China

WHERE TO EAT

We finished the day by going out for dinner to a Peking duck restaurant. This meal was until 1911 only available for the Imperial family, but afterwards, the Royal chefs lost their jobs and started to open up restaurants serving this delicious meal.

I will let you make up your mind, whether it was a palace or prison for the Empress and the Concubines. As Westerners, we have the ability to think outside the square and have an opinion of things… something not is taken lightly.

We were totally overwhelmed at this time by the beauty and architecture of the palace. It is an incredible place to visit. I hope one day to return to Beijing, but next time we will go by a guide into China for personal security reason. We will be entering with our vehicle from Australia, and we are legally required to have a guide with us at all time.

Made with Love and Passion for the Open Road,

Travellers Nest Overland team,

See Our YouTube Traveller’s NEST NZ channel:

TRAVEL TRAIN SERIES CHINA S1E7: UNESCO THE FORBIDDEN CITY BEIJING | TRAVELLERS NEST OVERLAND

Published by travellersnestoverland

What might seems extreme travel to some is normal to us. Two Dutch Kiwis, Rolanda and Mark, with Passion for Overland travel either with our overlanding truck, cars or by train. We have been on the road now for a number of years, 70 Countries done and dusted

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