The Forbidden City is one tourist attraction that will intrigue visitors for years to come and it’s one of the most symbolic places to see in all of China. It served as the home of 24 emperors of the Ming and Qing Dynasties from 1420 -1911. The construction of the complex took 14 years to complete involving more than 200,000 workers. The complex consists of a series of symmetrical temples and halls forming a square along enormous open courtyards. The yellow roof tiles depict the royal court and the blue and turquoise ceilings represented heaven and earth. There are snakes and dragon, fairies and roosters all woven into the facade. The red colored towering beams are fashioned from massive red sandalwood trees likely designed in the very courtyards that greeted the emperor and now are filled with tourists. Each main hall faces south something very important in China’s Feng Shui “wind and water” construction.
Nine gates fortify the Forbidden City. The most notable is the Gate of Heavenly Peace, which is connected to Tiananmen Square. It’s the world’s largest public square and considered to most the heart of modern China. On October 1, 1949, Chairman Mao declared to the world the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (now referred to as National Day) and in 1989 several student demonstrators were killed protesting in the square. Today, it’s filled with tourists, families and (so I am told) undercover police. Opposite the Gate of Heavenly Peace sits Mao Zedong’s mausoleum and in the center, the Monument to the People’s Heroes, a 125-foot granite obelisk surrounded by Chinese flags honoring those who died in the revolution. In my opinion, Tiananmen Square cuts the Forbidden City into two parts: The outer and inner courts represent a rich history of war, sacrifice and privilege woven into the framework of an imperial palace that governed China for more than 500 years and conversely Tiananmen Square embodies change, division, hope, struggle, and power all wrapped into just 65 years.
Standing tall and waving proudly in the square representing a new China is the flag. Curious, I asked my guide about the various stars and their significance. The stars embody the Chinese people, “a yellow race.” The workers, the farmers, the merchants and the peasants joining together to forge this new beginning embody the yellow smaller stars and the largest star stands for the Communist Party. The idea behind the four small stars came from a speech given my Chairman Mao where he said the Chinese people consisted of “four social classes.” The red represents the communist revolution.
The Forbidden City is an architectural masterpiece. It exemplifies greatness and power during a time when much of the world didn’t know its potential. The halls illustrate richness in color and flawless design preserved in time and the wood and marble carvings depict the Chinese culture and beliefs. It’s like flipping through the pages of a fairytale book – imagine corrupt servants, scorned women, struggles between rich and poor, jewelry, artwork, and battle. Since 1925, the Forbidden City has been open to the public. The story now represents the people of today – it’s their history. Today, the same moat that created a division between the common people and royalty serves as a skating rink for all to enjoy.
Later in the day, (once I adequately defrosted), I visited an area known as 798. It’s a haven for contemporary artists and young people in search of a cafe. A former factory district in the 1950s, it was abandoned for years before a group of former artists commandeered the area in the 90s and converted it into a place for inspiring artists. There are a few galleries but mostly it’s filled with more knockoffs and souvenirs. I spent some time browsing the galleries and shops and tested my new technique. If I walk really really fast through the store, I can get a foot ahead of the sales people to actually determine whether or not I like an item.
Beijing, or Jing for short and romanticized as “Peking” is the capital of the People’s Republic of China. Located in northern China, it’s the second largest Chinese city after Shanghai. Beijing is considered the political, educational and cultural center of China. It has a history of more than 3,000 years and has served as the capital of China for about 850 years. Moving around the city is easy by train but expect to sit in a car or bus. It’s a major transportation hub with dozens of railways and highways passing through the city by far the worst traffic I’ve ever experienced in any city- ever (next closest Cairo).
Granted I’ve had less exposure to locals in Beijing than other cities but the locals give off an aura of conservatism. Their manner strikes me as cold or disinterested and frankly their personalities matches the design of the buildings and the layout of the city. The government prohibits much change in the city center and nothing can be built taller than the Forbidden City (Imperial Palace) but the buildings are very minimalistic. As the city expands, the architecture takes on a more modern edge but for the most part it’s comprised of high-rise apartment buildings and some glass office buildings. Clusters of similarly constructed buildings line the highways and everything strikes me as functional – no flare. That’s how I view the locals as well – hardened, traditional and a bit blah especially compared to its flashy sister Shanghai to the south. Through my travels, I witnessed significant change occurring in China but in Beijing I sense it’s more of the same.
All hope is not lost on the city. I feasted on the duck this evening and it definitely made up for the cold temperatures and stoic faces. It’s DELECTABLE and worth the trip. Since I dined alone, it took me explaining to three different servers that I absolutely intended to order the full duck. “Yes, I know it’s for two-three people but I am one.” My “buddy” made quite the entrance complete with a gong and a chef slicing its tender meat table side. With a few suggestions of how best to eat it – in a pancake, sesame seat bun or alone dipped in a divine peanut sauce – I went to work. I never doubted for a second that this duck would not be mine for the taking and I polished off the two servings, a side of soybeans and a decent glass of Chinese red wine before seeking the check. They must have thought I planned to eat all night because they forgot to check on me. Good thing! I had big ideas for dessert until my food digested.
Friday is my last full day in China. It’s gone by fast and I have a busy day planned at the Great Wall and the Summer Palace. Oh and that means one last dinner. I’m pondering if I should try a certain delicacy before I go…To be Continued!