With a year in China, you must pick and choose your experiences. Why?
Well, because China is big. Like really big.
And there’s a lot more to see than what you may learn about in school. In my short two months of being here, I’ve learned about a few dozens scenic, cultural, and shopping destinations that would no doubt be great places to travel to. And while I can take weekend trips to some of the smaller/cheaper/closer places (such as Suzhou, which is about 30 minutes by train from Shanghai), a year in China means I’ll really only be scratching the surface of the exposed part of an iceberg in terms of seeing and doing all there is to do here.
All of this, coupled with the fact that I’m in a prime location to travel to other parts of East and South East Asia, means that I need to be really selective in what I want my experience here to look like.
And if you’re going to see only a few pieces of art at the Louvre, you’re definitely not going to skip the Mona Lisa.
So with passports and newly minted z-visas, me and my two roommates packed our bags and headed to China’s capital: Beijing.
Some background for those who don’t know (I certainly didn’t until starting to write this blog).
Beijing, formally Romanized as Peking, is located in Northern China, and has been the ceremonial and political center of China’s government for over 500 years. Surrounded by mountains on three sides, the city itself is a series of walls (sometimes referred to rings). It’s no wonder that this city was chosen as the home for emperors from as far back as the Ming Dynasty (1420) to the Qing Dynasty (1912). If you were an invading army, you’d be hard pressed to break Beijing’s defenses (although that did happen at least a couple times).
At the center of it all is the Forbidden City. Also called the National Palace Museum, or Gùgōng (故宫), the Forbidden City served as the house for emperors for as long as Beijing’s been the capital of China. Construction of the palace required more than a million workers and lasted 14 years. The front entrance is called the Meridian Gate, and the city itself is reminiscent of a large and spacious fortress, with various walled sections, each holding different houses. When in use, they held halls, libraries, theaters, throne rooms, and probably a host of other facilities. Today, each walled section holds a different gallery devoted to preserving the culture of China.
Getting into the city was an adventure in itself. With a check in time of 3 pm later that day, and an arrival time of 12 am, you could say we had a minute or two to kill. The Forbidden City opened its gates at 8 am, so we had until then to either get some sleep, or find a way to kill the time.
We ended up doing a little bit of both. Renting some bikes through the popular bike rental apps Ofo and Mobike, we rode the bizarrely empty streets around The Forbidden City. I say bizarrely because the streets were lined with guards about every 50 feet, and while we did see people making their way to the front gate early, it felt too empty for the capital city of China, in the middle of the Mid-Autumn Festival, at 1 am at night. In Shanghai, it seems that some type of nightlife is going strong till around 3-4am so it seemed strange that there was a general lack of people on the streets (Throughout my Beijing, even in the daytime, there just seemed to be less people around than in Shanghai.). After we had our fill of biking, we went to wait at the front gates, where there was already a healthy amount of people waiting. We half-slept, half huddled on the sidewalk with the other miserable families and tourists until the light started to peak over the horizon. By the time the gates opened, we were naturally dead tired, but I was still able to enjoy our unguided tour through the Forbidden City. If anything, it probably made the payoff of getting to see it even better.
Between all the different galleries, navigating your way through back alley passes, different gates, and the crowds of the Mid-Autumn season, my journey into the Forbidden City took more than a few hours, and I took my time trying to absorb the impact and importance of the place I was in.
The city itself was very imposing, with high and deep walls all around you, with the throne area being like a small house in the large inner sanctum square. The outer walls were a different story, and with many buildings being really close together, I felt like I was in a mouse maze, ducking through low arches and constantly needing to consult the map to keep myself from backtracking. At the same time, the narrow alley ways would suddenly exit into large plazas, which I imagine is an intentional design.
Up on the walls, I could see a mass of tour groups and people moving up the center of the city, along an elevated walkway, to the inner sanctums (of which there is 2 main ones: the Hall of Supreme Harmony and the Palace of Heavenly Purity). Also from the ramparts- I could see that a moat surrounded the whole city, which made it really sink in that the Forbidden City was a pretty mighty fortress back in its heyday.
Overall, the Forbidden City was definitely worth the choice as one of the places I’ll see in China. Being in such a storied and ancient place makes me really think of what came before, and put some perspective on what this site means to China and its culture.
Some sights and scenes from Beijing: