Thursday, June 25, 2009

Beijing - Day 7 (Shopping)

More shopping today. First stop is the Beijing New World Shopping Mall (北京新世界中心) in Chongwen - 5 levels and 70,000 sq. m. of world-class shopping (at world-class prices, too). After spending hours and hours here, we left and discovered an outlet store across the road. Here we go again. For lunch, DIL brought us to Golden Jaguar (金钱豹) at The Place, a buffet restaurant he frequents when he's in town. Known as the largest buffet restaurant in Beijing, Golden Jaguar has seats for 1000 people and 700 different food selections - from Cantonese to Japanese to Thai to French to Vietnamese to Taiwanese to Korean to Western. And these are not just foodcourt dishes; some are delicacies. Even the drinks range from soft drinks, fruit juices, soups, teas, beers, etc. All that for RMB 200.

What better way to digest all that food by having another shopping spree at Wangfujing? By late afternoon, DIL and SIL went back to the hotel, while we continued on to the Silk Market. SIL's Dick Tracy 3G wristphone is having Bluetooth problems, so we wanted to replace it. I was expecting stiff resistance from the store staff. Heck, I don't believe we were even a receipt for the purchase yesterday. Anyway, in my best Mandarin, I explained to the guy the situation. He played with the watch for a few minutes, was satisfied that the phone really had a BT issue, and gave us a new one. Was surprised the guy didn't give us a hard time. We went around to the console shops and bought myself a hacked Wii console (made in Korea), some game discs, and some accessories to go with the console. The console and the extra controller cost RMB1400, which is much cheaper than Greenhills prices. Games at RMB10 each and the accesseroes for RMB100. At SIL's request, we had dinner at the KFC downstairs. As usual, the place is packed with people just sitting around, and the ceiling is leaking airconditioner water, so we finished our meal upstairs.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Beijing - Day 6 (Dong Yue Miao / Drum Tower)

Bright and early, our friendly taxi driver picked us up from the hotel for another day of sightseeing. First stop is the Dong Yue Miao (东岳庙) in Chaoyang District. This Taoist temple was built in 1319 in honor of the god Dong Yue, who lives in Tai Shan Mountain. The original temple ground covers 60,000 sq. m. with seven interconnected courtyards and has around 72 one-story halls. Each hall is occupied by a diety in charge of a particular virtue or wish. If you're after wealth, you go to this particular hall and make offerings of incense and money. If you're wishing for babies, you visit another diety. There's a Department of Pity and Sympathy, a Department of Official Morality, etc. I was about to take a few pictures, when our guide stopped me saying this is a sacred place. Yeah, right.

After a tour of the temple, our driver brought us to the Bell Tower. Together with the Drum Tower, these two were used to announce the time to the Beijing residents during the Yuan, Ming, and Qing Dynasties. Climbing up a steep flight of stairs, we get on to the second floor of the 48-metre tall brick and stone structure, where we find the bell. Said to be the largest and heaviest in China, this 63-ton bronze bell is more than 500 years old. Story goes that the craftsmen were unsuccessful in casting the bell after repeated tries. Not happy, the emperor gave them a deadline (literally). On the final day of the casting, Lady Hua Xian, daugther of coppersmith Master Hua Yan jumped into the boiling furnace, believing that there's a spiritual reason for the failures, and offering herself as sacrifice. Strangely enough, this time the copper bell was cast successfully. Moved by the young woman, the emperor named her the Goddess of the Golden Furnace. A temple was also built in her honour near the foundry, called Temple of the Golden Furnace Bell-Casting Goddess (a.k.a. Jinlu Shenmu Zhuzhong Niangniang Temple). Coming down the tower, we were guided to a souvenir shop, where one of the staff gave us a history of the place, and tried to sell us some sculpture of a mythical being - The horns of a deer. The head of a camel. A demon's eyes. The neck of a snake. A tortoise's viscera. A hawk's claws. The palms of a tiger. A cow's ears. No sale.

Out of the Bell Tower, we got into these rickshaws that took us around the nearby hutongs (衚衕). Coming from Manila, these narrow alleyways is nothing new to us. Foreigners who like the idea of hutongs should go to Tondo for a look-see. As part of the tour, our drivers dropped us off at a traditional house - four walls and central courtyard; main living and side bedrooms for the parents and the eldest son's family. Turns out this is actually the home/workshop of a famous inkstone maker who has been making inkstones for the emperors generations back. Again, no sale.

Back in the taxi, our driver brought us to the Olympic district, where we got up close and personal with the Bird's Nest. Mighty impressive. We also got to see the Water Cube from afar, and the 7-star Pangu Hotel with the dragon-shaped top and giant-sized LCD screens on the sides. For lunch, our guide suggested we try Zha Jiang Mien Da Wang, which is known for, what else, zha jiang mien (炸酱面) a.k.a "fried sauce noodles". Definitely something new for us, but not something I'd eat every day. It's basically thick noodles topped with minced meat stir-fried with soybean paste, plus a few other garnishing. The restaurant itself is a novelty - very much like the ones you see in kungfu movies. It's got wooden tables and benches, waiters who dress the part, and staff shouting greetings, menu orders, and goodbyes.

After lunch, we went for a boat cruise towards the Summer Palace (頤和園). It was a blazing hot summer day, and this is what the emperor and his concubines would've done after a meal of zha jiang mian. The dragon boat cruise took around an hour. When we disembarked from the boat near the entrance to the Summer Palace, a wave of heat hit us, and we decided to just spend the afternoon shopping. SIL was looking for a new laptop, so the cabbie took us to Zhongguancun (中关村) in Haidian, said to be China's Silicon Valley.

The guy dropped us off at one of these multi-level shopping centres. We walked in and all these salespeople swooped in on us and started harassing us to visit their shops. Kinda annoying. DIL was starting to get irritated, so we quickly moved away in case he goes into a full-blown range. Floor upon floor, all of the shops are selling just laptops. Got tired of laptops after a while, so we had dinner at Pizza Hut.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Beijing - Day 5 (City Tour)

First stop of the day is the Beijing Zoo (北京動物園). Originally called the Ten Thousand Animal Garden, Beijing Zoo has a history of more than 100 years and now covers an area of 50,000 sq. m. The driver we got is quite helpful and chatty, so DIL asked him to be our taxi driver of the day for RMB400. Through the entrance gates, everyone went straight for the star attaction of the zoo - the giant panda bears. These big babies are slow and lazy and dirty and stinky. They pretty much lounge around all day doing nothing. Their carer came by and threw some WeetBix-looking bars into the dirty floor. The pandas got some each and went into their own private spots and started munching. Some finished early and started wrestling the other pandas for their bars. We checked out the halls featuring the other animals a bit, but that's pretty much it. Hopped on a train to see the sights, and ended up back at the zoo entrance.

Next stop is the China Central Television Tower. Covering an area of 15.4-hectare, the Central Television Tower is China's third highest tower with the height of 405 meters, and the tallest structure in Beijing. Aside from hosting broadcasting equipment for CCTV, it also has an observation deck and a rotating restaurant. The Tower is also famous for its annual race. Participants do two laps of the base, then climb 1484 steps up to the observation deck. On the lower level of the Tower is the Beijing Pacific Underwater World a.k.a. aquarium. Nothing special here, though it does have a seabed tunnel passage that you can walk through and a sea animals performance pool. After the sea lion show, we went up to the rotating restaurant for a quick buffet lunch. While the dining area rotates, the buffet section does not. It gets a bit confusing because by the time you went back for more food, you're looking at a totally different cuisine. So you either wait for the whole platform to rotate, or you can just walk to your food. Make sure you walk counter to the direction of rotation. If you walk too slowly, you might never reach your food.

After lunch, our friendly driver brought us to the Beijing Film Travel City in northern Beijing. Entrance fee costs RMB60. This studio has been the headquarters of China's film production since 1949. It became a tourist destination in 1998. According to our guide, more that 300 films and TV plays have been filmed here, including Dream in the Red Chambers (Hong Lou Meng), Luo Tou Xiang Zhi, Tea House, etc. Our guide brought us to a teahouse set where four people from the tour group were asked to act out a scene. We were told the background story and our lines, and the cameras started rolling. There's the restaurant owner, two patrons, and me as a bandit with a rifle. I'm supposed to go in and demand some revolutionary tax from the owner. The man begs for his life, while I threaten him with my rifle, and CUT! While our tour guide play back the film, I start thinking this could be a good career move for me. Interested parties could buy the two-minute clip for RMB40. No one did.

Then we were brought to a rickety sound studio where we were shown a silent film, and the sound engineer creating the sounds live, like footsteps, creaking doors, thunder, gunshots, etc. Again, a couple of volunteers were asked to add voice-overs to a short war film. The movie was played back to demonstrate to us how hard a voice actor's job is. Next stop is a multi-story building where we played laser tag. I've never played laser tag before, but I can tell this is not one of the good ones. The dummies are old, worn, and broken down. I hit some of the targets point-blank, but they still won't die. After a bit of running around in mock battle, we were led out to an old village with run-down shops and houses, representing old Beijing. There is where the outdoor shots were filmed. Again, one volunteer was selected to demonstrate how kung-fu master "fly". A young girl was strapped on a harness, hoisted up into the air using a pulley system, and she "flew" down flicking her sword here and there. Through a souvenir store where nobody bought nothing, we finally settled in an old Beijing cafe for some drinks. Our group ordered their special sour plum juice for an authentic feel. A mini-stage opened up and this magician provided some entertainment. I must say he's pretty good. The kids obviously loved it, and bought one of his magic kits.

Our final destination is the Xiushui Silk Market (a.k.a. Silk Street), a multi-level shopping paradise (or hell, depending on how you see it). If you only have enough time to shop at one place, this is the place to be. There's a floor for bags and luggage, another floor for clothes, another floor for electronic toys and gadgets, another for watches and jewelry, etc. Most, if not all of them, counterfeit. Prior to visiting this place, a friend told me that you should only pay 10% of the quoted price. I thought this to be extreme, so decided to bargain my own way. On hindsight, I should've followed his advice. There's lots of good stuff to be had, but every time we asked for the price or showed any kind of interest, the salesladies would pounce on us, and not let us go unless we agree on a price and make a purchase. At one point, one of the staff physically grabbed MIL's arm and wouldn't let go. MIL was startled and quickly ran away. DIL had to step in and do all the bargaining from then on. DIL got his DVDs, SIL bought some clothes, SIL bought a mobile phone-watch, the wife bought a bag, and I had my eye on the Wii.

Incidentally, the famous Quanjude Peking Roast Duck Restaurant (全聚德) is also here (first opened in 1864 during the Qin Dynasty). Our taxi driver told us that Quanjude used to be THE Peking duck place, but has since lowered its standards because of the huge demand. He suggested Ya Wang (Duck King or Emperor Duck), which is right along Jianguomenwai. If I remember correctly we ordered the yiya sanchi - which is a suite of three duck dishes: the traditional Peking duck wrapped in pancake, the stir-fried duck meat, and duck soup; plus a few more dishes.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Beijing - Day 4 (Temple of Heaven)

Took the metro this morning and walked a short bit to Tien Tan (天壇) (aka Temple of Heaven). Short overview here. Temple of Heaven is not really just a temple, but a complex of Taoist buildings and structures, where the emperors of the Ming and Qing Dynasties would come to pray for good harvest. Built in 1420, this UNESCO World Heritage Site covers 2.73 sq. kms. of parkland. Arranged in a north-south orientation, you have the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests located in the north, the Imperial Vault of Heaven in the south, then the Circular Mound Altar further south. Connecting the Hall of Prayer to the Imperial Vault is a 360-metre long raised walkway called the Danbi Bridge, though it's not really a bridge.

So we entered the temple complex via the east gate. The place is quite popular with the locals - lots of senior citizens walking about, groups of people dancing, exercising, etc. We also saw a band playing some oldies using Chinese instruments, and looks like anyone can grab the mic and start singing. Through the Long Corridor, we saw the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests for the first time. (Actually, second time for me.) The temple is awesome. Very wide expanse of space, and this 38-metre tall triple gabled circular temple in the middle of it, on top of a three-tiered marble stone base. What's more incredible is that the whole structure is made of wood. Not a single nail! Inside the temple is a hall supported by four inner pillars, twelve middle and twelve outer pillars. These symbolizes the four seasons, the twelve months in a year, and the twelve divisions of night and day. Located near the Temple are some green glazed stoves, where the sacrificial lamb is burned with pine twigs and reeds.

From here, we followed the Danbi Bridge all the way to the Imperial Vault of Heaven. It looks similar to the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, but is only single-gabled and sits on top of a single level of marble stone base. Encircling the Imperial Vault is a smooth circular wall called the Echo Wall. We would've liked to try out its acoustics, but it's now protected by metal barriers, so can't really get near the actual wall. We're told it actually works. Beside the Imperial Vault are the East and West Annex Halls where divine tablets are kept. Located near the temple is a 500-year old juniper tree. Because of its age, its trunk is covered with spiral grooves twisting up, said to resemble nine coiling dragons. Hence the name "Nine-Dragon Juniper".

A short distance from the Vault is the Circular Mound. This open altar is where the emperor came to worship Heaven every winter solstice. What's very interesting about the Mound is that it has a singular circular stone block in the middle, surrounded a ring of nine plates, then a ring of 18 plates, then 21 plates, etc. etc. until we get to the outermost ring with 9x9 plates. This use of number 9 is said to represent the nine layers of Heaven, and thus the Emperor himself. Beside the Mound, we can see a 28.8-m. high wooden pole. This bamboo pole has a lever and pulley system used to raise and lower the lantern during the ceremony. There used to be three poles during the Ming and Qing Dynasties, but Mr. Yuan Shikai (then the President of the Republic of China) had the two cut down the last time he came here to perform the ceremony in 1914, in an attempt to declare himself Emperor of China. Yeah, right.

With the tour officially over, we visited the nearby Hong Qiao Market (Pearl Market), just east of the Temple of Heaven. The wife is in the mood for some pashmina shawls and the store are all very willing to sell. She selected some nice designs and was given a price of RMB120. A bit expensive, but we were assured this is the real stuff. They even showed us their government certificates to prove that they're official outlets. With a bit of bargaining and haggling, we lowered the price to 95, then 80. What if we bought more? Ah, final price of RMB75, the lady said. We thought, should be good enough. Done.

So we took the metro back to the hotel. And what do we find? A market stall selling the same pashmina shawls at a listed price of RMB30 each. Heck, we can probably lower it down to RMB10. Therefore, we went to the nearby McDonald's for lunch.

Met up with DIL in the afternoon at the hotel lobby. He hasn't had lunch yet, so we ordered some fastfood at the nearby noodle house. After making arrangements for an airport taxi for tonight, we went to the Wangfujing shopping district to whet the wife's appetite. Having decided what we're going to do for the next few days, we went back to the hotel, met up with our airport taxi, and waited for our visitors to arrive.

In between sips of Starbucks coffee and hot chocolate, DIL noticed that the flight we're waiting for are not showing up on the arrival board. A quick check confirmed that our taxi brought us to the wrong terminal. Worse, the taxi had gone off (most probably on another errand). Hell hath no fury than a man left standing on the wrong airport terminal with no taxi. When the taxi came to fetch us, he really got an earful. Good thing MIL's flight was delayed a bit, so we got there with time to spare.

Back at the hotel, it was half an hour before closing time for the Golden Elephant Restaurant. Still, they were very happy to take us in and fire up the kitchen and the airconditioning, considering we're the only patrons for the night. DIL was in such a happy mood, he ordered way too much food. (At least for me.)

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Beijing - Day 3 (Great Wall/Ming Tombs)

Today we climb the Great Wall and become real Chinese (again). I've been to the Great Wall when I was in primary school, but the wife has never scaled it before. We were told the best option is to contract a taxi driver to drive us around. Given that my Mandarin is not the best, we simply booked into a local tour. RMB300 for a day tour to Mu Tian Yu (慕田峪) (per person), then a side trip to the Ming Tombs. A bit expensive, but it's a guided tour with pickup from hotel and drop-off and lunch is included. Tour to Ba Da Ling (八達嶺) costs RMB100 less, but everyone says that that section of the Great Wall is overcrowded and overcommercialized, as it is closer to Beijing.

The shuttle coach came to our hotel promptly enough. After half an hour of picking up other people from their hotels, we were on our way to the outskirts of Beijing. Along the way, our guide pointed out some important landmarks and imparted some history and interesting trivia about the capital. (When in Beijing, order Yan Jing Beer (燕京啤酒).) A few minutes prior to reaching our destination, we were given an overview of Mu Tian Yu. This particular section has 22 stations or watchtowers along the Wall. One option is to start walking from station 1, and go as far as you can, then make your way back. Obviously you're not gonna go far. Another option is to take the cable car up to station 14, and start the trek from there. Our guide assures us there's more to see this way. Probably less crowded, too.

The cable car ride (RMB40 per person round-trip) is an experience in itself. The ride up is eerily silent, and the view is magnificent. The sun is out, but not too strong. At this altitude, the air is quite cool, so the walk is pretty pleasant. The going is relatively easy, until we hit station 19. From here, the climb to station 20 is unbelievable steep. The wife insisted she's not going any further, as she's already tired from the earlier walk. Her deep love for me eventually won over, and she changed her mind. We literally have to move up the steps on all fours, lest be lose our footing and tumble back. The view is worth it though. I reckon this is the highest point as we can pretty much see everything in every direction. Coming down station 20 is as difficult as the climb. You can't even stand straight - we had to sit on the steps and slink down one step at a time. One local kid was feeling adventurous and ran down the steps, tumbled, and got a big gash on her head. Fortunately, there were people around who tended to her. Thirty minutes on our way back to station 14, we met some medics slowly making their way up.

On our cable car ride back to the foot of the mountains, we noticed that we're actually in the same cable car that the 17th Living Buddha of Tibet Mageba used when he visited the Great Wall on 20 January 1999. Neat, huh? Once everyone's back, we piled into the coach, and we headed out for lunch. Turns out our lunch place is 1.5 hours away. Our tour guide didn't tell us that bit probably because we might protest. And what/where is this restaurant? It's actually a jade factory cum showroom cum restaurant called the Beijing Dragon Land Superior Jade Gallery. We got there tired and hungry, and still our tour guide insisted we do a round of the shop floor and showrooms first. Bah! I wonder how much commission he gets. Anyway, lunch was actually not too bad. Or maybe we're just hungry.

From here, it's not too far off to the Ming Tombs (明朝十三陵). The Ming Tombs is actually a collection of 13 tombs of the 17 Ming Emperors. Spread across an area of 80 sq. kms., the massive cemetery is situated at the foot of Tianshou Mountains and fronted by a river. Closest to us is the Ding Ling, which was built for Emperor Wan Li. According to our guide, this is the only one of the 13 Ming Tombs to be excavated so far. Pressed for time, we went through the Ling'en Gate (which is not there anymore) and the Lingxing Gate, straight through to the Underground Palace, which is 25 feet beneath ground level. Down a long flight of stairs, we pass by these massive marble doors. Our guide tells us that the marble doors are balanced so well that one man can open or close them easily. After Emperor Wan Li has been buried, these doors were wedged shut from the inside using solid rock braces that slid in place as the doors closed. Then the entrance was sealed off with a "diamond wall". This last barrier has a foundation made up of four layers of stone slabs, then built with 56 layers of bricks. Anyway, past the "diamond wall" and through a tunnel, we end up in a chamber holding the emperor's and empress' thrones and some massive jars. At the rear chamber, we see the red coffins of the emperor and his empresses. Strewn around the coffins are bills and coins, which I guess are thrown by tourists for good luck. Back on the surface, we pass by the Soul Tower. Inside the tower is a single vertical stele of rock with engravings of dragons on top. Further on are exhibition rooms that host some of the unearthed relics. Around 4:30pm, we left the site.

With still a bit of time, the coach brought us to the Olympic district on our way back to the city. For the first time, I got to see the Bird's Nest and the Water Cube. Very impressive. We also passed by the Drum Tower and the Bell Tower. We got back to the heart of Beijing, but our tour guide's not done with us yet. There's one last place to visit - the Silk Market. Here we were shown how the silkworms are grown, how the actual silk is extracted, and how the silk is made into the final product. You've got silk blankets, silk pillow cases, silk suits, silk everything. At this point, I'm not sure what's real or fake anymore, so we didn't get anything from the store. After a short rest at the store canteen, they dropped us off at our hotel, and that's the end of our tour. Too tired to explore, we had dinner at one of the in-house Italian joints Papa Johns for some pasta and pizza.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Beijing - Day 2 (Jingshan/Beihai)

Jingshan Park is just across the street from the Forbidden City. I'm hungry and thirsty and in no mood to walk around parks. But the 230,000 sq. m. Jingshan is different. If you climb to the top of Jingshan, you get a bird's eye view of the Forbidden City, which is amazing considering the size and scale of the Palace Museum. Also, did you know that 45-m high Jingshan is actually an artificial hill created entirely from dirt and soil excavated from the moats of the Imperial Palace?

We settled down for some ice cold drink and snacks, then proceeded to scale Jingshan. There are five pavilions around Jingshan and each one offers a good vantage point of the Forbidden Palace. The best is the Wanchun Ding (All Time Spring Pavilion). From here, you can also see the White Pagoda in Beihai Park across the river. I'm all ready to call it a day, but the wife is not coming back another day, so if we wanna see the pagoda we'll have to do it now. From the top of Jingshan, the White Pagoda is not that far away. Yeah, right. Took us about half an hour (or more) to get down from Jingshan, out of the park, walk a couple of blocks to Beihai Park. Maybe they should install a cable car system to shuttle people between these two parks. Forgot to mention that Jingshan Park is well-known for another thing. Within the park still stands the tree where Chong Zhen, the last emperor of the Ming Dynasty, hanged himself in 1644. Pressed for time, we didn't go see the tree anymore. I'm sure it's doing fine.

We got to Beihai a couple of hours before closing time. According to a notice, Beihai Park has been around for almost a thousand years. It was first built in 938 A.D., and was opened to the public as a park in 1925. In between, Beihai was used as an imperial summer palace. There's a lot to see like temples and pavilions and pools, but all we're after is the White Pagoda. There's a long, steep flight of stairs leading up to the pagoda. Great shot if the photographer is at the base of the stairs, the subject is at the middle, and the pagoda is at the top. Everybody had the same idea so it's difficult to take a good shot. Right beside the pagoda is the Hall of Beneficient Causation, whose four external walls are covered with 455 glazed tiles - each with an image of Buddha.

Coming out of the islet, we see this city wall with a plaque saying this is Tuancheng City - with ramparts 4.6m high and 276 meters in perimeter, covering an area of 4,500 sq. m. Going up the walls, we get to Cheng Guan Dian (Hall of Divine Light). Outside the temple is a 3.5-ton jade jar, which Kublai Khan reported used as a wine vessel.

After all that walking, we're so tired we simply took a taxi back to the hotel. For the rest of the day, we just stayed in and around the hotel. Japanese dinner at night.

Beijing - Day 2 (Forbidden City)

Today is the day we go to the Forbidden City. After a sumptuous buffet breakfast at the hotel, we crossed the street to the Beijing Railway Station. After some initial confusion, we found out that this is not where you take the train to the Forbidden City. On the other side of the plaza is the metro station. At 9am, there's already a long queue at the ticket counter. This being Beijing, people try to make singit whenever they can. Not an easy task considering most of the locals do not have a concept of personal space, and everyone is just squashed together. I'm surprised to find out that metro tickets cost only RMB2 each. Doesn't matter where you are and where you get off, it's flat-rate RMB2. I reckon that's gonna change soon. Going into the station itself is another long queue with people cutting in from all sides. Everyone has to walk through a metal-detector door, and all bags have to go through an x-ray machine. That's what the traffic is all about.

We get off at Qianmen Station, and first thing you notice is how big Tian An Men Square is. Right beside the station is Zheng Yang Men, one of the city gates of Old Beijing. Since it acts as the front gate to the Forbidden City, it's also called Qianmen. Right across it is the Memorial Hall to Chairman Mao. It's been decades since Mao Zedong passed away, but even now there's still a stream of people lining up to see the Chairman and pay their respects. Since bags are not allowed inside the mausoleum, we had to cross the street and leave our stuff at a deposit center (for a small fee). We queued up for about 15 minutes to see Mao Zedong's embalmed remains for about 15 seconds. Many of the visitors bought flowers which they laid on a tray in front of the coffin. My guess is that once the tray is full, it's brought outside for the flowers to be sold again.

At the centre of the Tiananmen Square is the 38-metre (125 ft) high Monument to the People's Heroes. Along the west side of the square is the Great Hall of the People. along the east is the National Museum of China. Didn't go to either as they're too far. By the way, Tiananmen Square is officially the largest city square in the world. North of the square in Tiananmen itself, which translates to the Gate of Heavenly Peace. Once we've crossed Tiananmen, we find outselves in front of Duan Men (literally Upright Gate). Beyond that and across a big plaza stands the majestic Wu Men (Meridian Gate). Wu Men is the main gate to the Forbidden City. It is 35.6 meters high and is surmounted with five pavilions called the Five Phoenix Turrets. On each side of the gate are the ticket outlets.

Crossing Wu Men, you'll see a large courtyard called the First Courtyard. Very, very impressed with the size and scale of the place (10,000 sq. m. in size). I've seen this place many times in Chinese movies. Running along the courtyard from east to west is a small stream called the Golden River. You can see five short bridges across it, which represents the five Confucian virtues of humanity, sense of duty, wisdom, reliability and (ceremonial) propriety.

Beyond Tai He Men with the two imperial lions is the Second Courtyard, the largest courtyard in the Forbidden City. The structures just keeps getting bigger and better. Tai He Dian (Hall of Supreme Harmony) sits on top of a 3-layered marble terrace, which stands 30m high above the Supreme Harmony Square. Tai He Dian itself is 37m high, and covering 2377 sq. m., it is said to be the largest wooden palace hall in China. Placed around the marble terrace are bronze statues symbolizing longevity and stability. There's the crane, the sundial, and the tortoise. There's also a grain measure, which we didn't see. There are two quite interesting things about Tai He Dian. On its roof ridges is a trail of mythical figurines, which are placed there to supposedly protect the building from bad spirits. From the front, you have the immortal riding a phoenix, followed by a dragon, a phoenix, a lion, a heavenly steed, a seahorse, a SuAnNi, a YaYu, a XieZhi, a DouNiu, and a HangShi. Don't even try asking me what those are. Inside the hall is the emperor's throne carved with dragons all over. Around the throne are two bronze cranes and an elephant-shaped incense burner. From the gold-painted ceiling hangs a set of metal balls attached to the mouth of a coiled dragon. Called the Xuan Yuan Mirror, it is said to be able to distinguish right from wrong. And if anyone who is not a descendant of Emperor Huang Di tries to sit on the throne, the balls will fall and strike him to death.

Next up is the Zhong He Dian (Hall of Central Harmony). This is the smallest of the three mains halls in the Outer Court, and is square in shape. The last hall of the Outer Court would be Bao He Dian (Hall of Preserved Harmony). On the descent from the raised platform behind the Bao He Dian is a large stone carving flanked by stairs. Measuring 16.75 meters long, 3.07 meters wide and 1.7 meters thick and weighing in at 200 tons, this is the largest stone carving in the palace. Amazingly, the whole thing is hewn from one single block of stone. To transport the rock slab from the Fang Shan mountains to Beijing, rolling logs were used in summer. During winter, they poured water along the way till it froze, then slid the rock slab along the ice.

Crossing the courtyard, we see Qian Qing Men (Gate of Celestial Purity), which is the main gate to the inner court. Guarding the gate is a pair of lions - one male and one female. Beyond the gate we see Qian Qing Gong (Palace of Heavenly Purity). On the west side is a long corridor, which currently holds an exhibition of imperial paintings and objects. West of that corridor is Yang Xin Men, which leads to Yang Xin Dian (Hall of Moral Cultivation). This is where some emperors of the Qing Dynasty actually lived. Of special note is the east room which has two thrones separated by a yellow gauze curtain. During the late Qing Dynasty, the emperor would sit on the front throne, and the Empress Dowager would sit on the rear throne, hidden by the curtain, instructing the emperor what to do.

Behind Qian Qing Gong is Jiao Tai Dian (Hall of Union and Peace). This structure is relatively small in size, having the same design as the Zhong He Dian. Inside the hall is an inscription by Emperor Kang Xi, which says Wu Wei (literally, doing nothing). This is also where the 25 jade seals of the imperial court is kept. Behind Jiao Tai Dian is Kun Ning Gong (Hall of Earthly Tranquility). This is usually where the emperors lived after they married, before moving on to the other halls.

We move on to the northernmost part of the Forbidden City, which is Yu Hua Yuen (Imperial Garden). In stark contrast to the other parts of the palace, this place is teeming with life - different kinds of trees, bushes and shrubs, and birds. Covering an area of 12,000 sq. m., this is where the emperors and empresses and concubines entertain themselves. Aligned on the western and eastern sides of the central axis are halls and pavilions, like the Qian Qiu Ting (Thousand-Year Pavilion) and the Wan Chun Ting (Pavilion of Ten Thousand Spring Seasons). Right at the very end of the Imperial Garden is Dui Xiu Shan (Hill of Accumulated Elegance). This artificial hill stands 10 meters tall and has a path that leads to the Yu Jing Ting (Pavilion of Imperial Scenery) on top of the hill. Halfway up the hill are bronze jars used to store water. When water runs down the hill, it gushes out of the dragonheads on the backs of the stone lions on both sides of the hill.

Right behind Dui Xiu Shan is Chun Cheng Men, and beyond it is another layer of fortified wall with Shen Wu Men (Gate of Divine Might) as the northernmost gate of the Forbidden City. Going past this wall and you're officially out of the Forbidden City. We're already dog-tired by this time, but there's still so much to see. Next up, Jin Shan Park and Bei Hai Park.