Saturday, June 20, 2009

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.

No comments: