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Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Tranquility amongst the throngs . . .

Yesterday, I decided it was time to take a break from my shopping tour and see some of historical Beijing. After days of heavy, haze-filled skies, we had heavy downpours throughout the previous day and night and I woke to beautifully clear skies with the sun shining – perfect weather for exploring the city’s grandeur. What could be grander, I thought, than the Forbidden City, which the Lonely Planet guide has listed as No. 3 on it’s 30 Top Experiences.

(And yes, I still have to write up No.s 21 thru 30, and I plan to get on to that this week.)

Beijing’s subway and bus networks are well laid out and simple to use, as long as you know where you wish to go. All stops are announced in Mandarin, which the Chinese call Putonghua (common speech), and English and every bus stop has a name, as do all the subway stations, obviously. The nearest subway station to my home is a transfer between two lines, which gives me multiple options of how to get to and from different places.

From here to the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square is simply eight stops south, a quick line transfer and two or three stops west, depending on which side you wish to approach the two from. (Everyone gives directions in terms of compass points here and the exits from the subway stops are also labeled that way, making it easy to guess the correct exit once you have your bearings.)

So, about 1030 on a Tuesday morning, I hopped the subway to Tiananmen East, and exited on the Forbidden City side of the street to hordes of people. And I do mean hordes, there were tour groups everywhere, school groups from all over the world, families with children and the occasional independent traveler like me. Exiting the steps from the subway was an exercise in itself, as waiting for the throng were vendors selling maps, water, food, ice blocks, trinkets, hats of many kinds and traditional Chinese dress style headbands. Plus many, mainly young, Chinese offering tours of the Forbidden City in fluent English and many other tongues. I’m an old hand at turning down such offers unless I really want to avail myself of them, so simply smiled, held up my hand and said xiexie, wo bu yao (thank you, no). I’d already decided I would use an audio tour for the site, as I could easily ignore that if I wished. 

Leaving the subway

The first thing one comes across is Tiananmen itself, for which the square opposite is named. The name Tiananmen is made up of the Chinese characters for “heaven,” “gate” and “peace,” therefore in English it is known as The Gate of Heavenly Peace, although the original Chinese name is longer and has its own history attached. It’s an impressive building - 66 meters long, 37 m wide and 32 m high, with a portrait of Mao Zedong above the main archway and large red flags flying at either end. The largest and center of five archways was used only for Ming and Qing emperors while the smaller ancillary arches were used by ministers and officials.  A moat in front of the gate is crossed by carved marble bridges, with the widest central bridge again reserved for the emperor.

It's possible to climb the tower above the gate for a small fee, but free to walk through to the Forbidden City which sits nestled behind.  I decided to leave the tower for another visit and headed through the gate with the crowd, wondering if it was some sort of holiday as there seemed to be many school-age children visiting. Chinese use umbrellas to protect them from the sun, so avoiding a spike in the head or eye required full vigilance. 
Crossing the moat to walk through Tiananmen
 Once inside and across the forecourt to where one buys tickets for the Palace Museum, as the Forbidden City is known, I realized it was too hot to wait in such a long, slow-moving line so decided to explore the surrounding area instead. To the east was an extension of the Palace Moat, where I was slightly tempted to don traditional garb and have my photo taken, while on the west I found Zhongshan Park, where there was no queue for tickets (Y3/48 cents admission, Y5/80 cents if you wanted to see the flower exhibitions also). I paid my 5 kwai and walked through the gate, where I found my own version of heavenly peace - just a few people meandering through lush gardens, relaxing in pagodas or cruising on the water in peddle- or battery-powered boats. I was thrilled to find such a tranquil spot in the very center of this bustling city.

A close-up of a building outside the Palace Museum

A wall of the Forbidden City

The moat to the east

Inside Zhongshan Park

Chinese opera singers accompanied by a piano accordion - I also saw a couple playing hulusi - an instrument with three bamboo pipes that pass through a gourdwind chest. It felt rude to photograph them so I simply enjoyed the music.
Detail of one of the many gateways

lotus pool

the Waterside Plants Pavilion

I spent a peaceful few hours strolling around the park and will no doubt go there for some peace when the city center gets too crowded for me, and plan to go boating there with a friend who is coming to visit in August.

I will return to tour the Forbidden City, but plan to do so early in a bid to beat the worst of the crowds, which I have been told will continue throughout the summer.

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