Inside the Forbidden City

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I haven’t written much about my trip to China since I posted about Beijing’s 798 Art District back in May, but I’m determined to share some of my pictures and experiences with you before I forget them all! I’m hoping that this will be the first in a set of “flashback to China” posts. And then I can get back to blogging about Japan. ;)

Since I had never been to China before, the Forbidden City was at the top of my to-see list—I like making the obligatory tourist stops the first time I go to a new place. Anyway, it was the first bit of sightseeing we embarked upon after settling in to Beijing. As you probably know, the Forbidden City was the Chinese imperial palace from the Ming Dynasty until the end of the Qing Dynasty, home to emperors and center of power for almost 500 years. The name comes from the fact that no one could enter or leave the palace without the emperor’s permission.

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The complex of buildings is quite large. A huge number of people used to live here as part of the imperial household—I’ve seen estimates that there were as many as 9,000 living here during the high point of the Qing Dynasty. As a result, I found it quite difficult to photograph, since it was essentially one ornate building after the next in a series of interconnected courtyards, which you can easily get a sense of by looking at a map of the complex. You can also get a bit of a feel for that in the photo below.

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I spent about three hours wandering through the place, which is now set up as a museum. So, in addition to admiring the incredibly detailed craftsmanship of the buildings and walkways themselves, you can also step inside some of the structures to browse a beautiful art collection from the Ming and Qing dynasties. It really felt like a never-ending parade of buildings and artifacts. I enjoyed the effect of walking through countless doors. It made for a lot of interesting angles, as you can see in the photo below (left).

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When we reached the “garden” portion in the rear of the grounds, I was intrigued by the prolific use of petrified wood as both landscaping and as art (see the photo above-right).

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The picture of the corridor above gives you another look at the scale of this place—this was taken when we were trying to find our way back to where we started to meet our friends. You could definitely spend an entire day walking around the Forbidden City, but honestly, I found it a bit tedious after a while—a few hours was enough for me. And while the English self-guided tour initially seemed like a good idea, I actually got irritated at the ongoing and fairly extensive dialogue that would start every time I neared a new building on the grounds. The guide has an automatic sensor that isn’t incredibly consistent in terms of when/where it senses that you’re in a new place, which can be a bit off-putting if others in your group are hearing different bits of audio at different times and you try to talk to one another about it. I can imagine that it would be quite useful and entertaining if you were alone and wandering slowly, however. I ended up just turning mine off after a while and working off of my guidebook and a paper map.

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Overall, I’m glad I got the chance to visit here, since I’d heard so much about it, but it didn’t end up being one of my favorite things in Beijing. If I was pressed for time and had to choose, I think I’d visit the Summer Palace instead—you get a bit of the same feel, but it’s more interesting and more varied. And even more huge than the Forbidden City! (More on the Summer Palace coming soon, hopefully!)

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