Beijing – The Forbidden City

Many, many, many people, mostly Chinese stood in line on the Tiananmen Square outside the walls of the Forbidden City in Beijing (Peking). Luckily, our Chinese guide “Joseph” who spoke excellent German, had already organized the tickets and the wait was not quite that long. Meanwhile, we were often asked by Chinese tourists whether we would stand with their group for a photo and would grab any one of our group by the sleeve. They were always smiling and very pleasant and well-mannered.

The Forbidden City served as Imperial Residence for the Ming through the Qing Dynasty (1420-1912). For 500 years it was the center of political power. It is not far away from downtown Beijing. It is entirely surrounded by walls with the Palace (now a museum) in the center and the women’s quarters on the edge. The women have a beautiful rock garden near their building, one part of which is now a souvenir shop with lovely silk items. Many of the former concubines lived in comparative solitude we were told. The complex is now a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site of oldest wooden structures.

As you can see, red and gold are the predominant colors, blue represents the sky. The pointed roofs ward off evil spirits. The large metal bowls filled with water are a symbol of eternity. The steps and decorations are carved in white marble.

At times the crowd was so thick you could only see inside a temple using your camera and a selfie stick to reach over other people’s heads and look inside the room. Note also how many people used parasols, as the sun was very hot. Several hours are a minimum to see all the artefacts and wonders of this Palace!

The Tombs of the Ming Emperors near Beijing

From the third Yongle Emperor on, the one who chose feng shui principles for the tombs, thirteen emperors of the Ming dynasty in China have been laid to rest. The valley enclosed by mountains was chosen so as to guard the spirits from bad demons. A seven-kilometer “Spirit Way” leads into the complex, guarded by animals and a large “Red Gate” with three arches. The tombs are part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site (since 2003) including yet other tombs of the Ming and Xing dynasties. The eighteen pairs of mythical animals carved of stone lead the souls of the dead Emperors to the nether world.

The steps are made of marble and carved with snakes and dragons. The all-pervading royal colors are red and gold. Large metal pots filled with water symbolize longevity. The pointed ends of the rooftops shall ward off evil spirits. Bells and prayer drums are for the use of the devotees.

Within the buildings many objects like headdresses and silk robes are on display.

The Lama Temple in Beijing, China

Before we left Beijing, we visited the Lama Temple. One walks through several courtyards and through several large buildings, most often in red and gold, the sacred colors. In the first courtyard there is a small corner window where a helper passes out free boxes of incense sticks for the devotees.

You can see gorgeous paintings, statues, nasty monsters being crushed, banners and parasols. In the courtyards people stand in front of a kind of low iron oven in which they poke their incense sticks after lighting them. They bow low in all four wind directions pronouncing holy phrases. It gives you a sense of peace just watching them. Most Chinese follow Daoism. As far as I have understood, it makes most of them friendly, peace-loving citizens.

The temple figures in the Guiness Book of Records, since one of the longest and largest trees ever was used to build one of the buildings.

Peking duck and the Hutongs

One of our first meals was Peking duck, of course. As we were a group of 16, we always sat around two large circular tables with a kind of Lazy Susan in the middle. All the vegetables, soup (rather tasteless), fluffy rice and meat dishes would be placed there and everyone could take as much as he liked. In the photo you can see the chef carving up the duck.

We entirely preferred the food which can be seen in the second row, cooked by a professional cook who lives in a hutong – a sort of narrow alleyway near the Forbidden City. She makes a little extra money cooking on her tiny double stove for foreign guests. Unfortunately, the authorities would like to tear down the old, low houses and replace them with high-risers. We read a newspaper article that some houses had their doorway cemented closed, leaving the inhabitants to climb in and out of a window.

We also took a ride in a bicycle riksha through several hutongs. Although they are not very pretty, they still have the right size for a neighborly lifestyle. We did not see many dogs on a leash, nor cats. Instead, it is normal to keep chirping birds and singing crickets in cages near the door.

The Great Wall to the northeast of Beijing

Our small group took a bus to visit the Great Wall directly after visiting Beijing. We recommend taking along walking sticks should you plan on following one or the other piece of wall as they are at times extremely steep. In the turret I walked up to they were selling cheap coins and certificates to show that you have been on the Wall.

My husband was stopped by an energetic 12-year-old who spoke good English, whether she could ask him questions. She then translated them into Chinese to the rest of the passers-by. Hubby quite enjoyed his “stardom”, but needless to say, all the Chinese people we met were very pleasant, cheerful, curious. However, not everybody speaks English in China as we found out later on!

At the bottom of the hill you will of course find flower beds, toilets, souvenir shops and cafés for the tourists. Some of the souvenir items were absolutely stunning and some also rather large, like life-sized warriors and horses.

Unfortunately, there are only a few sections left of the Great Wall. It is certainly worth climbing on, the view is spectacular.