Trespassing in the Forbidden City

Quick! What's the first thing that comes to your mind when you think of China and Beijing?

The Great Wall, right ? There's a lot more than just that. You have the Forbidden City, the hutongs, the 'pants building', the Olympic area, numerous palaces, temples and structures that trace the lineage of a city that by some claims has been inhabited for three thousand odd years.

Getting into Beijing from Shanghai was really easy. We purchased the rail tickets for 700 odd yuan at the Maglev Station on Longyang Road and went to Shanghai Station to board the train. Having been brought up in India, I had a very pleasant surprise when I actually got to the platform. At the entrance, there was the normal rush just like in India. There was everything from the familiar jostling to get through the doors to people lying on the ground waiting for the next train to hawkers selling everything from devil's horns to gooey rubber toys to umbrellas to mufflers.

But once inside, there was a huge surprise waiting for us. We were ushered into a special waiting area that looked made the departure lounge of the old Bangalore airport seem like a slum yard. The rows of chairs were evenly laid out, the food counters were neatly stacked and everything was in order. Once we got on to the platform, I was expecting to see folks milling around the train, waving goodbye to their loved ones and basically like a scene at any railway station. But what I saw was this -

Nothing. Absolutely nothing. It was absolutely empty and for a second, I thought that we had got on to the wrong platform. But one quick glance at the display board showed me exactly which compartment to get into. The compartment was a comfortable 2x2 tiered layout with plush mattresses, down pillows, bottled water, zoned climate control, the works! It was luxury on wheels and I could hardly sense the movement of train through the night.

The next morning, we reached Beijing station where the temperature was 7 degrees below zero ! We were obviously quite prepared for the cold and knew what to expect. Having booked rooms at the Far East International Youth Hostel, we followed caught the metro to the closest stop and hoofed it through the quaint little hutong the hotel was in.

Hutongs developed over the centuries in a concentric manner around the Forbidden City. The most favoured citizens built elaborate houses closer to the Palace and the support staff further away. Over the centuries, neighbourhoods formed as people moved closer to the center of the city. What resulted was a hodge-podge of shops, hutments, tenements, bungalows and pseudo-palaces in an intricate maze of streets and bylanes which were just wide enough let a pair of bicycles and the odd adventurous cabbie. Inspite of looking a lot like a slum, there is a certain sense of closeness that the residents have, as Pallavi Aiyer describes in her book "Smoke and Mirrors". However, over the years, the hutongs have given way to more contemporary structures, and the hutongs are changing the way everything changes and has changed in Beijing over the centuries.

Tiananmen Square

Crossing Tiananmen Square is an epic journey in itself. One one hand, knowing what has taken place there is quite humbling. One one side lies the Great Hall of the People, and on another, the mausoleum which hold Chairman Mao's embalmed body and right across, lies the Forbidden City, which held the power to most of China over the centuries. It was called the Forbidden City because, it was out of bounds to most common folk and restricted to royalty, the ministers and their servants. To this day, the place is still forbidden to most Chinese as the entrance fee to was 60 yuan ( average daily wages are about the same amount).

During summer, the place is really crowded and its hard to get a good look at most of the buildings which have been restored over the years. Winter time saw lesser crowds, but there was still quite a crush near the main hall and groups of tourists wandered around with their tour guides waving flags and shepherding their flock quite effectively. Fire was a recurring theme that seems to occur right through out the palace's history. Right from Mongol invasions to careless fires in the kitchen made the guards of the palace a very careful lot. In many places, there were huge brass urns which held water to douse fires before they got out of hand.

I really don't know how effective they really were, because the sign posts outside most of the buildings in the complex said that they were rebuilt in year such and such after a great fire. So, I guess ancient Chinese buildings really didn't go along well with the invention of fireworks. The grandeur of the place was beyond compare and it was quite something to see such an old historic structure on such a grand scale.

From the exquisitely carved banisters, to the woodwork on the eaves of the buildings to the huge granite marble carvings, there are a hundred stories to be told in the Forbidden City

Fatigued, cold and hungry, we walked out of the Forbidden City along its frozen moat to see a group of elderly gentlemen pass time flying kites. They were quite kind enough to let us hold the spindle and were quite curios to know where we were from. They were quite surprised to see that we could manage a few word of Mandarin. We then headed back to the hotel for a warm meal and waited to welcome the New Year of 2009

Trampled byY Trip at Monday, March 22, 2010


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Lakshmi Rajan said... April 14, 2010 at 7:51 PM  

Hmmm that was an interesting walk around the forbidden city :)

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