Beijing was the entrance to our small trip in China, with only time to see its most remarkable points. A couple of days was used to travel around the city, where we concentrated in Tiananmen square and the Forbidden city, visiting also the zoo, and the temple of Heaven.
The nights were used to attend a performance in Beijing opera, and to have a glimpse of life in town.
Not much, but interesting!
For practical reasons I have divided the travel notes into two texts: this one, “Visiting Beijing” contains the notes about the city itself. In “Around Beijing” I register all visits in the periphery or proximity.
The centre of the square is dominated by a high monument, always with a honor guard. It is the Monument to the People’s Heroes, commemorating the martyrs who devoted their lives to the Chinese people.
With almost 38 meters, it is the biggest monument in Chinese history.
I noticed that the young guards’ uniform changed a lot, which means that they are several youth organizations paying tribute to their heroes.
Great Hall of the People
Tiananmen square is so big that all the surrounding elements seem… small! However, that is not exactly the case of this palace, used by the Chinese congress.
Built by volunteers in 1959, it is a good example of the revolution’s chinese architecture.
The square is so big, that even the important buildings at each side seem irrelevant.
I was expecting the long lines that we heard about, but… China is changing. Austere, discreet, it only deserved a quick look before heading to “the main course”.
The signs that things are quickly changing in China are the absence of the usual long reverential lines.
We didn’t see many people entering it, and we didn’t, either. Visiting Beijing without visiting Mao is not exactly the same as visiting Rome without seeing the Pope.
Access to Forbidden City
Entering the forbidden city is a sensation of “dèjá vu”.
The long wall with Meridian door, and Mao’s picture is in everybody’s memories. People flows inside as a river, only the immensity of Tiananmen square allowing the spreading of the crowds that, once inside, will fill all the staircases, doors and windows of the palace.
Tickets cost 40 yuan, and if you have no guide, you may get an audio guide. Some galleries demand an extra ticket.
Located at the center of Beijing, to the north of Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, called Gu Gong in Chinese, was the imperial palace during the Ming and Qing dynasties. Rectangular in shape, it is the world’s largest palace complex and covers 74 hectares.
Surrounded by a six-meter-deep moat and a ten-meter-high wall are 9,999 buildings. The wall has a gate on each side. Opposite the Tiananmen Gate, to the north is the Gate of Divine Might (Shenwumen), which faces Jingshan Park.
The distance between these two gates is 960 meters, while the distance between the gates in the east and west walls is 750 meters. There are unique and delicately structured towers on each of the four corners of the curtain wall. These afford views over both the palace and the city outside.
The Forbidden City is divided into two parts. The southern section, or the Outer Court was where the emperor exercised his supreme power over the nation. The northern section, or the Inner Court was where he lived with his royal family. Until 1924 when the last emperor of China was driven from the Inner Court, fourteen emperors of the Ming dynasty and ten emperors of the Qing dynasty had reigned here. Having been the imperial palace for some five centuries, it houses numerous rare treasures and curiosities. Listed by UNESCO as a World Cultural Heritage Site in 1987, the Palace Museum is now one of the most popular tourist attractions world-wide
The entrance to the Forbidden City is one of the two best known images of China – the big red wall with Mao’s picture (the other is the wall, of course!). That image makes part of Tiananmen square, and it is not followed inside.
It’s a strange sensation crossing that door – we feel like crossing history, like really entering a forbidden world, still in our days.
The Strong Wall
“Take the grand red city wall for example. It has an 8.6 meters wide base reducing to 6.66 meters wide at the top. The angular shape of the wall totally frustrates attempts to climb it. The bricks were made from white lime and glutinous rice while the cement is made from glutinous rice and egg whites. These incredible materials make the wall extraordinarily strong.” I read this in Travelchinaguide. Would you imagine? Rice and eggs! And, with so many people visiting Beijing, no one tried to bite the wall!
Website: Strong wall
Harmony” is the common word in the description of the several spaces of the Forbidden City. The smallest one is “complete”. Why?
Don’t ask – I didn’t read that much. It was used by the emperor to rest, in his way to the Hall of Supreme Harmony, more than 15 meters distant.
Harmony is the general word to qualify buildings and yards inside the Forbidden City.
Supreme, Central, Complete, Preserving, whatsoever, as a matter of fact, they all seem alike to me, in what I prefer to describe as “Immense harmony” (with the Emperor’s excuses)
Hall of Preserved Harmony
Smaller than the Hall of Supreme Harmony, but very similar to it, this hall was used as the place for “Palace Examinations” the top of the national evaluation system, before the creation of the university in 1898.
Palace of Heavenly Purity
After so many closed and empty rooms, it was interesting to look inside this large room. It is not too different from the other, but much more composed.
With the imperial throne in place, surrounded by a few decoration, this palace built in 1792 to replace the burnt construction from 1420, this palace was the imperial residence of the Ming and early Qing dynasties, and the place of Puyi’s marriage (“The Last Emperor”, do you remember?)
Because yellow is the symbol of the royal family, it is the dominant color in the Forbidden City. Roofs are built with yellow glazed tiles; decorations in the palace are painted yellow; even the bricks on the ground are made yellow by a special process.
However, there is one exception. Wenyuange, the royal library, has a black roof. The reason is that it was believed black represented water then and could extinguish fire.
“Poverty” in the Forbidden City
One thing that disappointed me in the Forbidden City, was the emptiness of most of the visited rooms.
I don’t know if it is consequence of the cultural revolution, or if the furniture is hidden in the closed areas, preserved from the crowds, but the only rooms where we could observe something (from the door, never entering them!) had always so many people discussing each centimeter of door, that we could only have a glimpse of them.
In the back of Forbidden City
Mountains have a special importance in Chinese religion. That’s why, in the flat Forbidden city, a pile of rocks simulates a mountain near the north exit.
Looking further, we may see a real mount out of the city, with dense trees and a pagoda on the top. Was it connected with the palace? We had no time to explore it.
In the rush for entering the city, we had no time to see the walls and their defensive condition.
Arriving to the north door, the exit is more calm, and it’s possible to see the large ditch that surrounds all the city, with the defensive towers in each corner.
Temple of Heaven
Hall of Prayer
The main area of this temple is called the Hall of Prayer for good harvest.
Dominated by a high building atop a round staircase, this wide temple was built in the 15th century and carefully restored for the Olympic games.
All in wood (except the marble staircase), and 38 meters high, no nail was used in its construction.
In the large complex of the Temple of Heaven, all the eyes go to the Hall of Prayer, but facing it, there’s a smaller structure with similar architecture, and where the crowds are not so dense, allowing more time to see the details.
Travelchinaguide (who took me there) writes:
The Imperial Vault of Heaven is a round pavilion with a double-eave roof sitting on a two-meter-tall white marble platform. If you look at it from far away, you will find that the vault is like a blue umbrella with gold head. Stone fences enclose the platform. 19 meters (62 feet) in height and 16 meters (52 feet) in diameter, the hall is a finely interlaced wooden structure with a blue tile roof crowned with a gilded sphere.
It has a coffered ceiling with a bluish green design of a gilded coiling dragon playing with a pearl at the center, and another 360 small dragons around. In the middle of the hall stands a circular stone seat carved with patterns, on which the Heavenly Great Tablet is placed. Many imperial ancestral tablets sit on both sides.
A large (and discreet) platform was, in the old days, considered the center of the world.
There is a long story about stones in circle, multiples of nine, and so on, but you will have to listen to it in location, to check by yourself.
I couldn’t memorize it.
This temple is a complex construction, where we start to be dominated by its main and central building, and keep on discovering new strange details, whose purpose it’s impossible to understand without a professional explanation.
That’s the case of this wall, topped with ceramics. Echo Wall is a beautiful construction, surrounding the Imperial Vault of Heaven. It is about 3.72 meters high, 90 centimeters thick and 65.1 meters in diameter.
Eaves of the wall and the bricks of the wall, which have been laid hermetically, makes wireless communication between two people possible at this famous Echo Wall.
Its shape has those acoustical effects, that we couldn’t test because…
See what they say about the how to:
“To make the communication most effective three conditions have to be met. The first condition required for the purpose is that the courtyard should not be too noisy. Secondly…”
Who cares about the second and third? The crowds… you know? Visiting Beijing without crowds is a dream…
China has the exclusive of the remaining animals of this nice species, and that’s reason enough to include a visit to the zoo in all packages.
Be prepared to see more heads and backs than pandas, and, while waiting your turn, think awhile about our role in this world, as the only creature able to think, plan, organize or… destroy.
I was expecting to see a very carefully recreated environment, with small, planted and protected bamboo forests, where the pandas could live in a half free but controlled condition.
It was frustrating to see the pandas through a window cage. When we go around, the back of the cages show a small open space, but the sensation remains.
Liyuan Theatre: Beijing Opera
Visiting Beijing without Opera? No way!
I knew that this kind of opera is very hermetic for an European. I was afraid that the jet-lag could interfere but it didn’t, and they were clever enough to make the show as detailed as possible to be understood, and as brief as needed to do not become boring.
I had a big guy in front of me all the time, so the only decent picture I could make was our table, but Burak was there, and, with his permission, my tip will not be plain text (with tea – another difference to our conventional opera – and nice company!).
Phone: 86 10 83157297
A funny and original idea: Some actors prepare the opera in a public corridor, allowing the audience to watch their work of characterization.
Thus, the show starts immediately as you enter the building, even before sitting.