Travel Destinations

Monday, January 27, 2014

Finding the Treasures of the Forbidden City

Overhead View of the Forbidden City Beijing China
View of the Forbidden City from Jingshan Park.
The Forbidden City, or The Palace Museum as it is called in China, may have been my least favorite attraction in Beijing.  But you have to go.  Visiting Beijing and not touring the Forbidden City would practically be a sin.  Don’t get me wrong, the Forbidden City has a fascinating history, and we did find quite a few areas within the walls that we enjoyed (so follow along to learn the best places within the walls to visit).  But a visit to the Forbidden City can be a little difficult and a little frustrating, and while the story is very interesting, even though it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the largest collection of preserved ancient wooden structures in the world, it just lacks the colorful staggering splendor of other grand palaces in the world, like Bangkok’s Grand Palace.   

Forbidden City Beijing China
Forbidden City entrance at the Gate of Heavenly Peace.
This lack is due to the Forbidden City’s turbulent past.  In its 500 year heyday, the palace was off limits to the public, thus its name as we know it.  The Forbidden City was not opened to the public until the beginning of the 20th Century.  The first tragedy occurred when the national treasures had to be evacuated because of the Japanese invasion. While part of the collection was returned after World War II, much of it is in Taiwan.  Then when the People’s Republic of China was established more damage occurred.  Therefore, there is little left of the Forbidden City’s original treasures and beauty.  This translates to a lot of really big buildings that, while grand, look similar to each other, don’t have much in them, and are in disrepair. 

Bing Tang Hulu Forbidden City Beijing China
Be sure to buy bing tang hulu, candied hawthorn on a stick, while visiting the Forbidden City. 
Snacks from the roaming vendors at the entrance are much better than what can be purchased at the snack bars inside.
We visited in November when the crowds are far smaller than the sea of humanity that can be encountered during the busy season.  Along with our admission, we decided to also rent audio guides so we could learn more about what we were viewing.  We entered the Forbidden City’s inner area and were greeted with a view of an expansive courtyard with the largest and most important Hall, the Hall of Supreme Harmony, before us.  The center north-south axis of the Forbidden City is a series of grand halls.  These are the highlight for most visitors (but they shouldn’t be).   

Hall of Supreme Harmony Forbidden City Beijing China
Hall of Supreme Harmony with its huge and ornate marble ramps.
As we approached the Hall of Supreme Harmony, we encountered what would become one of the turn-offs of the Forbidden City.  None of the Halls can be entered.  They each have three to five doorways which are blocked by gates.  The middle doorway usually provides the best view of the Hall’s interior, with the side doors providing limited views.  So, everyone crowds these doorways to look in and get their pictures.  Even during the low season, the crowds were 10 or more bodies deep.  So in order to see inside, you need to push and shove and worm your way to the front.  Luckily, I’m tall, so I could usually see inside and get my picture when I was still two people back.  Usually the colorful exteriors of these Halls are much more interesting than the somewhat bare interiors.

Forbidden City Crowds Beijing China
The throngs of people that must be waded through to see inside the Halls. 
Notice all the cameras and cell phones in the air taking pictures?
Hall of Supreme Harmony Interior Forbidden City Beijing China
Interior of the Hall of Supreme Harmony.
We found the Halls along the middle axis of the Forbidden City were very crowded with the hustle and bustle of people who just wanted to see what there was to see and move on.  It seemed the vast majority of the visitors to the Forbidden City wanted to see the main highlights, snap pictures, and get out.  We had to pay so much attention to the crowds that we really didn’t get to enjoy the full benefit of our rented audio guides, with the information literally going in one ear and out the other.  I know there was some great information being given, but I just can’t remember it.

Just when I was starting to be over the Forbidden City, we found the areas of real interest.  These are the places to the sides of the main axis.  While the buildings may not be as grand, they have more interest, and far less crowds.  These are the places where you will want to spend your time.

To the northwest, near the back of the Forbidden City, are the Western Palaces.  These are smaller buildings than the Halls.  They are courtyard homes where the emperors lived during their reign. 

Ornate Door Western Palaces Forbidden City Beijing China
Ornate door in the Western Palaces area.
Roof Guardians Western Palaces Forbidden City Beijing China
Roof guardians adorn the roofs of all the buildings of the Forbidden Palace.
A human figure riding a phoenix leads a number of mythical beast, with the imperial dragon at the tail end of the procession.
The more beasts, the more important the building.
Western Palaces Forbidden City Beijing China
The Western Palaces have many colorful ornate details like this dragon tile work.
To the northeast is what I feel is the highlight of the Forbidden City.  While it costs an additional 10 yuan, the Treasure Gallery is well worth the price of admission.  This is where the interesting stuff is housed.  This is where you can see exhibits of ceremonial and religious objects, as well as the large colorful Opera House.  Some highlights of the Treasure Gallery are ceremonial headdresses, royal seals, and large, ornate jade carvings.  The only sad thing about the Treasure Gallery is that the treasures are behind cloudy, bubbled Plexiglas covered in greasy forehead spots, so it can be difficult to see some of the treasures and practically impossible to take good pictures of them.  The Lonely Planet Discover China guide lists the Clock Exhibition Hall as a do not miss, but unfortunately we did miss it, so you’ll have to take the word of the guidebook.  

Nine Dragon Screen Treasure Gallery Forbidden City Beijing China
Nine Dragon Screen just within the entrance to the Treasure Gallery.
Opera House Treasure Gallery Forbidden City Beijing China
Open-air stage of the Opera House within the Treasure Gallery.
Ceremonial Headdress in the Treasure Gallery Forbidden City Beijing China
One of the ceremonial headdresses on display in the Treasure Gallery.
Another interesting section of the Forbidden City is crowded because it is at the back portion of the central axis.  This is the Imperial Garden.  The Imperial Garden is a beautiful area with shady, knotted cypress trees, colorful pavilions, and interesting rock formations. 

Imperial Garden Forbidden City Beijing China
This ornate dome is in a small pavilion in the Imperial Garden of the Forbidden City. 
Upon exiting the Forbidden City North Gate, your tour of the Forbidden City is not yet complete.  To get the best view of the Forbidden City, enter Jingshan Park just to the north of the Forbidden City across Jinghshan Qianjie and make the quick climb up the hill to the pavilion for an uninterrupted panoramic view of the Forbidden City, its surrounding moat, and the rest of Beijing.  This hill is one of the few hills in Beijing and was created from the earth excavated to make the moat.  In addition to the spectacular view, the park has a number of small buildings of interest to visit. 

Jingshan Park Pavillion Beijing China
The pavilion atop the hill of Jingshan Park provides the best overhead view of the Forbidden City.
So while the Forbidden City was not my favorite attraction in Beijing, it is a must-see.  Set aside at least three hours for your visit and be sure to explore beyond the central axis of the Palace Museum to see the real treasures of this large complex. 

Have you visited the Forbidden City?  Were you blown away?  What were your favorite discoveries?

Travel the World: A tour of the Forbidden City in Beijing China.

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Katherine Belarmino and Romeo Belarmino are the authors of Travel the World, a travel blog for the everyday working stiff. They work full-time in non-travel related jobs, but take every opportunity they can to travel the world during their limited vacation time.