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It was our second day in Beijing and it was the perfect time to truly discover this fascinating city. Fortunately, for most visitors, the seat of China’s cultural (imperial past) and political(revolution) history, is within walking distance of each other. It’s easy to plan a day of exhaustive walking and cultural assimilation. Although, it would be wise to bear in mind – that the sights are scattered (linearly) and it will not be possible to cover everything in a day.
Tiananmen Square & Tower (Gate of Heavenly Peace)
As we walked from Tiananmen West Subway station towards the Tiananmen Tower, we saw a huge crowd of tourists trying to enter – what seemed like – a check point. The borders were heavily guarded with army and police officers. Many domestic tourists scurried to find identification proof. There seemed to be a state of confusion and yet, people didn’t seem to let it bother them. As we inched slowly, bit-by-bit, the jostling increased. Surprisingly, we were let quite easily through and the guards were polite. Unfortunately, some domestic tourists weren’t half as lucky. Glad to be out of the crowds and into free space and air – we walked towards Tiananmen Tower.
It would be hard to deny the projected magnanimity that Tiananmen Tower commands. Chairman Mao’s face set across a backdrop of bright red walls and clear blue skies proves to be an imposing façade. It was here that Chairman Mao declared the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Opposing the tower and within the square lie: the Monument of People’s Heroes, Great Hall of the People, Memorial of Chairman Mao, and National Museum of China. After soaking the enormity of the Tiananmen Square – we proceeded towards the Forbidden City.
The Palace Museum (Forbidden City)
Bernardo Bertolucci’s ‘The Last Emperor’, released in 1987, recreated the dramatic turn of events that took place in the last Emperor, Puyi’s life. From a young cherub to an ageing man – trying to keep up with a changing China – the movie is based on the Emperor’s autobiography. Anyone, who has seen the movie, would find it hard to forget its haunting score (by Ryuichi Sakamoto, David Byrne, Cong Su) and poignant ending. And for many of us, it offered a glimpse into the fascinating world of the Forbidden City.
The ‘Forbidden City‘, now re-named as ‘The Palace Museum‘, was out of bounds for commoners during Imperial Rule. It was the abode for the Ming and Qing Emperors for more than 500 years. Even today, a sizeable portion of the Palace grounds is off limits for tourists and what is viewable – can take more than a day to explore.
We walked through the tunnel, from Tienanmen Tower towards the Palace Museum. By noon, ticket counters were teeming with tourists. We opted for an audio guide and walked towards the main entrance, also known as the Meridian Gate.
The seemingly ordinary Meridian Gate holds, within it, one of the most enchanting cities you’d ever see. It wouldn’t take much to imagine the original splendour of the Forbidden City. I found myself drifting into the past and wondering what life might have been here. Probably, not the best, for a commoner like me.
The Forbidden City can be broadly segregated into a series of Halls and their accompanying gates. The walk is pretty linear – provided you don’t wander into the side lanes leading into exhibition halls. We started with the Gate of Supreme Harmony, leading into the Hall of Supreme Harmony, which in turn lead into the Hall of Middle Harmony – ending in the Hall of Preserving Harmony. There are interesting objects en-route such as : giant bowls used as fire extinguishers, granary measurement contraptions, Imperial thrones, and roof guardians (depicting the importance of a building.)
After crossing the Hall of Preserving Harmony, we entered into the Clock Exhibition Hall (additional cost). The Exhibition hall has one of the finest collections of imperial clocks – many made in Europe. Skip this exhibition, if you’re pressed for time.
As we exited the exhibition hall, things started to get very confusing and we ended up walking the long mile – that lead directly into the imperial garden. We had managed to skip two major halls. We were too tired to walk back and ended spending some time admiring rocky outcrops, artefacts, and brightly bloomed flowers of the garden, before bidding adieu to the Forbidden City.
After exiting the gates of the Forbidden City, we crossed the street to enter Jingshan Park. It was nearing 3 pm and we hoped to head to Beihai Park after exploring this park. After eating a small meal of noodles, we headed towards the peak of the hill. A narrow, winding, path of stairs lead us up the steep hill. Trees strategically blocked the depth of the valley below. Towards the end, the path became rather steep and after many short breaths – we reached the summit.
Few more steps lead to the temple of Buddha. The view from here is spectacular and worth the effort. Balconies were clogged with tourists trying – to steal a spot – to admire the sight in front of them. Although, the afternoon sun was cruel, the wind more than made up for the sharp rays of the sun.
On our way down, we discovered there were many pathways leading to the pinnacle. We chose an easier, broader pathway for our descent. There are at-least five distinct pathways leading downhill.
In the distance, we heard the sound of traditional Chinese music. In one of the open air enclosures, two elderly men were playing a wonderful melody. A little girl tried to match her footsteps to the rhythm. It proved to be a good break for us.
The tulip exhibition was equally beautiful. Tourists took snaps with/of them and had to be reprimanded by guards for crossing the marked lines.
By the time we exited from Jingshan Park, it was nearing 5. It didn’t make sense to head to Beihai Park. Cycle rickshaws called out. It might be a good option – if you’re not high on walking. Although, my feet were really tired with all the walking, we saw a signboard which read as Nanlouguxiang. Home would be nearby, surely.
After few enquiries, we headed towards the direction board arrow. The beauty of the Hutongs lie in their characteristic styled grey-tiled roof tops. As we passed from one street to another and went deeper into the maze of similar looking houses, it was a while before we realised, we were lost. With hand directions and guide-maps, we found our way back to our main street.
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