Beijing actually means something! It is made up of the Chinese characters 北京. 北 (bei) means north and 京 (jing) is capital.
As stated in my lonely planet, Beijing is one of China’s true ancient citadels. The capital of mainland China is absolutely immense – the size of my home country, Belgium!!
The Chinese government estimates the population to be as high as 19 million people. And, with a few hundred tourists more, I am getting the feeling it is way too crowded. Another city that never rest…
This modern city cannot be missed out while travelling in Asia…even if the temperature outside is -5 to -8°C degrees, and that I am clearly not equipped to face such weather (I was all set for a year-long summer season, NOT winter season!!). But since I had a friend working there, who can actually speak Chinese, I decided to grab that opportunity to visit Beijing.
After a rough start (previous post explains it all), I was ready to discover Chinese culture and thus its tea tradition. Don’t get me wrong here…I am definitely a coffee addict (it’s the first thing I do in the morning before heading in the shower…and I don’t even bother anymore to count how many mugs per day I am drinking!!). But in China, do as the Chinese. I had the pleasure to assist to a traditional tea ceremony.
Drinking tea in China is quite different from drinking tea in Europe,UK or even Japan. It differs in the way it’s prepared, the way you’re supposed to hold your cup, the way you’re supposed to taste it, etcetera… Chinese tea is drank at different occasions, and used for different purposes, such as medical and culinary ones. For me, it was just fascinating to look at the old chinese woman’s precise, delicate movements to prepare the perfect tea. Almost like a dance…
The next day, I took the subway downtown for some solo sightseeing…although, I wasn’t solo for very long. Being on the subway can’t be qualified as fun. The masses just push and push in order to get inside, which is ridiculous since there’s a subway every 10 minutes…They could just wait for the next one. Instead, you are squeezed like a sardine….Good times!!
Anyway, I finally made my way to the front entrance to the famous Forbidden City. Easy to spot it with all the tourists busy snapping photos of the huge portrait of Chairman Mao. The portrait is just above the main central doorway called the Gate of Heavenly Peace.
The gate is divided into 5 doors and reached via 7 bridges overlooking a small stream. It’s apparently the gate from which Mao first proclaimed the People’s Republic in 1949.
As I was walking towards the first gate, the Duan gate, I realised that I was surrounded by lots of Chinese and one tall blond European-like girl. We quickly bonded over the fact that we were the only two speaking English. And, it’s way more fun to visit a place with someone. Eva is from Holland, and visiting Beijing to interview people for her thesis. She quickly switched the language to Dutch when she found out I could speak the language. Who would have guessed that I would be speaking Dutch in China?!?
The Forbidden City – it’s clearly not a city, and definitely not forbidden anymore as hundreds of tourists pass the gates each year. But for 500 years, from the Ming dynasty to the end of the Qing dynasty, the Forbidden City was “home sweet home” for emperors and their households. It was also the palace, where all ceremonials and political affairs took place. No one could enter or leave this place without the emperor’s approval. If you fail to do so, the punishment was a death execution!
But now, the Forbidden City, this palace complex (over 700.000 square meters covered by around 900 buildings that have about 9.000 rooms in total) is officially renamed as “The palace Museum”. It is listed by UNESCO as the world’s largest collection of preserved ancient wood-based structures and was declared a World Heritage Site in 1987.
After buying the entrance ticket, I was ready to start the visit. When walking through the Meridian gate, I stopped a minute to rub the round gilded knobs on the doors. The Chinese believe doing this brings them good luck.
We arrived then in front of the Gate of Supreme Harmony, a gate overlooking a courtyard that could hold audiences of up to 100.000 people! We were about to see what is considered as the heart of the Forbidden city, the Three Great Halls raised on a marble terrace with balustrades.
Standing just in front of us, was the Hall of Supreme Harmony, the most important and largest building of the Forbidden City. This hall was used for ceremonial occasions (such as the emperor’s birthday, coronations, nominations of military leaders,…). Inside, there’s a Dragon Throne, where the emperor would preside over trembling officials.
Behind the Hall of Supreme Harmony is the Hall of Middle Harmony, where the emperor would do last-minute preparations and rehearse his speeches.
The third & last is Hall of Preserving Harmony, used for banquets. As I was patiently waiting for all Chinese to take their zillion pics of the Hall (so that I could take mine), I got distracted.
One of the many huge bronze look-like-a-witch’s cauldron was just in front of the Hall, and I started to wonder what was its purpose? The answer was, of course, in my guide: “vats, once contained water for dousing fires”.
After walking for hours (in the cold, ugh!) and clearly not seeing any exit sign, I started to realise just how huge it was. There was always one more building, one more garden, one more part behind. The complex is zillions (not exaggerating at all 😉 ) of gardens, courtyards and large open areas surrounded by typical Chinese buildings, pavilions and halls of palace.
It’s difficult to describe everything I saw in details….and even more difficult to describe how I felt while inside. The Forbidden City was on my list of wonders to see during this trip. And, I am happy to say that this visit completely fulfilled my expectations.