Sunday 27 March 2011

Forbidden City, Beijing

Today is census day for Britain (coming around every ten years since 1801, except for once during WWII), and also the day we put the clocks forward to daylight savings. I can't bring myself to say 'summer time', since despite the rash optimism of my previous post, it's a grey, nippy 8º C outside. 

A day, then, for another in my series of random travel posts, this one from a trip to China two years ago ...

While Shanghai (see here) gave glimpses into the personal, private details of life in China, Beijing, from the moment we landed at the spectacularly shiny, spanking-clean, post-Olympic City airport, was all drama, power, history. And nowhere were these elements more concentrated than in the Forbidden City.

For around 500 years the Forbidden City was the seat of power and intrigue, access to it denied on punishment of death to all but a select few people. It was home to China's Emperors, their families, servants, guards, senior civil servants, as well as, famously, the emperor’s concubines – well-educated young women chosen from the ‘best’ Manchu families to spend the rest of their lives cloistered in the Forbidden City – and the eunuchs who guarded them. 

(Both these last have their own stories, such as the last Chinese eunuch, who died in 1996 (see here) or the young concubine who rose in the ranks to become a powerful Empress Dowager - see here).

I'm the sort of person who is invariably drawn to details, but the aerial photo below gives a sense of the scale of the City and why exploring it properly would take weeks. Also called "the Great Within", it lies right in the heart of Beijing, which is arranged in a series of concentric circles around it, on a south-north axis from Tianenmen Square, in the foreground below... 

Photo credit for above shot:

... and is laid out in perfect symmetry – a series of intricate palaces linked by huge squares, courtyards and man-made lakes.

Their names speak of their designers' intentions - you pass through the  Halls or Gates of  Supreme Harmony, Heavenly Purity, or Earthly Tranquility, now guarded (it's a UNESCO world heritage site) by men and women in traditional dress...

Inside, every architectural feature, colour and decoration has symbolic significance ...

Beauty in the details of doors, ceilings and cornices, above and carved stone floors, below.

On this day in October, the great majority of the crowds thronging through the City seemed to be Chinese rather than foreign visitors ...

People crowding to touch a giant urn for good luck (above) and a little girl gets a better view riding on her father's shoulders (below)

All the buildings are made of wood. Huge bronze urns, like the one below left, were kept filled with water to deal with the fire hazard.

And below, the modern face of China's might was in evidence through the policemen who stood to attention or marched around all over the Forbidden City. I'm not sure what their purpose was there, other than simply a reminder of their presence, but in that they were certainly effective. (I was a little nervous taking this hurried photo. Is the guy in the centre of the front row giving me the beady eye?).

In Beijing restaurants, in the vast, sky-scrapered modern city, we were introduced to some of the best food we'd ever eaten in our lives, with vegetarian daughters deciding they'd landed in food heaven ...

Finally, it would be unforgivable to visit Beijing without a day-trip to the Great Wall of China ...

... though sadly, for me it was impossible to do justice to this sight in pictures. The photo below, of only a tiny section of the wall, may give some sense of how literally awesome it felt to be there.


  1. Dear Karen, Absolutely fabulous photographs...almost as good as being there.

  2. Karen, this post of yours goes to show me just how lucky I am to be able to connect, via blogland, with folks that I would not otherwise be fortunate to meet.

    I grew up with monthly deliveries of National Geographic Magazine, that opened the world that existed far beyond my childhood Virginia, in the States.

    Sad to say my adult traveling has yet to get beyond central Europe, but how I do love to see posts like yours. They do show me what I would want to see if eventually I do board another plane.


  3. Breathtaking photographs Karen. Colour and detail - amazing! BB

  4. Great culture and all photo are so natural..
    forbidden city


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