For breakfast this morning, we stepped out into the hutong and bought whatever caught our eye from the street vendors. I had some lovely pork steamed buns.
Then we were onto a public bus to take us down to Tiananmen Square. In the aftermath of Thursday’s parade some of the subways underneath the eight lanes of traffic separating the square from the Tiananmen Gate were still closed. As a result there was some confusion and delay getting onto the square.
Once there, it was crowded with visitors come to see the remaining displays from the parade; two big floral affairs, one for 1945 and one for 2015, facing the stands still in place across Chang’an Avenue. As a result, the view north to Tiananmen was obscured and the space between that and Mao’s Mausoleum was occupied. I missed the sense of vastness I’d had when I visited the same – but emptier – space in 1996.
From the square, we crossed the road but, because the Tiananmen access was closed off, we entered the Forbidden City from the east side, via the park around the Working People’s Cultural Palace. Once through the massive Meridian Gate though, we followed the recommended tourist route, from the south, through the Outer Court (the ceremonial area) north into the Inner Court (the private, more residential section.)
I’m afraid I found the tour quite frustrating. By the time we entered the Palace, the sun was high, it was quite crowded and Peter seemed to prefer to stop in the centre of each courtyard to fill us in on the buildings around us. As a result I think we all sweltered quite a bit. We completed the tourist route within a couple of hours and the rest of the group went on, either to the hotel, or an optional excursion to visit the hutongs. I stayed behind and am very glad I did.
Once refreshed and stocked with supplies of cold green tea and rice cakes, I was able to wander at my own pace, in the shade, away from the crowds and it was a whole different experience. With a downloaded map and some advice from the Lonely Planet guide, I explored away from the main axial route, into the western and eastern pavilions, many of which house exhibitions.
I won’t bore you with descriptions of all of the exhibitions I visited. I’ll include a selection of pictures below and simply say you should check out the Ceramics, Clocks, Calligraphy, Jewellery and Carved Jade exhibits if you get the chance. I did also find a stunning display of bronze sculptures at one point, but that turned out to be a high-end souvenir shop… (lots of lovely gifts, starting at around the £1,000 mark!) However I found a beautiful red and gold vase in the souvenir shop attached to the ceramics exhibition which will make a lovely golden wedding present for my parents.
I’m glad to see that they’ve restored much of the decoration on the Forbidden City’s gates and pavilions. When I first came here, fresh from a visit to the glorious, sparkling colour of the Grand Palace in Bangkok, I was really disappointed by how drab the Forbidden City was in comparison. That’s no longer the case; the colours are fresh and the gilding shines. They haven’t restored it all – that’s a massive task – but they are working on it and I’m glad.
Sitting in the shade of one of the side gates, watching the crowds streaming across the Golden Water Bridges, was quite calming. Being away from the hustle of the mob felt right. I am, it seems, an independent traveller at heart. I do enjoy travelling with the group – I went along to at least one thing (The Propaganda Museum in Shanghai) that I really enjoyed but wouldn’t have visited on my own – but package tours and tour guides are mostly useful for organising the logistics of accommodation and transport to sites; once there, I like to do the exploring at my own pace.
There is something special about being able to stand quietly for a moment in a spot, looking out over a courtyard, feeling the texture of a marble balustrade under your fingers, knowing that it’s likely that a dozen or more emperors of the leading civilisation on the planet at the time, have stood on that same spot, surveying that same courtyard.
Sadly though you do need at least a full day to explore all that the Forbidden City has to offer and too soon they were closing the place up around me: Time to take the short walk back to the hotel.
And, suddenly, it was the last dinner of the tour. With the itinerary lasting just nine nights, the trip seemed to go by in a flash. We dined on spicy Sichuan cuisine for our farewell dinner and went to a local backpacker bar afterwards for additional beers and reminiscing. As tour groups go, this was a good one and I wish we could have had a longer trip together.