The Forbidden City (Beijing-China)

Beijing isn’t a city where sightseeing can be a major attraction, more so because of its immediate neighbor ‘the great wall’ that attracts thousands of visitors every year. Even then we found the city to be a fascinating metropolis, rich with history, heritage and culture, now shining brightly on the world map as the 2008 Olympic venue.

The Tiananmen Square is undoubtedly the city’s most prominent landmark, the world’s largest square that witnessed China’s hunt for democracy, years back. The vast stoned area is flanked by two major gates; the front gate and the gate of Heavenly Peace. At the center of the square lies the Chairman Mao mausoleum. Visitors queuing up in front of the mausoleum are a common sight even at early hours of the day. We joined one such queue to view the departed leader’s preserved body kept in a glass sarcophagus. Out of the building, the beautiful statue of the ‘long march’ stands.

The Forbidden City is the most gorgeous historical place in entire Beijing. It had remained aloof for more than 500 years, hence the name ‘forbidden city.’ Being the largest and the best maintained royal buildings of entire China, it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1987. The Forbidden City museum, also known as the Imperial palace museum, was the thing to look out for. The Imperial palace was the ritual center of the Ming and Qing dynasties and their collection of treasures. Presently there are about 1.5 million objects that also include thousands of first-grade national treasures; Ceramics, paintings and calligraphy, bronze artifacts, jewelries, clocks and stone drums are only to name a few.

Driving around the city, the venues, the birds nest and the bubble building are gorgeous structures and the illuminated versions at night are too beautiful.

Even though the Forbidden City is the city’s major tourist highlight, the Summer Palace is considered to be the most popular sight of Beijing. The vast area adorned by lush gardens, lakes and corridors were once the favourite spot for the royals. Its cooling factor drew the royals here during the unbearable summer, thus the name Summer Palace. The most stunning attraction within the palace premises is the marble boat on Lake Kunming which is said to have been carved out of a single piece of marble.

Out of the royal scenario we visited the Temple of Heaven, one of China’s most beautiful religious structures of the Ming Dynasty. The temple originally functioned as the center for rituals performed by people who came to pray for a good harvest or clear all sins. When seen from the lower level, the halls are round shaped with a square base indicating the ancient Chinese belief of the heaven being round and the Earth a square.

China’s age old tradition and culture is known worldwide and no visit to Beijing is complete without experiencing these. So we decided to spend half a day in the ‘Hutongs’ and an entire evening in one of Beijing’s most well known Tea House.

Hutongs are the city’s most charming narrow alleyways that ran into thousands. These are usually of two kinds; the regular ones that run near the imperial palace and are arranged in a perfect order, the ancient dwellers being mainly imperial kinsmen and aristocrats. The residents have now changed to ordinary people as well as affluent people. The second variety of hutong is usually located far away from the palace, mostly towards the north and south directions. The residents were mainly traders. Therefore there was a clear demarcation of the different classes of people and their areas of residence. Pedicab (cycle rickshaw) tours are popular that takes the visitors through the most inaccessible narrow lanes with ease and make the tradition absolutely lively. We spent half a day with a local family, had lunch with them and learnt about their culture.

Drinking tea is an ancient culture of China and teahouses happen to be as old as the production of tea. One evening was spent well in Beijing’s famous Lao She teahouse where along with sipping green tea and sampling Chinese snacks we watched acrobatic shows, Shaolin Kung Fu and the Peking Opera face change which is considered to be an art by itself. It was indeed a magical art and we saw the most complicated one, the pulling mask routine. Masks were painted on pieces of damask. Hung with a superfine thread, the masks are lightly pasted on the face in layers. The thread is controlled from within the costume and by certain gestures of the artist, the masks change one by one and the excitement is just too much. For us, as long as the artist was on the stage, it was a swish of the cloak that changed the mask. Later when the performer came down to shake hands with the audience, the mask changed with just a friendly nod as the hands of the performer and the audience shook. The colours changed from green to blue, red to yellow and various other combinations with different facial expressions making every one in the audience eager to shake hands with the artist. The last step was when the original face of the artist was shown and it was revealed that she was a lady. The loud applause went on even after the curtains had been drawn.

Our weeklong vacation to Beijing had ended and we returned to the hustle and bustle of yet another metropolis……with fond memories.