Thursday, 26 May 2011

Forbidden City

Wednesday 25th May 2011

5 days left traveling the world.

MP3 track of the day: Take back the city – Snow Patrol

Weather: Blue skies over Beijing; did you hear what I said? Blue skies! Accompanying said skies was a cool breeze, which was most welcoming considering the sun had been beating down all day.

With no alarm set I found myself, trying to get up, at around 8am. I was still tired and yet, I knew that I had a busy day ahead of me; even outside my eye lids felt heavy and it took until breakfast to, eventually, wake myself up. I had planned on eating 'dim sum' (a traditional Chinese breakfast) however I couldn't find the restaurant my hostel had recommended; in the end I went into a small café where, unsurprisingly, I ordered a slice of cake and a hot chocolate. It wasn't long before a thick slice of 'banana, with caramel, cake' was sat in front of me accompanied by a hot chocolate. The cake was a little dry, but pleasant enough; the hot chocolate was nothing special. If I cannot find 'dim sum' tomorrow then I think I'll pop back as the price wasn't too bad. Once I'd settled my bill I continued to walk towards the Forbidden City.

It took a further thirty minutes to reach the Forbidden Cities northern gate. I purchased my entrance ticket and, unusually, I also paid for an audio guide. The British / American couple, I met yesterday, had recommended the guide as it was GPS controlled; this meant that you could walk freely, within the city, and the guide would follow you, instead of you following it … very handy if you see a big tour group coming. The guide was a blue rectangular box which hung lightly from a cord around my neck; a wire was plugged into said box and, on the other end, was a single ear piece. As I walked through the northern gate I heard my electronic tour guide speak for the first time; a female voice told me all about the gate before telling me what was coming up. Not only was the voice clear but the information was also interesting. At previous Chinese attractions any written information had been translated poorly, making it difficult for me, to understand, what the author was trying to say. A lot of times I would give up reading mid-way, but not with the audio guide; as soon as she started to speak I would find a shady spot to listen as I didn't fancy moving, in case I would trigger another passage before she'd finished what she was saying.

The time was around 10am and I knew the tour groups would be at full strength. I looked at the map, on the front of my audio guide, (which also told you where you were, at any given time, by a red light flashing at the corresponding spot on the map) and decided to cover the west, and east, wings before venturing into the touristy inner city. I hoped that the wings would take a couple of hours, therefore I'd hit the centre around lunch time. As I walked west I followed the stone paths surrounded by red walls and golden yellow Chinese roofs; the sky was bright blue which must be a first in the polluted capital of China.

On the 6th November 2010 I was sat in my hostel, within Christchurch, waiting for my flight to Auckland. On TV was a documentary about the Chinese Expo site in Shanghai; in particular the documentary focused on the China Pavilion and the problem of making it look red. Until watching this programme I had no idea that, if you paint something as big as a building in one shade of red, the human eye, after a while, will perceive the colour to be green. I remember them going into great detail on why this occurs ... but that's not important. Why have I brought this up then? Well, within the documentary, the people responsible for making the China Pavilion visited the Forbidden City to learnt it's secrets. Even though all the buildings are painted red the Forbidden City doesn't look green when you gaze upon it; this is because its painted in many different shades of red and, as I walked around, I could see both light, and dark, reds.

Eventually I made it to the west wing; my audio guide sprung into life and explained that there were six palaces dedicated for the Emperors concubines. Some Emperors had more concubines than days within the year and, whilst at first, I thought this must have been ace I then began to imagine the nagging. Here the audio guide focused on life within the city and even told stories of betrayal, espionage and murder. I wandered freely looking at the many buildings and animal statues. Within some of the windows bed chambers, artefacts and living quarters could be seen however, the glass was dirty and the sun low in the sky; I had to put my face against the glass to be able to see in.

There were loads of hidden passages and I made my way through, seeing all six palaces, and keeping away from the minimal amount of tourists I found. After an hour of aimless wandering I found myself at the northern gardens, near to the northern gate. I was thirsty and I regretted not bringing anything to drink with me; as I approached a store, I prepared for a ludicrous price, ( I couldn't leave the city, for refreshments, as I would have to buy a new ticket to re-enter), only to be pleasantly surprised to find that a bottle of coke cost 40p. I by-passed hordes of tourists, fixed within the centre palaces, and made my way to the west side. Six palaces were also found, erected in the exact 2x3 pattern, as within the east wing; these were used by the emperor, the empress and the crown prince. As the emperor slept with both empress and concubines children from both were possible. If the empress was unable to provide a son then a concubines son could, if the emperor chose, become the crown prince. The crown prince would eventually become the emperor when the current one died and, unlike the British monarchy, the eldest child did not automatically become the next emperor. As you can tell competition could be fierce and my audio guide told stories of empresses killing concubines, and their offspring, to remain in power. It was pretty sad and some children had to be brought up in complete secrecy.

The west wing had also taken an hour and so the time was midday. Before entering the 'inner city' there was a special exhibition, costing ten Yuan (£1), set-up within some outer chambers. I don't like it when additional entry tickets are required but, as the cost was only £1, I purchased a ticket with little fuss. I was glad that I did. The 'treasures of the Forbidden City' themselves were interesting (the jade carvings were very impressive) but it was the reduced amount of tourists, allowing for clear photographs, that was the main benefit. I wondered slowly around the perimeter of the buildings, taking photos, before viewing the treasures at a faster pace.

After another hour I found myself at the western gates to the inner city; there was another special exhibition, costing ten Yuan, focusing on clocks. Again I paid to go in but, unless you have an unhealthy interest in time pieces, it wasn't worth the cost (though the level of craftsmanship was astonishing). I had hoped, being 1pm, that the tour groups would have retired for lunch, but no. The hordes were still heavy and moving around the 'inner city' became frustrating. It was easy to see why the crowds had congregated around here; unlike the palaces in both wings – where their perimeter walls made the area feel claustrophobic – the palaces here were surrounded by huge marble platforms, with stairs leading down to massive cobbled courtyards below. The amount of room dedicated to these important palaces was staggering; tourists, on the opposite side of the courtyard, began to look small. Before venturing forth I purchased an ice cream; my chosen ice cream had been made from frozen peas and I'd seen it advertised, yesterday, on the bus. As I bit into it, the coolness hit me instantaneously but, as for taste, nothing ventured forth. Seriously I cannot describe what the ice cream tasted of as there wasn't a taste; yet again the food, within my mouth, was bland.

Along the western edges, of the palace complexes, were exhibitions which held little interest; it was the buildings themselves that were the main event. With their golden roofs and red pillars they dominated their white marble platforms; my audio guide kept me in the past as I viewed each building knowing what it was used for. I did look in the buildings however, with the crowds congregated in huge mobs around each doorway, I didn't look for long. I continued south through giant gates, crossing huge courtyards, and up many marble steps taking in the splendour and beauty of the area. I found myself, at the southern entrance around 3pm, five hours after I'd entered. Here I found a small river with five arched bridges; each bridge was made out of white marble and most were full of tour groups heading north. I ventured both east and west to see further free exhibits before returning to the southern gate. Before visiting I'd thought that the Forbidden City may have been a 'white elephant'; however I was pleasantly surprised that it wasn't and I'd loved every minute. The Forbidden City isn't as good as the Great Wall, or the Terracotta Warriors, but it's not far off.

The time was 3pm and, so far today, I'd eaten one ice cream and a slice of cake; I was starving and so I went to find food. I went south not stopping at Tian'anmen Square; I went past a KFC and didn't pause. I had a specific place in mind. Within my guidebooks '31 things not to miss' was trying Beijing Duck; as I read my guidebook it described Beijing Duck as crispy duck from home. I love crispy duck; I love the pancakes you wrap the duck in, I love the sauce you dip the pancake into and, in fact, it's one of my favourite foods. Starving I found the 'crispy duck' restaurant, that my guidebook recommended …however it was closed for lunch. It's 3:30pm! Why is a restaurant, in a capital city, closed! I left, still starving, heading back past KFC to another restaurant recommended. This one would be open within thirty minutes and so I waited; I purchased a bottle of coke and sat on a street bench watching the world go by. Once open I ventured into the restaurant and asked for a menu. On the first page was 'Beijing duck' but, unfortunately, it was £23 and you had to buy a whole duck, you couldn't order half. Annoyed I left and, by chance, I found another Beijing Duck restaurant close by. Here I could purchase duck for £12; it was a little expensive however it was 'a thing to do' within Beijing. I ordered my meal and waited.

I waited guessing that the duck wouldn't taste better than what I could get at home, though I did hope it would be similar. As my meal arrived the sauce, vegetables and the pancakes looked the same but the meat wasn't shredded, or dry. In fact the meat was slimey and swimming in grease; still I placed the meat within the pancake, dipped it into the sauce, and started to chew. As I devoured my face dropped; not only was the duck slimey but the sauce was bitter and I was gutted. To make matters worse, not only had I paid £12 for a meal that I could get, at home, cheaper and more delicious but the portion of duck was small meaning that, after eating, I didn't feel full. I thanked the waitress, for taking my money, and crossed the road to McDonalds. I made it back to my hostel around 7pm where I tried to book an acrobatic show for my final day of travel (Sunday). I wanted an afternoon performance - as I would need an early night for my early start the following day – however, as the lady typed something into her computer, she said that there was only one performance per day, at 7:30pm. I therefore changed my mind and asked for a Saturday performance; after a little more typing, and a phone call, the receptionist asked if 'I could go tomorrow?'. No was my reply and after a further few phone calls, and conversations, still no ticket. Time was ticking on and so I sat, with my PC, and asked the receptionist to come over to me when the problem was resolved. Finally a, very glum looking, receptionist came over; apparently the company, my hostel use, don't like doing weekend performances. The lady was phoning around other companies and said that she would let me know, if they could get me a ticket, tomorrow afternoon. I sat down and searched the web before retiring to bed. Tomorrow is another long day; firstly I want to head up the Jingshan hill - to get an overview of the Forbidden City - before visiting Tian'anmen Square. Hopefully then it'll be lunch and, after, I want to visit the Temple of Heaven. The attractions shouldn't take long but the travelling, between sights, might do.

Time is short and, this time next week, I'll be at home. I don't want to go home; Russia's so close. One more week … please!

Toodle Pip!

P.S. Yesterday, I forgot to include my weekly round up; my average spent has gone up to £30.62 but, when you think how much shopping I've done, it's not bad at all. There's nothing else new to report.

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