Maybe because it's made a cameo in so many Jackie Chan and Jet Li movies. Maybe because it represents the heart of the "mysterious" and ancient Chinese culture. Or, maybe it's just the name: "The Forbidden City." Whatever the reason for my excitement, it was pretty cool to see it for the first time.
Admittedly, I don't know much about its history. I had to read my guide book to know it was finished in the early 15th century. That it was home to both the Ming and Qing dynasties, the latter of which lasted until 1911. That it earned its nick-name because it was off-limits to everyone but the Emperor's people for over 500 years.
The enormous front gate, called "The Gate of Heavenly Peace," is painted a deep, imposing, blood red. Seven small white stone bridges curve over a small stream, and lead to five round openings at the bottom of the gate. Four giant stone lions guard the bridge, the front two flanked by tall stone columns with dragons on top.
As I crossed one of the bridges, I got a stare down from the little guard standing post at its center. I meandered on toward the middle of the gate, gazing up at the huge portrait of Chairman Mao. You can't go long in China without seeing his likeness. It's on the money, on pictures hanging inside stores and restaurants... Being dead since 1976 hasn't slowed him down much.
Like a true tourist, I chose the middle opening of the gate - passing right underneath ol' Mao. A set of huge, red double doors were just inside the entrance of the opening, adorned with gold studs and golden lions. They led to a long, smooth-walled tunnel running the width of the gate.
A large open space filled with trees, small vendor kiosks and hundreds of people was spread out on the other side. People of all shapes and sizes were trying to sell photo books and maps and bottles of water. A few beggars were stationed near trees with paper cups in front of them.
About 100 yards ahead stood another gate; a smaller version of the one I just passed through. I passed through it to find another open area much like the first, but even bigger. Two green parks sat on either side of the main walkway. I even saw a basketball court set back a few yards.
At the end of this courtyard however, stood the "Meridian Gate," which marked the beginning of the actual "Forbidden City." After paying 60 Yuan (about 9 dollars) for my ticket, I passed through the gate into a beautiful open space filled with stone bridges arching over the small "Golden Stream". It was gorgeous. Sitting gracefully on the other side of the stream stood another large structure, this one called "The Supreme Harmony Gate."
After passing through, I finally found the view I had been waiting for - the huge courtyard of "The Hall of Supreme Harmony." Unfortunately, The Hall of Supreme Harmony was un-harmoniously covered in scaffolding and green netting. Damn construction. I guess it makes sense to have everything in tip-top shape before next year's Olympics, but it sucks for visitors now.
It was still beautiful though. If you've seen "The Last Emperor", you've seen this area in action. A wide-open space filled with slate-gray stones. Enough space for thousands of people. Beautiful white stone terraces rising from the gray sea up to the gate. I could almost hear the gong ringing.
The rest of the Forbidden City was interesting to be sure, but... well... kind of boring. I know it sounds terrible, but building after building, gate after gate looked exactly the same. Most of the remaining structures are museums full of various artifacts of Chinese culture. I'm certain everything was fascinating, but after walking around for three hours, everything started to run together. There are only so many gates you can go through without losing some of the grandeur.
Don't mis-understand though, the entire place was beautiful. The archways, the columns, the paintings, the golden vases... There was a photo opportunity around every corner. It's just that all the opportunities were pretty much the same. And, the place was massive. Over 1,000,000 square meters of enclosed space. A million square meters of the exact same thing.
The exceptions were the huge golden lions in front of the "Heavenly Purity Gate." These are the lions you see copied in front of Chinese restaurants and hotels around the world. For me, they were the highlight of the entire place. Uniquely Chinese - strong, powerful and classically styled. Beautiful and horrible at the same time.
After a total of four hours inside the Forbidden City, I made my way back out of the Gate of Heavenly Peace, where I stopped to take a few obligatory photos. As you might expect, hundreds of people outside were doing the same. Groups of little old ladies were posing in front of Chairman Mao's portrait, a proud father holding his son in front of the massive stone lions guarding the small bridges, a little girl proudly holding up her national flag.
Once my memory card was appropriately filled, I took a stroll through Tiananmen Square. The setting of the famous protests of 1989, it was a little surreal to be walking the same paving stones seen in the infamous video.
The square itself is tremendously big. It's a little like being in the middle of a huge park, only there's no green. No grass, no trees. It's all concrete and stone. A little cold and unfeeling, but impressive nonetheless. I read later that it is the largest public square in the world, and I'd believe it. People were gathered all around in little pockets, talking and laughing. A group of workers were setting up huge flower planters in intricate designs. A few vendors were flying small kites in hopes of attracting a sale. I was offered a couple of really good deals on "authentic" Chairman Mao watches. Good to see some street capitalism rearing its head.
On one side sits the Museum of Chinese History. On the other stands the Great Hall of the People. Two shining examples of bulky, blocky communist architecture. A good-sized obelisk called "The Monument to the People's Heroes" stands just north of center.
In the south-center of the square stands Chairman Mao's Mausoleum. Just like Stalin and Lenin in Moscow, Mao's body is in there, on display for the waiting public. Apparently, every so often he gets shipped off to Moscow for a touch-up by the same folks who take care of the old Russians.
As I walked back to the apartment, I had mixed feelings. I was impressed, but a little disappointed. I'm not sure what I expected. It was immense and memorable, but at the same time it left me wanting more. I felt a little let down. I guess I wanted to walk around that corner in to the open space and see 10,000 soldiers standing at attention. I wanted to hear the gong ringing through the courtyard.
Something I certainly won't forget, but I think Hollywood got the better of me on this one.