Inside the Forbidden City, Beijing

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The Forbidden City is what many people think of when thinking of Beijing, and so of course it was on the agenda. In fact, our first full day in Beijing started with an early visit.

A bit of history – the original complex of the Forbidden City was built between 1406 – 1420 CE during the Ming Dynasty, and was the home of the Imperial Family, as well as the centre of government, to the end of the Qing Dynasty. It was home to 24 different Emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties, and is apparently the largest collection of wooden structures in the world. And the scale of it is impressive.

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I was really excited about the Forbidden City. I had this idea that it would be this incredible, beautiful, mysterious kind of place. And, for some reason that I’m unable to explain, I’ve always imagined it as being purple, despite having seen a few pictures. I was looking forward to luxurious interiors and exotic architecture, green gardens and hidden, winding corridors.

What we saw was an extensive complex filled with wooden buildings that, with a few very pleasant exceptions, were basically the same and were closed to visitors. Where I’d imagined gardens, I was met with concrete. No potted plants, just barren, grey cement. And people. Lots and lots of people [although that wasn’t unexpected], which means lots and lots of umbrellas. On the upside, I did very much like the colourful alleys.

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We’d also chosen to rent an audio guide in the hopes of learning more about the history. I’ve had some amazing audio guides in the past that were engaging and interesting and exciting. The audio guide at the Forbidden City was none of these. It was just a recitation of historical data that, in duration, didn’t relate to how interesting something was. And it started automatically when you arrived at a certain point. However, if you wanted to wander around instead of standing in front of a bronze pot for seven minutes…well you’d either trigger a new lecture or it would restart. And then, about a third of the way through, both mine and John’s audio guide seemed to recognise our disinterest and simply stop working. As this was about the time we visited the Clock Museum [the single most interesting thing in the Forbidden City, and requiring an extra fee], we were a little disappointed. There was no getting them working again.

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One of the more frustrating things was that when there was actually something to look at – for example when one of the few buildings with open windows and displays inside came around – we couldn’t see anything anyway over the crowds of people pushing and shoving and holding their cameras in the air, viciously elbowing anyone in their path out of the way. And I can guarantee that in this instance, patience is most definitely NOT a virtue, as it will get you a grand total of nothing and you’ll never see a thing. Besides, it’s not a concept people seem to be familiar with in China. No sensible lines with people walking past one way, giving everyone a fair chance to look inside. No, the law of the jungle rules at the Forbidden City. So this is pretty much all we saw of the interior of buildings, aside from a couple of small museums.

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The Clock Museum was probably the highlight for both John and I. The extra ticket, which you can buy just outside the museum, was only a few dollars and was well worth it. It showcased an extensive collection of clocks that were mostly gifts to various Chinese emperors from countries around the world over periods of hundreds of years. They ranged from simple and elegant to massive and terribly ostentatious, but oh-so-amazing. I’m not sure why giving people clocks was so popular, but it certainly ensured a fascinating collection able to be viewed in air-conditioned comfort.

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We wandered through alleyways lined with thick red walls to the rear of the complex where there was a garden, with a number of small wooden pagodas and even some trees amongst the rocks. The garden was rather lovely, a bit of a refuge from the barren city.

I don’t know if my imagination and expectations clouded my judgement in regards to the Forbidden City, but overall I didn’t particularly enjoy it. Both John and I found it to be very underwhelming, especially compared to some of the other places we visited in Beijing and China. I can’t really understand why it’s such a drawcard – I’d honesty recommend people with a short time in Beijing or on a budget to skip it. In my opinion – and it’s just that – it’s missable. And if you do visit, give the audio guide a miss. It cost about 40-50 RMB and was absolutely not worth the cost.

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Also, it’s not purple. Which is most unfortunate.


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