Forbidden no longer

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September 2nd 2019
Published: September 2nd 2019
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Days 34 to 37 of 80

Thursday, and our Forbidden City visit, Part 2, was more successful than Tuesday's attempt. This time we had booked tickets. This time we entered by the East, the reverse from the way we had left on Tuesday, thereby avoiding all the Tiananmen Square kerfuffle and security checks. Also, the entrance was nowhere near as jammed packed as on Tuesday. Looks like Tuesday was suffering from 'it was closed on the day before' syndrome.

That's not to say that it was quiet and empty. Far from it, especially along its central axis. The City is aligned as a long rectangle, North/South with all its key buildings, 'Gates', 'Halls' and 'Palaces' aligned along that centre line. But 75% of the City is away, East and West, behind the walls that define the areas around those central buildings.

Getting away in to those areas makes a world of difference to the quality of your visit.

The Palace Museum is a national museum housed in the Forbidden City. It was established in 1925 after the last Emperor of China was evicted from the palace, and opened its door to the public.

It's home to over 1.8 million pieces of art, mostly from the Imperial collection of the Ming and Qing dynasties, though quite where they are displayed. ..?

The museum/site had more than 17 million visitors in 2018, the world's most visited museum.

For almost five centuries, it served as the home of the Emperor and his household, and the ceremonial and political centre of Chinese government. Built from 1406 to 1420, the complex consists of 980 surviving buildings with 8,707 bays of rooms. It was declared a World Heritage Site in 1987, and is listed by UNESCO as the largest collection of preserved ancient wooden structures in the world.

In 1912, Puyi, the last Emperor of China, abdicated. Under an agreement with the new Republic of China government, Puyi remained in the Inner Court, while the Outer Court was given over to public use, where a small museum was set up to display artifacts housed in the Outer Court. In 1924, Puyi was evicted from the Inner Court after a coup. The Palace Museum was then established in the Forbidden City on Double Ten Day (October 10), 1925.

From 1933, the threat of Japanese invasion forced the evacuation of the most important parts of the Museum's collection. After the end of World War II, this collection was returned to Nanjing. However, with the Communists' victory imminent in the Chinese Civil War, the Nationalist government under Chiang Kai-shek ordered the evacuation of the pick of this collection to Taiwan. Of the 13,491 boxes of evacuated artifacts, 2,972 boxes are now housed in the National Palace Museum in Taipei.

Standing in any of the main central courtyards it is clear that the vast majority of visitors, many of them in guided groups probably for only 2 hours or so, just go up the central axis. And it seems such a waste. Except for the grandness of the buildings there it's not even the best visitor experience. You don't get to go inside those buildings. All you can do is fight, elbow and push your way to the front to the barrier outside each entrance through which you can peer from the bright sunshine of outside into the gloom inside. That is, if you can stretch your neck to look past all the camera phones. The insides are not lit.

On TripAdvisor people complain about the lack of shade, drinks, seating. All these are available in abundance in the side areas.

We spent all day there. This gave us ample time to wander around the side areas, visit the obvious museums - clocks, furniture and treasure. And take plenty of rests and drink. We are still 'suffering' from temperatures in the 90s. Fortunately the air hasn't been noticeably smoggy.

On Friday, emboldened by our successful traversing of the Beijing Metro we headed up north to a couple of temples, or as Pip would put it "More bloody temples!", but these both turned out to be a bit different and quite interesting.

The Yonghe Gong Lama Temple, Tibetan Buddhism, was started in 1694. Given Imperial status in 1735 this was signified by having its turquoise tiles replaced with yellow, only normally reserved for emperors. It subsequently became home to large numbers of Tibetan Buddhist monks from Mongolia and Tibet. After the Chinese Civil war, 1949, it was closed for 32 years. Reopened to the public in 1981 it is now both a functional temple and popular tourist destination. But most of the visitors seemed to be serious devotees, burning industrial quantities of incense which were given away free at the entrance. Whichever incense manufacturer has that contract is on to a serious earner.

We had a bundle, it seemed churlish not to. Paul got burnt by ashes falling onto his thumb. Pip gave up, wary of the smoke vis a vis her asthma.

Usual type of layout for around here, a series of gated courtyards leading into each temple in turn, each temple housing ever more impressive statues. The final one even had another BBB (Bloody Big Buddha - keep up), 26 metres, which by our reckoning is only 50 cm shorter than the one in Ulaanbaatar. This one is carved from a single piece of sandalwood.

Across the road then to the Confucian Temple and Guozijian Museum. The temple was built 1302 for officials to pay respects to Confucius. Confucius, famous thinker and teacher, 551-479 BC, his teachings became the mainstay of traditional Chinese culture. He believed in teaching with no discrimination of class, type, etc. The first 'comprehensive' really.

This temple was much quieter, almost empty, with some really lovely aged - 700 years+ - cypress trees. One, the "Wicked-Courtier-Distinguishing-Cypress" was said to be able to distinguish wicked courtiers from good, due to it knocking the hat off one in the 1200s.

To one side was the Guozijian Museum - Imperial Academy /College - which was the national, central institute of learning in ancient China, their highest institute.

Although the physical college 'only' dates back to 1306, there are records of formal higher education courses, with exams etc, dating back to 2100 BC!! Were we even writing then?

Learning was mostly history - what history, in 2100 BC? - literature and calligraphy, all items which were prescribed in the Imperial Civil Service exam. During the Ming and Qing dynasties, 8-part essays became the norm, and policy and law was included.

Successful entrants, selected by exam not rank or status, had their education, lodging, clothing, even stationery paid for. And, assuming they passed, a good career awaited them.

The Academy also had foreign students, Korea, Russia, Japan, Thailand and Vietnam, and although China dropped the system/8-part essays around a century ago Vietnam only recently stopped.

Western visitors saw the system - essays, standard curriculum etc - in the 1700s and took it back, to France, USA and the UK, thereby answering "What did the Chinese do for us? "

We thought we had planned Saturday, a visit to the Botanical Gardens, to be a little less taxing on our bodies in the heat. But a poorly placed marker on MapsMe, showing the station we wanted incorrectly by 750 metres contributed to a 3 hours trip to get there.

Relatively new, 1956, in the right season, late spring say, it would be wonderful with peach and cherry blossom, lilac, tree peony, magnolia. But much less so at this time of year. We hoped for better in the enormous glasshouse but, besides the inevitable large, big-cactus collection, that disappointed too. Even the 'orchid' section only had two stalks in bloom. Singapore Orchid garden it wasn't. But it was a pleasant walk around the lake and, once again, free with our passports.

Sunday and we went to the Bell and Drum towers, just north of the Forbidden City. For the first time this week we saw numbers of western tourists, a few tour groups and many individuals /couples. There have been barely a handful each day so far, including when at the Forbidden City.

Drum Tower, 1272, burnt down in 1297 and rebuilt - how do you burn down a stone tower? It is 46.7m high and the steps up are steep. Did we say steep?! We surprised ourselves. There were youngsters practically dropping when they reached the top.

There used to be 25 watchman's drums but only 1 original still exists. They use some copies to give a 6- daily performance, and we were nicely timed for one of these.

Together with the Bell Tower these were the main time-announcing centre for Beijing up until 1924.

The Bell Tower, 1272 again, burnt and rebuilt twice - you'd think they would invest in some non-flammable stone! - is slightly taller at 47.9m and designed to enhance the sound and tone of the 63 ton bell that hangs inside.

Mid-afternoon we made our way to Happy Valley Park for a late afternoon matinee show "Golden Mask Dynasty" a dance and acrobatic show complete with, in one scene, an on-stage waterfall flood. And we say flood with meaning, this wasn't some half hearted trickle.

Getting tickets was fun though. There seems to be no "official on-line box office" just lots of links to sellers all selling at around 50% of supposed "face value". We chose the one most closely linked back to the show's site and paid a $30 deposit from PayPal. The rest was due, in Chinese cash, in hand outside the theatre. It all felt very clandestine. Even after we had collected the tickets from the guy at the exit from the Metro, and he delivered a better category than we had paid for, we still weren't absolutely certain until the tickets were accepted at the theatre door.

The show was good, especially the waterfall. Not as crisp as Bolshoi ballet, but big production numbers.

Tomorrow we get up at 4 am for the 05.40 flag raising ceremony in Tiananmen Square.

Phlegm Olympics update - we have a newly discovered category - hitting a stationary target whilst moving on an electric moped.

T shirts - most, almost all, the t-shirts that have slogans here, the slogans are in english. Ironic really given that most "english" t-shirts are probably made in China.

More dishes we haven't tried:-

Dried donkey meat
Multicoloured skin
Old chefs balls
Duck blood in chili sauce
Slippery ridge
Shrimps balls exploded in Palace
A pot of fragrance
Explode three samples
Vinegar Slippery wood whiskers

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