Beijing is old, very old. People have been living in this area for around 250,000 years, and the city has been a political and economic centre for at least two or three thousand years. Despite the nihilism of the Cultural Revolution and the contemporary efforts of city planners and construction companies to eradicate Beijing’s past, history still seems to be everywhere.
I’d prepared myself to be overwhelmed by Beijing’s size, suffocated by its air pollution and shocked by the rampant construction. In all honesty I arrived with a conviction that I wasn’t going to enjoy my time in the city. So it came as a shock that it was a city to which I really warmed. Walking around at a leisurely pace is helped by the flatness of the city, and with enquiring feet I found myself seduced by its ancient, winding hutongs, its incense infused temples and the fascinating insight into the public lives of its people.
There are many hidden and not-so-hidden historical gems in Beijing, but there is one truly iconic and globally famous historical structure: The Forbidden City. This may be the capital of ‘communist’ China, and it may be over a hundred years since a true Chinese Emperor ruled from the city, but this was and still is an Imperial city. It has the cultural heritage to match, no more so than The Forbidden City.
Much has been written about The Forbidden City, or the Gugong as its known, but there were a couple of things that struck me when reading about it before I went to visit. The Forbidden City is big, it has a fabled 9,999 rooms covering more than 183 acres of land – I was going to need stamina to explore it. Those are impressive figures, but the statistics you really need to consider when planning a visit are on another scale all together.
Beijing receives over 4 million (and growing) foreign tourists each year, but it also accommodates over 140 million Chinese tourists annually. Approximately 1-in-10 of all those tourists visit The Forbidden City, that is approximately 40 – 45,000 people each and every day. On Chinese national holidays that figure can be two or three times higher. This puts an enormous pressure on the fabric of the whole site and it also makes enjoying a visit with any degree of calm pretty difficult. You don’t come here for the tranquility.
Tour groups sweep through en masse, a hubbub of excited and joyful noise. Not a few tour groups, but wave after wave of groups from distant parts of this enormous country. This is fascinating, you get a real insight into the different ethnic groups that make up China, as-well-as those from less cosmopolitan or rural areas for whom the sight of a Western tourist is still a novelty. I was asked to pose for a couple of dozen photos with people, their eyes turned from the wonders of The Forbidden City by the sight of me wandering around it.
It is unrealistic to expect to have any major historical or cultural site to yourself, but I decided to try try my luck and get there as early as possible in the hope that I would be able to wander in relative peace and quiet.
The sun barely seemed to be up as I strolled around the massive walls which once protected the city, people fishing in the surrounding moat. I managed to buy a ticket without queuing and entered as the doors opened at 8.30am with a small number of mainly Chinese tourists. The other consideration when visiting is the amount of time you need to see the whole thing. I spent several hours walking around but didn’t come close to seeing everything.
As I headed back to the exit the vast empty areas of The Forbidden City that I’d passed through were now teeming with people. The atmosphere was fun and lively, and I enjoyed walking amongst the groups who seemed to be in party mood. You don’t get this level of fun on a visit to Windsor Castle…