I have been wanting to come here for years. Ever since I heard about it over a decade ago. I was beyond excited to go in, and honestly very disappointed once we got in. 🙁
The complex is massive. Like ridiculously big. We looked up plans and maps and self-guided walking tours through the complex, so we had a plan. But very soon after entering, we realized that our plan was worthless.
Before entering, you just file in with all the other people. You have to enter from the south, above Tiananmen Square. This is what you’ll see, with a warm welcome from a giant portrait of Chairman Mao.
You pass through two giant courtyards (each capable of holding more than 10,000 people) before you even get into the actual palace that requires your ticket. Once inside, you see five magnificent marble bridges over a stream.
This is where you can cut left or right in an attempt to avoid all the groups and tourists. We followed the stream to the left first (you can see all the crowds going straight down the middle).
Going left seemed to be a good idea since we walked into this serene park with very few people in it.
But then we ran into do not enter signs everywhere.
So after looking through a not-worth-it little museum, we crossed the courtyard with the bridges and went right, hoping to circumvent the tourists that way, but we ran into the same thing (with another not-so-worth-it museum with ceramics).
It turns out that there is only one way through the palace complex, and they force everyone to take it. So you can’t escape the crowds (until later, we found).
We went straight in through the main central axis. Each building has a crowd of people in front of it, all pushing and shoving trying to get up front to take a picture. Isa checked out the first, and then decided it wasn’t worth it to see the others because of the people, so she waited to the side while I went in. I tried to be patient and courteous, but that isn’t very effective. The problem is that once you fight your way to the front and get your picture, nobody will move to let you out. It’s almost as much of a struggle to get out as it is to get in.
Once you get up close, they all pretty much look the same. Like this:
You keep heading straight back along the same central axis passing through gates and around buildings and around sacred staircases…
…until you hit the garden in the back. The garden is not as pretty as I had hoped. I was going for a tea garden on a Versailles scale. But it’s rather small and square (not natural looking) and not very picturesque.
At this point, we found an alleyway that went off to the right. With no tourists. So we took it. We walked along a long corridor, peering through closed doorways to see what was hidden inside.
This led to another area that was open to the public, but since it was off the central axis, it was much less visited. There were a few exhibits (of fans, ceramics, and traditions) and cool buildings, and it was finally nice to be somewhere that 1000 other people were not.
Looking at our map of the complex, we really wanted to get to an area just east of these buildings. So we walked down some long corridors and eventually found an entrance, but it cost 10 yuan to get in (that’s a little less than $2). Generally this is just a ploy to get more money out of tourists, but we went for it. And it was worth every penny.
This was what we had hoped the rest of the complex would be like. It was all open to explore, you could go wherever you wanted, and it was far less crowded.
One of the highlights of this area is the 9 dragon screen. Apparently there are only three like this in all of China.
We wandered some more through this area and then exited through the north. We found out that everyone has to enter from the south, and we realized that the reason they block everything off is to create a flow of traffic. With hundreds of thousands of people going through every day, they’re doing the best they can to control it.
On the north side of the Forbidden City is a park set on a hill called Jingshan Park. We paid the 50 cents to get in and hiked to the top for cool views of the palace. Through the haze of Beijing’s crazy smog, it made for some eery and cool pictures.
The park itself is kinda cool with some rockeries and cool buildings, but mainly you go up for the view. And sunset.