Hell of a Hike: The Forbidden City

This is part 3 of our recent trip to Beijing.

After 2 early starts and many miles put on our tired and weary feet we had a later start to our day as we planned to do a self guided tour of the Forbidden City. After another breakfast of coffee and pastry from the bakery next door we set off to the metro stop which was conveniently right in front of our hotel. After our walk to Tian ‘anmen Square, the long way round on Friday, we decided the metro was a better option. The Beijing Metro is extensive and covers large ground. 2 RMB (about 30 cents) to most stops is a super cheap way to travel.

After 2 short stops we arrived at our destination and when we excited the subway, police and security were blocking access to Tian ‘amen Square . We assumed it was due to the large crowds that were already congregating there. We were on the opposite side to the Forbidden City, so back in the metro we exited on the opposite side of the road and joined the crowds pushing towards the entrance. We hoped we wouldn’t be held back here.  Surprisingly the crowds moved quickly and we were inside the grounds. Queues were in different locations and we were not sure exactly where to wait to buy our admission tickets. No one was barring our entrance, so we pushed on through various gates after snapping a few photos. Finally we came to a location where tickets were being presented. With broken English a fellow directed us where to go. Many agent windows were open and the process was slow going. Luckily a gentleman came and pointed to an empty wicket and with some hesitation we moved forward. Luckily a new window opened and we got our tickets within minutes and were inside the next set of grounds.


During the Ming and Qing Dynasties the Forbidden City was home for 24 Emperors.  It is relatively new (1368-1644) not as old or ancient as I would have thought. Our guide, Jason,  from the previous day said most palaces were moved or built a new with each Emperor, so only 1 other is still in existence today. An Imperial Palace housing numerous Emperors over generations was usual. The Forbidden  Palace grounds  contain over 8 700 rooms. The moat which is 52m wide is backed by a thick stone wall which stretches 10m high which provided further protection. Today it only keeps tourists out and allows entrances and exits through its 4 main gates.


Part of the moat inside the city walls. Only beautiful stone work walls here on the inside.

Today was a disappointing day as the pollution, fog and smog made for a cloudy dull day. The brilliant reds, greens and yellows were lost in this dullness that enveloped everything. It was barely above 5˚c, not the sunny high of 15˚c that was predicted. Best to keep moving. I am not sure what I expected but the many buildings all looked similar and none allowed entrance inside. An opening over a railing allowed you a peek inside if you could stand the crowds jostling and vying for position to get a look. Never mind stopping to pose for a photo because you would be taking someone else’s profile or back of their head. Rarely will people stop and wait as you take a photo, often they walk through your shot oblivious to what you are doing. The sparsely decorated rooms were not much to see. Some were covered with plastic coverings or layers of polluted dust. Such a shame to let a large part of history fade away. I guess I expected more opulence and splendor since it was forbidden to most commoners in the day. The wind picked up and despite my many layers, gloves, hat and scarf I was chilled and starting to feel miserable. This only added to the feeling of an anti-climax and we questioned this is it? Additionally, knowing now we will leave China next year added to my sadness. Slowly our plans and excitement around Asia is coming to an end  as so many things are getting crossed off our “Must See List”. The anticipation and feeling of ample time is turning to a feeling of loss and sadness to an interesting place that has been home and sooner than later will only be a collection of memories and photographs.


Tour guides, who approached us outside the main gates and audio tours were available, but we decided to do it at our own pace. The local guides are not hired by the location, so we were leery of how authentic and true their information may be. Not to mention you must wonder if they will scam you later for a large price than agreed on. We may have taken the audio tour, but to be honest we didn’t seek it out and we didn’t notice a place where this was available. With our limited Chinese we decided not to ask, but instead use the well posted signs around the City in convenient locations that explained briefly what we were looking at in Mandarin and English.

Inside one of the many Forbidden City Rooms

Inside one of the many Forbidden City Rooms

The most surprising thing I learned was of the large stone wall and moat that ran around the Forbidden City. Little of the city wall is left today, but the similar style of wall  is still visible here. The moat, still filled with water, can be seen just after you enter near the Tian’anmen square gate. Moats seem more medieval Europe than Chinese, so it was something that really caught my attention.  Our tour guide from our Great Wall Tour told us that today’s Tian’anmen Square used to be part of the Forbidden City, the Emperor’s front yard, he explained. The gardens in the rear of the palace are the only ones left today. The square was built after a model of the Soviet squares in  Russia something that is not normally seen in Chinese city planning. Tian’anmen Square means Gate of Heavenly Peace and according to Wikipedia was destroyed during heavy fighting during a former dynasty. The name of the former gate was used to name the square Tian’anmen.

Stay tuned for more… next time the Temple of Heaven in Beijing.

Categories: Chinese Adventures, Culture, post a week, teaching overseas, travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

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21 thoughts on “Hell of a Hike: The Forbidden City

  1. Freda Goulet

    Informative comments on another era of Chinese history that most of us will never experience. Thanks for letting me view this through your eyes!

    • Thanks… I think I would have enjoyed it more if it hadn’t been such a yucky day. I guess we had awesome weather for the wall, so that was a good trade off.

  2. Wonderful post! We are leaving for the China tour in 4 weeks, will try to focus on history than other things.

    • China is very interesting and when bad weather strikes it is hard to not let it get you down. The pushy crowds are always a pain too. I pushed through to see a few things because I thought… when will I get back here? So I best make the most of it.
      When you are in Shanghai we should try to meet up. That would be fun to meet a fellow blogger…. if you have time that is 🙂

      • Few of my friends and colleagues had a great experience traveling China, so I’m looking forward to it. We only have two days in Shanghai. One of the two days, we will meet up with a couple of our friends. If time is permitted, I’ll email you. 🙂 We may get there at around the 24th and 25th.

        • Awesome… I know tours are jammed packed, but it is a great way to see a lot in a short time.
          We have had good experiences overall in China too. I have liked it and slowly I am understanding the language. I wish I had more time where I could study and speak Chinese, but with my work schedule I just can’t fit it in. I think speaking it would open a whole new world.

          • My daughter, who was born in US, does not speak Chinese and did not want to learn… Now, her company ( high tech company) has been sending her to Shanghai. She doesn’t even say 0.1% Chinese (no sentence), but had no problem to deal with broken English. 🙂

            • In Shanghai it is way too easy! Beijing was harder and Xi’an only our hotel spoke some English. It is such a difficult language with the tones. I DO NOT have an ear for them and most times no one understands what I am saying… I think it is right though. I can’t speak in sentences either. We have always been lucky enough to know a few words to get by, have name cards to get us to the address we need or someone who knows English has stepped in to help.
              We found out after about 2 years we are learning Shanghai -ese… which is almost like a slang or dialect of Mandrin!
              Hello and thank you have done wonders though. At least they know we are trying.

  3. Even with a few drawbacks (like pollution and language challenges), what a fabulous experience to travel through China. Thanks for the informative posts….

    • China is VERY interesting and a place I never thought I would visit. To have LIVED here for three years I am always learning and seeing more. The pollution has been really bad this year and many days are way above the highest days we have had back home. I have had bad sinus infections and nose bleeds from it regularly so it is hard to ignore. I guess you need to take the good with the bad because the alternative is to live in a bubble and never experience what is outside your door!
      🙂 Thanks for stopping by.

      • Speaking of language… when we arrived in Berlin at the airport last summer, my husband and I were greeted by the officer of the checking in point in Chinese, he also initiated with a brief conversation in Chinese, we were pleasantly surprised. Then, we heard many German people spoke Chinese to Chinese business people in Munich on the train and street; many kids tried to practice Chinese with us. Someone we ran into told us that they have a popular one-hour Chinese lesson on TV in the late afternoon…

        • That is what I need! Our students have 1 hour of Chinese a day. If I had time I keep saying I should sit in the beginner lesssons. Friday I heard a snippet of a lesson about food and I guessed correctly 3 of the 5… all things I had seen and had, so had some idea of what it was. (other 2 I didn’t know the food). Slowly I am picking it up and not realising it!
          That is great when international places like that are able to converse in someone’s native language. On a flight from China we hit turbulence and they wanted us to buckle up. A Chinese gentleman stood up to do something and the flight attendant in English kept saying sit down… not even pointing to the sign to help him understand. She just kept getting louder! Poor man doesn’t understand English… he’s not deaf!

  4. vastlycurious.com

    Yes more please!

  5. Wow. Imagine all who walked before you there. For every story / explaination you saw there must be hundreds of untold stories. The stories of the countless servants for example, those stories would never have been recorded or retold.

    • It was very cool. Funny being there on such a cold day and knowing Beijing can have cold weather like we do in Canada the one thought that kept running through my mind was how did they keep warm??? The thin walls and windows…. brrrr! No fireplaces that I saw. The way they build you think that the temps were more temperate or even tropical.
      It is sometimes cool to imagine what it must have been like.
      The Temple of Heaven was my favourite place (next post to come) and it was a place of sacrafice… It made me sad to think about it… especailly with one display that showed where the animals were held. 😦

  6. Pingback: Hell of a Hike: Beijing – Temple of Heaven | Canadiantravelbugs's Blog

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