Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The formidable Forbidden City

Day 1 Part 1 (Wed, 19 Nov 2008)

We had a leisurely start to the day since we’d only arrived in Beijing late last night. By the time we reached the apartment that my cousin (who’s hosting us) stays in, washed up, eaten some supper (we’re always hungry on holidays and our holiday had barely begun!) and went to bed, it was already 1.30am in the morning.

It’s wonderful to stay with family when you’re on holiday. Just a little aside, my cousin has been working with an MNC in Beijing for over 10 years. She stays in this super posh apartment within the city. This is the second time I’m staying with her, but the first time with my family. Thanks to her, we’re enjoying this terrific last-minute holiday. Thanks, 大姐!

When we woke up, breakfast was waiting for us. See? Perks! A quick call to the concierge (told you it was a posh place) and we had a taxi waiting for us to take us to Forbidden City which was to be our first tourist attraction. Enroute, Kenneth asked the cab driver which part of Forbidden City would be most interesting to children and the driver replied bluntly, “Nothing in Forbidden City is interesting to children!” There you go. Forbidden City wasn’t very far from the apartment but it still took us 45 mins due to the horrendous Beijing traffic. Here, hordes of cars, bikes and people move in multiple directions all at the same time - I've seen mothers fearlessly push their babies in strollers in front of oncoming traffic, forcing vehicles to screech to a halt or swerve to avoid them. Not for the faint-hearted.

We dropped at Tiananmen Square, but apart from the infamous incident years back, it wasn’t too interesting. Let me remind you that we are generally a theme-park kind of family, so the fact that we’re in Beijing is already a great leap of cultural faith – don’t expect any historical narratives of the trip.

What lodged in my memory more was the fact that it was COLD. Everyone had warned us it would be so, so we were dressed appropriately, but still… the winds were so cutting it took my breath away. I think it was only about 6 degrees but by golly, 6 degrees in Tokyo is a walk in the park compared to 6 degrees in Beijing! We were wearing about 3 layers each including down feather overcoats but it was still barely enough. We all wore woollen gloves but we had to keep wriggling our fingers to keep them from hurting. How on earth do the Beijing-ers take it? This is just the beginning of winter!

For most of the trip, Andre was dressed in what I call the Michelin Man look. He looked pretty funny but it kept him warm.

Anyway, we finally reached the entrance of the Forbidden City and were immediately hounded by swarms of touts who kept trying to lure us AWAY from the attraction, saying the main areas were under renovation and wouldn’t we prefer to have a day trip to Great Wall/ Summer Palace/xxx, guide included for only RMB xxx? After fending off a few of these, we bought tickets to what we thought was entry to the Forbidden City only to realise later that they were entrance tickets to one of the side attractions! Aiyoh… it was like an obstacle course, you had to navigate a series of ticket booths before you get to the one selling the actual tickets to the Forbidden City.

After returning the wrong tickets and buying the right ones, we finally entered the gates – and formidable gates they are too. I first visited Forbidden City three years ago when I was in Beijing, so it wasn’t quite as wow this time (that time, I was so awe-struck I stood stock-still every few steps just gaping). I can’t think of a way to describe it that would do it justice – it’s just magnificent. Here was where the emperor would live with his hundreds of concubines, thousands of eunuchs, generals, etc etc. It was a gilded cage on the grandest scale.

Again, I’m no historian, so any descriptions on this blog are purely from scant notes that we made from hurried web research before the trip. What amused my kids were the names of the halls and gates which sounded perfectly fine in Chinese but in English were totally grandious and hysterical. Like after we pass the Gate of Supreme Harmony, we come to the Hall of Supreme Harmony (where the Emperor performs the most important ceremonies), followed by the Hall of Complete Harmony (where the Emperor prepared for important rituals) followed by the Hall of Preserving Harmony (where the Ming Emperors changed their robes).

This courtyard just after the Gate of Supreme Harmony was where the panoramic scene of The Last Emperor was filmed.

Lesley-Anne and I had a fun time joking about what would happen if the Emperor was fickle about his wardrobe and the sedan bearers had to keep ferrying him to and fro the Hall of Preserving Harmony between his performing ceremonies and preparing for rituals. There was also the Hall of Abstinence, the Hall of Benevolence, the Palace of Concentrated Beauty. And these were just the ones we passed by, there were many, many more that we missed. (The Forbidden City is 1km by 1km in size, visiting all the halls and palaces was just impossible. Ok, impossible if you are a Philistine with two kids.)

Anyway, after you’ve seen the 8th hall, it starts to look the same. (Again, Philistine!) I started making up names of Halls, like the Hall of Absolute Boredom and the Hall of Extreme Yellowness (inspired by Andre’s outfit).

By then, the kids were pretty restless although to their credit, they didn’t complain. It was also cold. So we just made a few half-hearted explorations down unending corridors before ending up at the Imperial Garden near the exit.

It's very pretty with many picturesque spots and willow trees. There’s also the Hill of Accumulated Elegance where the Pavilion of Imperial Scenery sits (right pic), apparently a favourite lookout for the Emperor and his whole ching gang during festive occasions.

Exit the Forbidden City, cultural quota hit for the day! Time for lunch – kids perked up. We took a short cab ride to a restaurant recommended by my cousin. It's called 天地 一家 (no English name, sorry.)

It’s quite fancy with a koi pond and delicate yellow umbrellas as its signature décor. It was pretty pricey too. Kenneth and I ordered tie guan yin tea, not realising it costs RMB38 (S$8.50) each! But it is super grade tea - very refreshing, and no bitter aftertaste whatsoever. Look at the tea leaves! The food was scrumptious, even if a tad oily (like most Beijing food tend to be). We had some sliced Japanese pork (very tender), a crispy roast chicken (very crispy, Andre loved this!) with a bean sauce, and a dish of four types of seasonal vegetables.

Then it was a cab ride back to the apartment and a rest until dinner which so deserves its own post, so stay tuned!


breve1970 said...

Hi Hi Monica

Thanks for sharing. Lovely photos! Very very scenic!

Realised that you didnt have your thick clothing on at the restaurant but then again, it seemed like alfresco dining?!

Am really glad that you guys are having fun! Enjoy!!

monlim said...

Ann: It's not alfresco but it has a high glass ceiling with yellow umbrellas with lots of landscaping so it did seem like it was outdoors. Very pretty!

PS we're back already - couldn't log into my blogger account in Beijing, so I'm now back to reality re-living my memories, sigh...

Lilian said...

Yummy, food looks good. Am sure it tastes fantastic coming in from the cold. And you're so lucky to stay with your cousin, always makes $en$e to tumpang instead of paying exorbitant hotel rates when you're hardly ever in the hotel.

The idea of the Forbidden City and how life was lived then have always fascinated me. I love reading stories about the Empress Dowager, concubines and eunuchs; and of course watching Hongkong serials about them.

But my family wouldn't have been able to tahan the cold. Your kids are tough.

monlim said...

Lilian: Yah, we were very lucky to be able to stay with my cousin, the hotel rates in Beijing sky-rocketed this year with the Olympics. No way we would have been able to afford this holiday, after Tokyo!

I'm sure your kids are tougher - they can survive Moscow winter! Now that's some rough weather...

Alcovelet said...

Well I know you had a bad case of bloggitis, but this is FAST!

The Forbidden City is so grand - your shots are terrific! I just love the corridors upon corridors between walls - you've got a shot of Andre and L-A walking down one - very intriguing! And yep, you guys must have just froze.