After a lovely night’s sleep in our final hotel of the trip I awoke to sunshine and bright blue skies over Beijing and an excitement to finally be going to the famous Forbidden City. Beijing was one of the places on the trip that I hadn’t been to before and so there were a few famous sights to be ticked off while we were in town. As with every Asian city we had booked our hotel based on proximity to the metro line and so we jumped on the line right outside the main lobby to Tiananmen Square East. As we emerged into the sunlight we had an aim of getting some breakfast before exploring but there was no food places in sight and a long snaking queue next to security. As we looked around trying to get our bearings we were approached by a friendly English speaking tour guide who wondered if we wanted a tour of the Forbidden City. A tour guide was something I had considered and given our dire hungry situation I suggested to him we would like to eat first. Well of course he knew of just the places and led us around the corner to a small local Chinese restaurant where we had some yummy meat and veg bao dumplings. The menu was entirely in Chinese and the staff spoke no English so it highlighted how useful he might be and we got hoodwinked.
After finishing our breakfast he was there waiting outside and led us to the non-queueing entrance only available to locals. We thought this was fantastic, the thought of waiting in a long line in the sun was not our top priority and this guide was willing to provide his services for only £30. It all seemed a bit too good to be true but quashing all of my instincts shouting out that he was scamming us we continued where our helpful guide had pre-purchased tickets. Having read many reviews and blogs about the Forbidden City I was shocked by how completely empty it was at 10.00a.m. However, the guide assured us this part became busier in the afternoon as all the tourists went to Tiananmen Square first which made sense, had we not just seen those massive snaking queues? As we wandered around the beautiful squares and brightly decorated buildings he explained the large metal pots were used for putting out fires, that red and yellow were colours used in China to symbolise the power and wealth of the emperor (red) but also his prestige and luck (yellow). After a good hour wandering the grounds our ever helpful guide called an uber to take us to the Yu Garden. This was the second massive sign that something was amiss, but we went along with it and arrived at a garden some distance aay from our previous location. After showing us the oldest tree we then had the opportunity to meet the Emperors nephew who would draw some calligraphy for us in a very expensive looking shop. The game was up, I refused to shake the supposed ‘nephews’ hand and left the building immediately consulting my Lonely Planet to see we were in fact in Jingshan Park, a completely free park (which was actually very pretty and apparently provides fantastic views of the city at its highest point). While my dad and Gillian stood to admonish the guide for lying to us I walked away to admonish myself, always listen to your instincts people.
We hailed a cab who dropped us back around at the actual entrance (when you see crowds it’s usually a good sign a popular attraction might be there) only to find our guide had made it back before us to lure off another lot of potentially stupid tourists to the ‘fake’ Forbidden City. It was a bit like having salt rubbed in our wounds and we walked off cursing him before entering through the security and head under the underpass to check out the enormity of Tiananmen Square. What a sight to behold, one of the largest squares in the world, it sits directly across from the Forbidden City which was historically home to the Emperor. The square has seen a lot of famous Chinese historical events take place including the infamous 1989 protests which resulted in the military opening fire and killing hundreds of civilian protestors. It is a sombre place with a huge amount of security presence, both obvious and hidden and kind of gives you a small insight to what living in a communist country whereby the population have no rights or freedom of speech must be like. It is such a difficult concept for me to personally comprehend coming from a Western society and standing in that humungous square really made me question the morality of China and whether it’s recent economic success is partly due to such stringent measures.
Given that we had spent the morning visiting the fake Forbidden City we didn’t have a lot of time to explore and so after checking out the square we headed back under the Underpass and into the real Forbidden City. This was the Imperial Palace from the Ming Dynasty to the end of the Qing Dynasty and as well as serving as the home of the Emperors and their households during this period was also the centre of Chinese government for more than 500 years. This would potentially be then why the museum in its current state sprawls for miles and is definitely a full day activity. We bought our tickets and an audio guide and set off and 3 hours later we were still walking. There are some sections such as the Nine Drago Screen in front of the Palace of Tranquil Longevity that you have to purchase an extra ticket for but given the size and amount to see on the standard ticket we decided not to bother with the extras, especially given that this was the second palace we had visited that day. After you reach the back of the rectangle you have a choice to exit through this entrance or to continue back through a section to your right or left. We made the decision to go back in order to explore more of the Yu Garden but in hindsight this was a grave error. Due to the security surrounding the Palace the crowds are pretty much allowed to stream in one direction and so trying to go back and then exit is not possible. It potentially took us longer to find the exit than we had spent exploring the city itself. By this point my dad was exhausted and not looking his best and all of us just wanted to find the metro to get back to the hotel and out of the sun. We managed to exit just next to the moat on the right hand side of the city but this just led us around have of the city following the moat until we got to the left hand side and there was thankfully an open bridge for us to dart across and make our way back to the tube. It was definitely a sight to behold but beware of scams and exit and the main B exit rather than trying to be clever.
After an hours nap our ordeal was a distant memory and instead the miles and miles of walking were replaced with happy memories of the incredible architecture and the vastness of the place. I also enjoyed a very tasty cake from the hotels own patisserie. We had decided to go for a Beijing classic for dinner – Peking duck and there is really no better place than Da Dong for the best duck in town. Luckily it was just a 10 minute walk from our hotel past the bustling streets with a lovely cool breeze as we went. Da Dong do not do reservations and so we just ordered some drinks and waited in their bar area watching the ducks being expertly roasted by the award winning chefs. In no time at all we were sitting down for an absolute feast of sea cucumber, lobster carrot spaghetti and of course duck with all the trimmings Chinese style. It was fabulous and one of the best meals we ate on the entire trip. We also had some great Californian wine to finish it off nicely. After our busy day we were happy to wander back to the hotel for an early night. What would day 2 in Beijing have in store?